Survival : Gil Anidjar

Looking ahead at survival, we are literally looking back, remembering Lot’s wife—and the angel of history.18 Indeed, “. . . if unsuccessful . . . [the noir hero] retreats to the past.”19 The visual and marketing technique of the bank, a swirl of cultural citations blasted from the past, could thus be said to “emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style. In such a world, style becomes paramount; it is all that separates one from meaninglessness.”20 True to its diegetic logic, HSBC takes us to the movies and tells us that survival means soldiering on and going out in style. I mention film, therefore, not only because of its obvious relevance as part of what Susan Sontag called in 1965 “the imagination of disaster,” the operations of which are, I think, obvious to many (if not, Slavoj Žižek’s Living in End Times will be of assistance, and the city of New York too), but also because here and elsewhere, it is by means of images and words “that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.”21 Painting and photography, or indeed any visual medium, would obviously do just as well.22

Martin Harries, whose striking book on “destructive spectatorship” inspires much of my commentary here, has attended to key figurations of Lot’s wife in visual and literary culture, underscoring its relevance in articulations of “the formal logic of spectatorship in various disciplines – from histories of theater, from film theory, from psychoanalysis, from art history,” and beyond. For Harries, what Leo Bersani called “the culture of redemption,” and the twentieth century in particular, “had a particular investment in a formal logic that placed the spectator in a spot where that spectator had to contemplate her own destruction.”23 Whatever the emotional charge we may subsequently feel (or not feel), it is as difficult to ignore the trivial iterations in the HSBC image as it is to dismiss the added evocation, the banalized citation of one of Anselm Kiefer’s trademarks (if not only his); the writing across the image, which intensely interpellates the spectator. The oscillations and reversals of the thrice faceless heads I have tried to describe here—“history’s recalcitrance in the face of our wish to see it”—translate the possibility of destruction, “the destruction of the spectator” acutely analyzed by Harris, and picture “the spectator as agent of destruction.”24 Like film, like the very notion of survival, the HSBC image, three white salt pillars for the price of one, at your service, invokes “the pleasure of a total disaster one can somehow escape.”25

I suppose, then, that we are at liberty to learn either from Levi (and particularly from his 1984 poem entitled “The Survivor”) or from HSBC, in order to study “the politics of survival” and the survivors themselves, their rational choices too, many of whom Levi suggestively and terrifyingly conveys.26 We might go on to confront survival as the remarkable and paradoxical “condition” of Lot’s wife, rather than think of it primarily by way of her more famous literary (and technically opposite) counterpart, the Gorgon. Lot’s wife did escape after all, and she also remained behind.27 And if we concede for a brief and troubling moment that survival is indeed a choice, it will make sense to consider that those who have made it have perhaps turned their back on us. But is that what survival means? Is it in fact a choice, an individual choice? Or the Spaltung of a decision? Levi squarely assigns responsibility, assuming the blame for “stylization” and castigating some of the life (or life-style) choices HSBC puts on exhibits for us. “Of another or further stylization,” Levi writes, “we are ourselves responsible, we survivors, or, more precisely, those among us who have decided to live our condition as survivors in the simplest and least critical way.”28

Still, before endorsing this in the simplest and least critical way, it seems important to underscore that in addition to viewing himself as the beneficiary of “a random error,” Levi made an error of his own, an illuminating error, if no doubt a forgivable one.29 To be precise, I do not really know whether this was a decision or indeed an error on his part, but the fact is that Levi mostly wrote of survivors in the past tense, folding into this grammatological or narratological gesture and within the general questioning that traverses it, a more unsettling interrogation: did they in fact survive? Hardly a rhetorical question, given “the survivor’s traumatic sensation of being both dead and alive, of having lost so much—not only family and community but also God—yet fated to go on living in an impaired state.”30 Lot’s wife escaped, and she remained behind. For again, what is it to survive after all? And who can tell, who can show and tell? What grasp is expected or assumed of the event that was, presumably, survived? Like many others, and with a measure of obviousness that strikes me as deceptive, Levi locates survival as the ground and condition of testimony.31 He also denied that ground, seeking perhaps to reverse the perlocutionary effect associated with the speech of the witness, and its famous imperatives. Thus, when he was told that he might have survived because he had to write, “and by writing bear witness,” Levi deemed that possibility “monstrous.”32

To repeat though: survival, the putatively shared condition of survivors, was not, I think, at the center of Levi’s preoccupations. “We survivors,” he went on to write, “are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom.”33 Survivors are nonetheless granted a definition of sorts by way of negative attributes. It is no doubt a false definition for it carries no potential for generalization—and Levi does actively oppose such generalizations. “I insist there was no general rule,” he said when pressed to speak on the subject of survival.34 But so it is that the survivors, for their part, are mostly not. That is, they remain defined in negative terms. They are not “the ones whose deposition would have a general significance.”35 They are not “the complete witnesses,” nor are they “those who saw the Gorgon.” Paradoxically, then, and because they “cannot truly testify for other victims,” they too, the survivors, “have not returned to tell about it.”36 The survivors, to say it again, are “the exception,” rather than the rule.

Levi himself puts it concisely and brutally when he writes that the survivors are not the Muslims. Indeed, in whatever manner one understands the astonishing (original) title of Levi’s 1947 book, Se questo è un uomo (and there is of course much to be said about the way this title, and the book as a whole, echoes and counters the Christological Ecce Homo), it seems clear that it is not primarily directed at—it does not ask us to reflect primarily on—the surviving witness, on the survivor or survival as such, in Auschwitz or elsewhere. Many commentators have therefore rejected the awkward translation of “If This is a Man” into “Survival in Auschwitz,” insofar as Levi was not trying to call attention to those who returned.37 He was not, in other words, testifying for the survivors. Rather, to borrow Paul Celan’s haunting formulation, Levi was testifying for the witnesses, for the complete witnesses.

18. Commenting on the figure of Lot’s wife in Antonin Artaud’s work, Harries writes that “it remains difficult to reconstruct what looking backward might mean for Artaud, what catastrophe we ‘ourselves’, Lot’s wives, might have witnessed, or might be in danger of witnessing . . . the central question is whether the catastrophe we fear has already occurred,” and we are already survivors. Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 29.

19. Paul Schrader, in Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 61.

20. Paul Schrader, in Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 61.

21. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1990), 212. Sontag goes on to underscore the “historically specifiable twist which intensifies the anxiety . . . the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the twentieth century when it became clear that, from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life under the threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning” (223-24). For an augmentation of Sontag’s argument, which underscores survival over mere disaster, see Mick Broderick, “Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster,” Science Fiction Studies 20:3 (1993): 362-382. And see Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times; and, for the city of New York, see

22. According to Samuel Weber, “The televisual view of the world propagated by the nightly news, in every country with which I am familiar (a very limited number, to be sure, mainly North America and Western Europe), heightens the ambivalence that Debord described but never named as such: that which results when anxieties related to the limitations of physical (and social) existence, involving frailty, vulnerability, and ultimately mortality, are provisionally suppressed through images that position the spectator as an invulnerable and all-seeing survivor: surviving all the catastrophes that constitute the bulk of the nightly news, at least in the United States.” Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 332.

23. Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 9. Leo Bersani summarizes the matter thus: “experience destroys; art restores,” or later “art redeems the catastrophe of history . . . everything can be made up, can be made over again.” Leo Bersani, The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 14 and 22. See also the indispensable complement offered by Lecia Rosenthal in her Mourning Modernism: Literature, Catastrophe, and the Politics of Consolation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

24. Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 96 and 83. I follow Harries’ account of Kiefer’s Lilith, a painting which ambivalently locates the spectator in the bomber’s perspective, while attending to what falls out of perspective. See 84-86. cf. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn: “This, then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1998), 125. This almost compels me to suggest renaming the HSBC image “Lot’s Wife,” the one who is three, mother and daughters (“the daughters take the place of the mother” [80]) and hard to count too, as some paintings increase, while other decrease, the number of female figures (Corot has an indistinguishable angel there), appropriately suggesting that there are many wives, or indeed that we, the “spectators are Lot’s wives” (98), “the surviving Lot’s wives” (114).

25. Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 42.

26. Primo Levi, Collected Poems, trans. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (London and New York: Faber & Faber, 1988); and Frederic D. Homer, Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001).

27. As I suggested, Harries underscored for me that Corot’s angel is not quite identifiable as such. Bearing no angelic markers, I wonder if she is not one of the daughters, if, true to the juxtaposition of different chronological moments in other depictions of the biblical event, Corot is not painting Lot’s wife twice, at once fleeing and remaining. I should add that the turning of backs goes two ways as well, since survivors are rarely received with open arms. Ulysses knew something about that, and Holocaust survivors found out too, pretty much everywhere they went.

28. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 20.

29. Jonathan Druker, Primo Levi and Humanism After Auschwitz (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), 32.

30. Jonathan Druker, Primo Levi and Humanism, 28. Uri Cohen thoughtfully attends to the dreams narrated by Levi, in which his “return” is repeatedly, and abysmally, staged as illusory, doubled in life and death. Uri Cohen, “Consider If This is a Man: Primo Levi and the Figure of Ulysses,” forthcoming in Jewish Social Studies. For Lyotard, “the melancholic or criminal idea of survival” is associated with a forgetting of “something that . . . does not survive, a remainder that does not remain.” Jean-François Lyotard, “The Survivor,” 161 and 145.

31. Lyotard seems to echo Levi when he writes that “the witness is always a poor witness, a traitor.” Jean-François Lyotard, “The Survivor,” 146. “The witnesses who speak,” Lyotard later continues, “are horrified at having been chosen by the evil of survival to tell it” (155). Timothy Campbell importantly reminds us that, in Levi’s earlier writings the relation between testimony and survival was sometimes reversed: “forms of memory are seen as the precondition of survival.” Timothy Campbell, “Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo“ in The Legacy of Primo Levi, ed. Stanislao G. Pugliese (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 99. Levi’s own words seem to confirm, of course, “that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness.” Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 41.

32. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 82.

33. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 83.

34. Philip Roth, “A Conversation With Primo Levi” in Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 180.

35. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 84.

36. Jonathan Druker, Primo Levi and Humanism, 58; cf. Druker, 62: “He cannot speak for the victims . . . Survivor testimony would seem to have limited significance and authority.”

37. “Not surprisingly, readers are misled by the book’s American title, which markets death camps survival as a kind of redemption. In reality, Auschwitz produced very few survivors, but an inconceivable number of men who, according to Levi, were so completely drained of physical and mental vigor as to be only hollow shells of men.” Jonathan Druker, Primo Levi and Humanism, 19; and see 24, where Druker comments on a similar problem of translation with “Itinerario di uno scrittore ebreo,” which was translated as “Beyond Survival”.

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