Primo Levi: from the depths

I first read Primo Levi in 1963. I picked up a second-hand copy of If This is a Man, a Four Square paperback published for two shillings and sixpence and which cost me (as we used to say it) one and six. I still have the book – now falling apart – with that second-hand price pencilled inside it. This was more than twenty years before Levi achieved world-wide renown with The Periodic Table.

The earlier book, Levi’s memoir of his experience at Auschwitz, certainly impressed me at the time, but I didn’t take notes on it, so I don’t now recall all the reasons why. What I most remember about reading the book then was my surprise at learning that hell on earth, even hell on earth, had a social structure. It wasn’t just, as I guess I must have half-imagined it to be up till then, a kind of shapeless inferno.

In the early 1990s I again read and re-read If This is a Man, along with other of Levi’s writings and as part of a systematic thought and research process about the Nazi genocide. The thing that struck me second time around was Levi’s extraordinary wisdom: his wisdom not only about the camps, but about life and the world. It is sometimes said that such knowledge is born of suffering, and this may be true to an extent. But in the case of Primo Levi I’m convinced it’s not the whole story, and it may not even be the main story. He would have been a great writer in any case. Reading the account of life and death at Auschwitz, written by a man not yet 30, I am constantly brought up short by the breadth and acuity of Levi’s insight.
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The EU and Zimbabwe

A search for “Zimbabwe” on A Fistful of Euros currently yields:

No pages were found containing “zimbabwe”.

Not for much longer.

See the reports here and here respectively:

The EU is to increase the number of top Zimbabwean officials facing targeted sanctions by the end of February.
The EU imposed travel sanctions on Mugabe’s regime in February 2002 [owing] to repression and human rights abuses associated with elections and the chaotic land reform programme.

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Yoghurt scones

Over at normblog, which is where I more usually hang out, there is a character variously known as WotN and Wife of the Norm, and who is known in her own right as Ad?le. With a name like that she could be French but isn’t, and yet I feel it’s admissible to bring her over here to A Fistful of Euros, she being Ad?le, and having a grave accent over the ‘e’ in her name. Getting to the point, now – and not before time – Ad?le noticed a recipe for yoghurt scones linked to on The Daily Bread by Jackie D, and originating with Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini; Clotilde who surely does gain entry to A Fistful of Euros, being as she is, I am told, authentically French; and so she – Ad?le, that is, not Clotilde, not Jackie – made us some of these scones today. And I had two of them, and most excellent they were. I can do no better than to quote Jackie:

[They] are unbelievably light, moist, and airy, with a very slight sweetness.

Not that Jackie had any of the scones Ad?le baked. She did not. But she somehow knew. It’s like with a map, a recipe. Anyway, what Jackie says is what I thought. Nice scones. Try ’em.


Yesterday I woke up and opened my front door to find a guy sitting on our garden wall playing a harmonica. Well, not in fact. Was it in a dream, then? No, not that either. It was a thought that just came into my head as I woke up and I lay there contemplating the day ahead. What could it mean?

By the end of the day I knew. I was playing Artie Shaw later and came to his rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’. That’s as recorded in Hollywood on October 7, 1940, and included on this collection. You only gotta listen to it and you know. According to The Rough Guide to Jazz:

[it’s] arguably… the greatest-ever version of “Stardust”, with Billy Butterfield plus Shaw’s incomparable clarinet chorus.

Greatest ever? Maybe it is. But maybe it also isn’t. Because there’s also the version by Nat King Cole – the one here.

I’m not saying which is the better. Same song but two different ballgames, both brilliant. It would be like trying to compare horses and Saturdays.

And the guy on my garden wall playing the harmonica? You might get to see him sitting on your garden wall if you don’t make time to listen to these two versions of ‘Stardust’.

On ‘understanding’ evil

This post is a follow-up to the one below on Hannah Arendt and the notion of the banality of evil. I fear, from one or two of the comments, that the reservations I expressed about her arguments may have led to misunderstanding. My point was certainly not to suggest that one shouldn’t try to understand and explain why and how these horrors happen, how people can come to commit, or be indirectly involved in, them. This is why I said, for example:

We have to understand what they [the perpetrators] did precisely as a fact about the evil human beings can do. Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers ‘by nature’, and so forth.

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Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil

[I’d like to start by thanking the Fistful of Euros team for inviting me to guest-blog here this week. I’m hoping to offer a mini-series on European thinkers, focusing on just an aspect of the ideas of the thinker I choose in each case. I say ‘hoping to’ because I still have to compose the posts. But, anyway, here goes with the first of them?]

Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. In doing so she popularized the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, applying it to Adolf Eichmann in particular. Arendt referred to?:

the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. [All quotations from Eichmann in Jerusalem, except as otherwise indicated.]

A certain amount of misunderstanding has been generated by Arendt’s use of this phrase. That is in part because it was inapt to her intended meaning; in part perhaps also because it may have been inapt to its principal object – Eichmann.
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