The Armenian genocide and the Holocaust took place decades ago, but the novelist William Faulkner was right when he said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It had been hoped that “Never again!” might be more than a slogan, but in April 1994, the Rwandan genocide began and was soon in full cry. In just 100 days between 500,000 and one million Rwandans, predominantly Tutsi, were killed. As the violence of ISIS reveals presently, the impulses that lead to mass atrocity crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing—continue to wreak havoc and inflict horrific suffering.
The French philosopher Albert Camus thought that even by its greatest effort humanity “can only propose to diminish arithmetically the sufferings of the world.” But, he insistently added, “the injustice and the suffering of the world… will not cease to be an outrage.” That outlook led Camus to contemplate the fate of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king who passionately loved life and defied fate by thwarting death itself. The gods condemned Sisyphus to a ceaseless repetition that required him to push a weighty rock up a mountain only to have it roll back to the bottom as he neared the top.
Sisyphus riveted Camus’s attention during the return to the bottom, where the burden had to be taken on again. If that descent was “sometimes performed in sorrow,” said Camus, “it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much,” he contended. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The joy that Camus had in mind was not sentimental, occasional, or fleeting. It was scarcely synonymous with fun. Resistant and resilient, the joy Camus had in mind was what I like to call an ‘in-spite-of’ joy. Refusing to be driven to despair, such joy encourages resistance against atrocity, even if not always victoriously. Kindled and sustained by friendship, by the help that we give as well as receive, by doing what is right and good, by love, such joy sustains solidarity with those who oppose and limit harm, relieve suffering, and save lives. Declining to give in or give up, ‘in-spite-of joy’ keeps people going even when doing so may seems like a forlorn cause.
In his book Moments of Reprieve, the Italian Jew and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi touched on related themes by recalling his friend Lorenzo Perrone, the person Levi credited with saving his life in Auschwitz. Not a Jew but an Italian civilian, Lorenzo, a skilled mason, was “officially” a “voluntary” worker helping to build the industrial plant that the Germans were constructing at a place known as Auschwitz III. Established in 1942, this subcamp in the vast Auschwitz complex, also called Buna or Monowitz, housed prisoners—Elie Wiesel and Levi among them—who toiled at the synthetic rubber factory located on the outskirts of a Polish village. In fact, however, Lorenzo was more like a labor conscript, and he despised the German cruelty that he saw at Auschwitz.
After meeting Levi in late June 1944, Lorenzo decided to help his fellow Italian, although it was a crime with grave consequences for Lorenzo even to speak to an Auschwitz prisoner. For months, Lorenzo got Levi extra food, which was the physical difference between life and death. “I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today,” Levi would write, underscoring that Lorenzo’s help meant much more than food alone. What also sustained him was that Lorenzo “constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”
When liberation came, Levi lost track of Lorenzo, but later he became determined to find out what had happened to his life-saving friend. They reconnected for a short time in Italy after the war, but soon Lorenzo died. At one of their postwar meetings, Levi learned that he was not the only Auschwitz prisoner whom Lorenzo had helped, but Levi’s friend had rarely told that story. In Lorenzo’s view, wrote Levi, “We are in this world to do good, not to boast about it.”
Remote though it often seems, difficult to define though it may be, the possibility that we are in this world to do good remains. More than that, the possibility becomes an imperative if the world is to be less corrupt and savage and more opposed to hatred and terror. I think Levi was right to suggest that it is difficult to define precisely how it is that we are in this world to do good, but it was not difficult for Levi to feel Lorenzo’s “presence” and to discern his “natural and plain manner of being good.” Lorenzo’s presence, his offering to Levi, his ways of being good were oppression-resisting, hope-sustaining, death-defying, and life-giving. Such qualities are the ingredients that inspire and nourish the ‘in-spite-of’ joy that we need to be part of our lives every day.