by Faizal Dawjee
Reviewing Anthony Sher’s one man show about guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, John Heilpern writes in the New York Observer: “The high-minded intellectuals with their nice clean hands who blame Levi for his apparent “suicide” are one of life’s tragic absurdities—the evil of banality. His death to them mocked their own cliché of the survivor’s manual: the Transcendence of the Human Spirit. “Good” was vanquished by its own hand. The Nazis won!”
Reading Rudolf Mastenbroek article (How do you tell a man his courage has run out?, Sunday Times, 16 November 2014), there is a pervading sense that high minded individuals, clever whites, are tormented by the darkness of our recent past.
Mastenbroek’s torment is not conflicted or angst filled, but, at best a lachrymose display of disdain, and at worst, an intellectual sop to what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil”.
Mastenbroek decries that Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim’s “monotonous voice drones on” and that he “remains angry at the traitors”. In If This is a Man, Levi writes: “Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization”.
Levi, a chemist, was driven by the need to explore the consequences and impact of the death camps and was possessed of an irrepressible urge to relate his story to everybody. This determination was sustained by a deep compulsion to disprove the Nazi view that nobody could survive the death camp, and if some did live, no one would believe the magnitude of the crimes committed against them. Levi’s vivid, harrowing, yet elegant voice stands as testimony that at least one Jew did survive.
While this monotonous drone irks Mastenbroek, his intellectual smugness is only superseded by his arrogant dismissal of Ebrahim’s perceived inability to grapple with complex issues. For Mastenbroek, if Jacob Dlamini is the “quintessential clever black”, Ebrahim is the stereotypical unintelligent yesterday’s hero whose “binary language” delegitimizes his genital crushing experiences.
Primo Levi’s challenge was to convince the world of what he had experienced and witnessed, and to do this he believed it was necessary to be clear and detached in his presentation of the facts. So Mastenbroek, forgive Ebrahim if he does not conform to the complexities and pleasantries of language when he was a victim of an asymmetrical war against his person.
Writing in his final book, The Drowned and the Saved, before his death, Levi says: “Anyone who today reads (or writes) the history of the Lager reveals the tendency, indeed the need, to separate evil from good, to be able to take sides, to emulate Christ’s gesture on Judgment Day: here the righteous, over there the reprobates. The young above all demand clarity, a sharp cut; their experience of the world being meager, they do not like ambiguity…”. Perhaps Ebrahim’s harsh language assaults the liberal mindset that struggles with the complexities of having a fingernail ripped out or the harrowing encounter with electric cables attached to ones nether regions.
In asking the question whether ‘to do nothing in the face of evil collaborative of evil”, Mastenbroek introduces the issues of morality and ethics. These are complex issues which Mastenbroek himself describes in binary terms. In Mastenbroek’s mind, if you collaborate you lose the right to be judged morally; and if you are moral you are compelled to make a righteous stand. There are no grey areas, just bleached white chastity, unsullied by the complex vicissitudes of humanness.
As Levi struggled with “survivors guilt” along with other demons, these anxieties begin to take their toll. As one who bore the burden of witness, Levi knew he could never come to terms with whatever compromises he wittingly or unwittingly made in order to survive. He was tormented with the notion that he had failed to take proper action to oppose the enormity of the crime. Did he collaborate with his persecutors?
In addressing these torturous questions, Levi writes: “The worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators…the spies… that is, the fittest; all the best died”. It is evident that these were painful personal debates that not only called into question his own survival but also challenged his own mission of bearing witness to the dark side of humanity.
Mastenbroek has no knowledge of the debates that Ebrahim is engaged in, personal or within the structures of the ANC. Mastenbroek abrogates Ebrahim’s experience and contribution for the fight for peace and justice in South Africa, by reducing these life challenges to moral binaries.
Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim has no one to answer to, let alone be troubled by these banalities.