Wintry weekend, went for walks, made soups and casseroles, lay around on the sofa reading. Thinking about a quotation from Primo Levi’s If This Be a Man posted by a friend
“For human nature is such that grief and pain — even simultaneously suffered — do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective. It is providential and is our means of surviving in the camp. And this is the reason why so often in free life one hears it said that man is never content. In fact it is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.
And if we could choose where to put attention? — this would echo for me a dynamic I have seen in Buddhist practice, the deliberate searching out of a place between aversion and craving, somewhere less reactive. We choose a small small concern, sit there in the moment and just stay with that problem of focusing on breath, putting aside the dentist’s appointment later, the looming loss of a job, the near-certainty we shall drink again later — just stay with a small here-and-now attention to the rise and fall of our breath, thereby creating the illusion we can control the mind, we can choose which of our fears and concerns we will work on for now.
The problem of ‘unhappiness’ in sobriety and how our perspective on this may shift. There is a conundrum. I may be unhappy now but I tell myself that this is not as unhappy as the experience of drinking and that I could be more unhappy next week when something major goes wrong, that the loss of a loved one could make me more unhappy, that I am happy enough now, this unhappiness will pass, it has no substance. Am I my unhappiness, is that really part of me? Or circumstantial?
Is it minimizing to call this persisting malaise, this angsty restless discontent and emptiness ‘unhappiness’? A friend of mine said that she only felt better after eight years sober when she woke up one morning and thought, ‘This is not just unhappiness, it is depression.’ And then, after the relief of naming the damn feeling, it got worse for her she said, as if she had uncovered a dark well and toppled into that well in free-fall, but eventually it got better, with medication and therapy.
And in my first year sober I internalised a stubborn irreducible knowledge of myself as alcoholic, as someone who would always be at risk of relapse, who would never leave the alcoholism behind. In later years, I wanted to make that constituent alcoholism ‘smaller’ or less significant — dislike of having to forefront that concern all the time, bored with it, leaving it in the past seemed nearly possible. But then the times of anxiety and sadness would arrive, sometimes through loss or circumstance, sometimes for no apparent reason — and it has always seemed to me that if I lose sight of that drinking self, I might forget I can’t drink, that I have this vulnerability that could reveal itself anew. That if I am not paying attention or facing things, that old longing might creep up on me, that I might find that I had been travelling down the road towards drinking for weeks or months and that all that remained was in fact to act on the self-defeating narrative and begin to drink again.
What matters is to take in the opinions and awareness of others on the same journey, so that I have a mind and consciousness open to shifts in perspective, that I allow my perspective to be corrected by others.
But as I go on thinking about Gitta Sereny, I think too of the writer Primo Levi and his perspective on suffering, that place from which he emerged. Auschwitz. His experience of the Holocaust, his surviving the Holocaust when so many others did not. To emerge from genocide and make sense of human existence.
In 1946, he began working in a paint factory while still suffering from malnutritional oedema and severe PTSD as we would call it now. His friend Lorenzo who had shared rations and even his crusts of bread with Levi in Auschwitz ‘developed’ sudden-onset alcoholism and died of it in 1952, a source of great distress to Levi. As Levi’s own fame grew and his continued involvement with camp survivors went on, he fell into a severe depression. Although he wrote a great deal and was known as a scientist as well as a writer, the depressions were relentless and in 1987 he died in a fall that was determined as suicide. His friend Elie Weisel commented that Levi had died at Auschwitz 40 years earlier.
The law of perspective. What remains hidden and unresolved — I have always wondered about this — that we have a succession of crises or urgent circumstances or traumas that demand our attention, one replacing the other in a seeming hierarchy of needs and obsessions or traumas — health, work, family, addiction. And somewhere behind there is the Beast in the Jungle, what cannot be addressed and does not manifest itself but which will stay with us when the suffering of cold or hunger or the fear of being murdered have been appeased.
Levi’s son Renzo quoted a passage from his father’s writings –
[And] a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals. It is a dream within a dream, varied in detail, one in substance. I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends, or at work, or in the green countryside; in short, in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat. And in fact, as the dream proceeds, slowly and brutally, each time in a different way, everything collapses, and disintegrates around me, the scenery, the walls, the people, while the anguish becomes more intense and more precise. Now everything has changed into chaos; I am alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, “Wstawàch.”