You have always had a too high opinion of our minds. We’re far more ignorant than you give us credit for. Far, far more.
–Lizzie Burns (Karl Marx’s common law wife)
It’s true that Karl Marx didn’t know about the distinction between the True self and the false self or even about the existence of either of those identities. If he had he would have known that communist communes or any other kind of utopia was doomed to failure because of human unconsciousness. Human nature is not yet ready for any kind of utopia including heaven on earth. Hell on earth? Oh well, we can create that in spades. Just ask Primo Levi.
As a 24-year-old chemist fighting for the Italian “partisans” resisting the Nazi occupation of northern Italy, Primo Levi was arrested by Italian Fascists, turned over to the Germans and sent to Auschwitz. There he was introduced to Hell. Fortunately for us, he survived and maybe it was also fortunate in a strange way that he ended up in Auschwitz. That’s easy for us to say but even more strange he seemed to agree. “If I hadn’t had the experience of Auschwitz, I probably would not have written anything. The memories were burning inside me.”
What Levi wrote of course were memoirs. If This Is a Man (1947) contains his experience in the Lager, the German word for concentration camp and The Periodic Table (1975) his autobiography. He also wrote stories, poems, essays and a novel. So we can see the irony of saying that ending up in a Lager might have had a positive outcome for Levi; all the more so when we consider the quality of his writing. Levi had insights that we, as students of Simple Reality, can value.
First, Levi gained an appreciation of the influence that the context or story has on human behavior. If that narrative places a high value on the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power then compassion and community will be less valued and moral behavior in such a community will decline. Levi saw firsthand how the Nazis embraced the story implied in Nietzsche’s myth of the superman, which became Hitler’s “master race.” “It is worth considering the fact that all of them, master and pupils, gradually took leave of reality at the same pace as their morals became detached from the morals common to every time and every civilization.”
Secondly, his writing revealed that Levi had an intuitive understanding of the toxic effect that belief in the other had on human behavior even though he did not use the word itself. “The core of Nazi barbarism, as Levi saw it, was its reduction of unique human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category—Jews, for example—that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value.”
The limitations of the human intellect including the disciplines of science, like his own field of chemistry, were appreciated by Levi. Simple Reality warns that relying on the senses will not enable us to perceive the more profound realities implicit in a worldview of Oneness. His story “Observed from a Distance” is a parable of scientific fallibility, a report made by intelligent beings observing the Earth from our moon. “They confidently interpret cities as inorganic crystals, ocean liners as migratory sea creatures and soccer stadiums as volcanic craters, but they are puzzled by the pervasive darkness, punctuated by sudden bursts of light, that occurred from 1939 through 1945.”
Forays into the realm of science fiction, particularly in his short stories, revealed Levi’s insights into the burgeoning technology that characterized post-war science. What we today call Artificial Intelligence concerned him. Replacing human beings with machines seemed to him not impossible. If he had lived to see the applications of AI today (he committed suicide in 1987), he would be even more alarmed than he was then. Software engineer, Greg Hochmuth, describes what is called the “network effect” on human behavior. “Then it takes on its own life, like an organism, and people can become obsessive.” This is a different kind of slavery than that Levi experienced in the Lager but slavery, nonetheless.
Levi reveals in his memoirs that he is, like most of us, fallible in his thinking, in what he knows and even in what he prefers not to know. In the current worldview of the global village there exists a dominant false self-identity, whether we want to acknowledge that observable fact or not. Here Levi prefers, as most people do, to put his head in the sand and rationalize what is an unpleasant realization based on his traumatic experience. Regarding the genocide of his fellow Jews he believed that it “cannot be comprehended, or rather, shouldn’t be comprehended, because to comprehend is almost to justify.” In the context of Simple Reality the behavior of the Nazis and the German people is not difficult to understand and must be understood if violence against the other and all types of self-destructive behavior is to be effectively addressed.
In fact, we have a false self that is capable of creating egregious suffering for ourselves and we choose to do that, for the most part unconsciously. We cannot become conscious of this shocking reality if we deny that we give energy to this aspect of our “natural,” but self-destructive identity. “I do not know, nor am I particularly interested in knowing, whether a murderer is lurking deep within me, but I know that I was an innocent victim and not a murderer.” We can certainly empathize with Levi’s reluctance to look at the horrors of his experience in Auschwitz but if we cannot muster the courage to look at the current enslavement of humanity in the worldwide “Lager” of P-B our perpetual suffering is guaranteed.
It’s time for a slave rebellion, actually long past time. Notice how Levi’s characterization of the “slaves” of Auschwitz applies to most of humanity today. “We are [were] slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to almost certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength, for it is the last—the power to refuse our consent.” In short, humanity still has free will, the power of choice and it is an omnipotent power. Exercising our power to choose to accept life as it is in all its perfection, we move out of reach of all those who would enslave us and enter into that utopia we never left and that which never left us.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.