This paper argues that the work of writers is to witness. This requires a willingness to take up a state of mind somewhere between intimacy and yearning—a state conducive to producing ‘strange poetry’. Most importantly, it means resisting an expressed ethical stance in the face of extreme events. Primo Levi’s If this is a man (1947) and Denise Levertov’s final book of poetry, The great unknowing (1999) are taken as examples of writers doing the work of witnessing extreme events while (purposefully) falling short of taking an ethical stance.
Keywords: creative writing—ethics and poetry—ethics and literature—intimacy—yearning—Holocaust—death
In February 1944, Primo Levi was one of more than 600 Italian Jewish prisoners told they would be transported from Italy to Poland: ‘We had learnt our destination with relief. Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied some place on this earth’ (Levi 1979: 23). His mundane phrase, some place on this earth, carries with it, of course, many disturbing and strange significances; among them the reminder that this location of almost unimaginably efficient monstrosity was ‘on this earth’ and thus the roots, causes, motives, and the very possibility of these acts lie here within us; there is irony too, for the hopefulness expressed in this phrase will soon be proved part of a machinery of death.
It is an irony he returns to as he points out that as long as we are alive some form of optimism will delude us, for as living beings we can never find the elusive extremes of either suffering or happiness. There is as well in this phrase a demonstration of how writing might cope with extreme subject matter. In the ‘afterword’ to his book, first published in 1947, he responded to a reader’s question, Why do you speak only about German camps and not the Russian ones?, by stating, ‘I prefer the role of witness to that of judge’ (1979: 391). The question seems on the face of it to be an ethical one, calling by implication for a show of responsible balance from writers when they deal with atrocities or dilemmas; though we might also read into the question a reluctance on the part of Germans to accept the monstrosity of their acts, an attempt to deflect their own responsibilities. In his response, Levi did touch on this question of ethical responsibility by referring indirectly to the fact that he had been the inmate of camps organised and administered by Germans and thus his report could only be authentic and informative in that (perhaps narrow) matter. But he was also making an interesting observation on the ethical poetics of his own writing, which he characterised as witnessing. I want to take up further this matter of writing as witnessing. Is it in fact an ethical position, or does it resist an ethical stance? How does writing with the intent of witnessing entangle itself with ethics? What does this kind of writing do, and what does it do best?
Suffering becomes more and more evident, differences in wealth and power between nations become more apparent as information and images flow around this planet. Ethical questions intrude frequently on our daily lives. In 1993, Peter Singer’s book of interventionist philosophy titled, How are we to live? expressed a pressing intellectual reaction to this global experience of life. Singer tried to answer the question, why act ethically?, with a combination of social evolutionary theory, the insights of behavioral psychology, and an appeal to the value of rational living. Through our evolutionary inheritance we are at the same time irrepressible individuals and social creatures, he noted, and hence we will always be caught between instinctive impulses based on immediate self-interest and a deep tendency towards loyalty to a larger society. Taking up a tenet from behavioral psychology, he wrote that if we make altruistic gestures, we find that we become more altruistic; that is, if we act differently we will begin to think and perceive differently. Finally, he noted that when an ethical decision is made the reason usually is a mix of immediate self-interest and a broader realisation that in the long run an ethical act is the only way to work towards making the world a better place than it is right now. For Singer his hope was that there would be a general shift towards what he called an ‘ethical stance’, which would allow for the emergence of an awareness of ‘the wider perspective’—the impartial perspective of the universe—a perspective that would baulk at dripping shampoo into the eyes of immobilised rabbits in the service of creating a more perfect shampoo for humanity.
Now nearly 20 years later Singer’s question still resonates not just with ethical challenge and rational appeal, but with urgent practical and political dimensions as we face possibly imminent ecological disaster. How indeed are we to live, particularly when those leaders of governments and churches who call us to the highest ideals or the most rational decisions have been responsible for perpetuating the slavery of whole races, the oppression and murder of women, so-called just wars, the mistreatment and imprisonment of refugees, the collateral deaths of women and children in wars, and even covering-up the sexual abuse of children on a massive scale. Everywhere we turn, events and experiences seem to demand from us an ethical stance and an ethical voice in response to monstrous outrages and venal disappointments. With this continuing need for an ethical stance still a matter of urgency, what decisions does a writer face?
I am wanting to identify a particular kind of writing, distinct from journalism, and distinct from the writing of history or philosophy, different even from some forms of poetry and fiction. This form of writing, characterised by a particular kind of witnessing, produces a ‘strange poetry’ which allows the deepest ethical questions a presence in the writing, but somehow stands aside from the impulse to take an ethical stance. This writer still has to answer the question: What is the right thing to do in this situation? But the answer springs from a conception of writing and a commitment to writing above, perhaps what we might call moral intervention, judgment or action. Where does such a writer stand in relation to good and evil, or as Bentham would have it in relation to pleasure and pain, or in Kant’s terms, duty and dereliction? This writer, I suggest, resists rhetoric, faith, reasoning, idealism, or for that matter the moral outrage that would see good set against evil as a fixed feature of the human condition. This writer insists on a stance somewhere outside the ethics of even the most extreme situation if the real work of writing is to be done. I hope to show by examining some passages of writing by Primo Levi and Denise Levertov how such a writer, when meeting the task at its most demanding point, might be falling short of taking an ethical stance while never underestimating the material at hand; always, as it were, writing with two hands at once because all situations are for the writer doubled, contradictory, resonant with multiple significance. In his simple sentence identifying Auschwitz as the destination for Italian Jews in 1944, we find Levi’s phrase, some place on this earth, both a hopeless understatement, and a pointed reminder to us of what humanity is capable of—as both victim and perpetrator. We are also brought to an awareness of the promise that such writing gives. It will be a witness.
This writing is not a witness for the prosecution or for the defence. It is not even a witness for some judge, whoever and wherever the judge might be. It is not even a record. It is a presence at that place on this earth. Presence is not simple to achieve. Primo Levi, the writer, was present at the emergence of a new dimension of evil, as Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and Theodor Adorno have asserted (see Bernstein 2002). Denise Levertov the poet, dying of cancer, was present too at her own death from cancer as she wrote her last poems, published as The great unknowing in 1999. These writers are not philosophers of ethics, they are not moral leaders, for their most important question is not, ‘How are we to live?’—but ‘How are we to write?’ This question is to the side of good and evil; it is tied to the intimacy of presence and the vitality of witnessing.
Upon his capture as a young hopeful militia fighter against fascism, hiding out in the foothills of the Alps, Primo Levi was taken with over 600 other Jewish prisoners to Fossoli near Modena in the North of Italy, and from there they were suddenly told they would be transported to Poland. He writes of this time, ‘Only a minority of ingenuous and deluded souls continued to hope; we others had often spoken with the Polish and Croat refugees and we knew what departure meant … the kitchens remained open, the corvées for cleaning worked as usual, and even the teachers of the little school gave lessons until the evening, as on other days. But that evening the children were given no homework’ (1979: 21). These are the children who will be taken to be gassed as soon as they arrive in the area of Auschwitz. In giving us this detail, that evening the children were given no homework, Levi shows us the work the writer does. We, the readers, find ourselves with this detail doing its work on us long after we have read it. We too witness the intimacy of this detail, the vitality it points to, the yearning for these children it generates in us.
I am not saying that such writing does not touch upon ethics, for strangely enough by refusing to give us the lesson, it embeds in us a lesson that just might make such social machineries of hate and violence impossible to construct in the future. The writer, however, will fail at his or her task if the writing ceases to simply witness.
This work that this writer does is founded upon an intimacy with the physical world combined with the yearning that presence, or consciousness imposes upon us. It is a work that takes place somewhere between the finite and the infinite. Primo Levi writes in the early pages of If this is a man:
Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are the same nature: they derive from our human condition, which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable. (1979: 23)
These observations of human finiteness are at the same time a guide to how he will be conducting the writing of the book he has ahead of him at this stage. He will know insufficiently, hopefully, uncertainly, always under the force of inevitable death, always poisoned by material cares, distractedly, intermittently. This is a commitment to writing that will not offer a philosophical solution or an ethical stance beyond the simple but hard work of witnessing. Denise Levertov moves towards a similar statement of tensions the writer must acknowledge between the finite and the infinite when she describes the ‘métier of blossoming’ in her last book. The poem describes in detail the blossoming of an amaryllis plant, and ends with:
If humans could be
that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried,
swift from sheer
unswerving impetus! If we could blossom
out of ourselves, giving
nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!
(‘The métier of blossoming’, 1999: 11-12)
To blossom out of ourselves will be to die, and strangely enough, to perfect the skilled work, the métier, we are here to do as mortal creatures. This is a finite being’s reaching towards that impossible infinite Levi responds to in his passage above. Having given up her restless eagerness to fly or leap or rush at the world as a child and young woman, even at the end, Levertov confesses to her continuing desire:
To walk swiftly in wind and rain
long and far and into the dusk,
wanting some absolute, some exhaustion.
(‘Animal spirits’, 1999: 16-17)
This intimate contact with the imperfect physical world combined with the hunger of yearning—so strongly and rhythmically suggested by the ‘and’ returning three times—that presence imposes upon us, is work that requires a willingness to stay with disorienting contradictions for longer than the sensible among us normally would.
It is a method and a stance different from Singer’s philosophy because it does not seek to make a reasoned thing from its reflections on the world, and it is different from history because there is no guarantee here beyond something forming itself in the sensibility of the writer writing it.
It is difficult, for instance, to know what to make of this following passage from Levi as he writes of those who died by the thousands soon after their arrival:
… the Muselmäner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand. (1979: 96)
Does this writing rescue the humanity of those who died, does it condemn survivors for their own loss of fellow feeling for victims of the slaughter, does it attest to some attitude of indifference we might all descend to in such a situation? The tone of this writing also infects his account of one of the most cold-blooded practices in the camps: ‘The SS guards who killed a prisoner in the course of an escape attempt were granted special leave. As a result, it often happened that an SS guard fired at a prisoner who had no intention of trying to escape, solely in order to qualify for leave. This fact artificially swells the official number of escape attempts recorded in the statistics’ (1979: 387).
Levertov’s poem, ‘Fugitives’, moves into similar territory when she writes:
Though one by one each creature might have
some appealing feature, en masse they are
inexorable, a repulsive teeming collective …
dazed, haggard, unstoppable, driven
less by what shreds of hope may cling to their bodies
than by a despair that might well have left them
paralyzed in the dust, inert before imminent slaughter …’
(‘Fugitives’, 1999: 32-3)
No relief, no explanation, no solution here. Witnessing to a perception is perhaps the point of this. It is not so much a record of what happened or what happens, as a recording of the ways in which the human perception of the writer copes or does not cope. There is an interesting ethical reticence at work in these passages of writing from Levi and Levertov, which are at the same time recklessly alive. Such writing is not easy to read, for its subject matter is distressing in the extreme. It is not journalism, it is not philosophical or educational writing, it is not history, and the lessons here are not at all clear. Like many of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales there are gestures towards important moral truths, but we are not taken by the hand right up to them.
The witnessing of the writer then is a work founded in a twin-ship of intimacy and yearning, with a willingness to extend, perhaps heartlessly, a state of mind between these extremes. It is what I think of as a strange poetry. By this I mean it understands that there is a drama here to exploit, but one that is best shown with lightest and most fearful touch: ‘We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain’ (1979: 129), Levi writes of the turn of season during the year he spent in this concentration camp. We are taken some indeterminate way into his experience with these strange sentences, both into the poetry he has found in it and into the thing itself. Levertov too has this feel for the strange poetry a meeting of experience and language can produce:
When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
My presence made them
hush their green selves …
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
(‘Aware’, 1999: 62)
Much has been witnessed in these two passages, and the critics and commentators must be grateful to such writers for the other work they have provided here, the almost endless work of teasing out the significance, the implications, the strange (abundant) shadows these words throw out.
All of the above qualities are encapsulated in one small sentence in Levi’s book: ‘Do you know how one says ‘never’ in camp slang? Morgen Früh, tomorrow morning’ (1979: 139). Such writing stops short of delivering an ethical stance, though it leaves us, perhaps, sufficiently knocked off balance to be seeking an ethical stance for the sake of re-establishing balance. When Denise Levertov remembers an ancient stone staircase of hollowed steps, she writes:
Who can say if the last
to climb these stairs
will be journeying
downward or upward?
(Ancient Stairway’, 1999: 7)
again yearning towards the infinite while attentive to the way time wears stone, she will not take an ethical stance. This stopping short of driving a lesson home is the mark of the writer as witness.
Both these writers face an extreme situation, one the mass deaths of the Holocaust, the other the individual death that awaits each of us; the one experiencing what we all must, and the other finding himself in the midst of an event that almost defies descriptions of evil. Both these writers, it seems to me, have a clear view of their roles as witnesses, of the possibilities of writing as a witness. This stance of the writer, is it an ethical stance? I think it might be, but perhaps not in a sense that Peter Singer would recognise. There is in these acts of writerly witnessing an implied ethical argument for the autonomy of art, one of the central ideals for the project of modernity as Habermas identifies it (2010: 1577-87). We experience pleasure from such writing, the pleasures of intimacy and presence; and human pleasure has long been the ground upon which ethical claims rest their value (Mill 2010: 285-91). There is the fact too that this witnessing can be a way of living, one open to any one of us. There are ethical currents then to be felt in the flow of this witnessing, but they are not its substance or its point. Peter and Renata Singer edited The moral of the story: an anthology of ethics through literature, which was published in 2005. The aim of this anthology was to draw upon literature to shed light on perennial ethical questions related to self-identity, war, racism, treatment of animals and the environment and other issues. Neither Levi nor Levertov are included, but the selection is generous, running to more than 600 pages, and their inclusion would have been wholly appropriate. In the introduction the Singers raise the question, along with FR Leavis, John Gardner, Kate Millett and Richard Rorty, of whether literature should have or does have a moral purpose. Finally, they conclude, ‘On the question of whether great literature should have high moral values, we take no explicit stand’ (2005: xi). They seek, they say, to anthologise work that ‘stimulates thought’ about issues in ethics. This is admirable, and at the end of the anthology there are brief essays on the ethical issues raised by the texts anthologised. These commentaries are intelligent and sensitive to the works in question, and it is necessary critical work, partly in order to savour the possibilities opened to our own thinking when the writing continues to resonate within us, and partly to identify those moments when a writer might have passed from witnessing to proselytising or critiquing an ideology. Kate Millett’s critiques of Lawrence, Miller and Mailer come to mind here as important work. In Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘Aware’, when she promises to ‘eavesdrop peacefully’ on the whispering vine leaves next time, has she taken her poem one word beyond witnessing? Does that ‘peacefully’ draw in, unnecessarily, her lifelong public commitment to a politics of peace, or does it make a respectful nod to death, that rest in peace, which will give her all the time in eternity to join with motes of sunlight among the leaves? This matter of interpretation is the work thoughtful readers do, as they try and try again to recognise what is happening when writers do succeed at witnessing.
Bernstein, R 2002 Radical evil: a philosophical investigation, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press
Habermas, J 2010  ‘Modernity—an incomplete project’ in V Leitch (ed) The Norton anthology of theory and criticism, New York: Norton, 1577-87
Levertov, D 1999 This great unknowing: last poems, New York: New Directions
Levi, P 1979  If this is a man, London: Abacus
Mill, JS 2007  ‘Hedonism’ in R Shafer-Landau (ed) Ethical theory: an anthology, London: Blackwell, 285-91
Singer, P 1993 How are we to Live?, Melbourne: Text
Singer, P and R Singer (eds) 2005 The moral of the story: an anthology of ethics through literature, New York: Wiley & Sons