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Pankaj Mishra’s Moral Mishmash

What are intellectuals for, anyway?

Liel Leibovitz
July 09, 2019
Photo: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Drawing of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland by Ella Liebermann Photo: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Drawing of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland by Ella Liebermann Photo: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Ours, said Pankaj Mishra, is a tormented world, where “the question of political evil that we grapple with presses down on our souls and minds.”

The respected essayist and novelist—bylines in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the Guardian, awards from Yale University and the Leipzig Book Fair—was holding court at the Italian Cultural Institute on Park Avenue, standing beside the flags of Italy and the European Union, an oversize marble fireplace, and a tall window that poured the late afternoon directly on Mishra and made him look as if he was painted by Vermeer. He was there to talk about his guide to all this suffering, the inimitable Primo Levi.

“I read him systematically as a young man in the late 1980s,” Mishra began. “I was very fortunate actually to be introduced to him relatively early in his career in the English-speaking world, but I really read him in the real sense after my own very small brush with political evil, and this happened when I went to the valley of Kashmir in 1999, 20 years ago, to report on the counterinsurgency there.” And off Mishra went, assuring his listeners that he was not in the least simplifying a complex issue by saying that the Indian occupation of Kashmir was a bacchanal of beastly acts against the local population and was viewed as such by one and all.

Like some iconic actors—not the great ones, who disappear into their roles, but the plucky ones, who bake themselves into every part (think William Shatner or Christopher Walken)—Mishra’s delivery is a master class in frustrated rhythmic expectations. He never puts the emphasis on the word you’d think he’s about to favor, and just when you catch him looking down and wonder if he is lost in his notes, he throws his head up at an angle and looks at you through his thick-rimmed glasses, as if all this time he was patiently waiting for some profound observation to cohere and now that it has he’s ready to volley it your way. You hardly even have to listen to what Pankaj Mishra is saying to know that he is an intellectual: As he speaks, he barely moves at all, his body at rest in a black button-down and a khaki-colored safari jacket, his hands seizing both sides of the oaken podium, like a sailor in the crow’s-nest who keeps himself steady to better see the horizon. Only his head tilts up and down and from side to side, a visual cue that beneath these two torrents of thick, black hair, parted down the middle the way the Red Sea is often depicted in paintings of the Exodus, lies an immaculate brain that can hardly be contained. The impression is helped along by the fact that Mishra does not orate like the late Christopher Hitchens, say, used to do; instead, he contemplates, delivering observations layered with reservations, text and commentary intertwined.

“I don’t think I’m simplifying to say that the local population of Kashmir absolutely despised, with all their soul, as an occupying force, the Indian army, the Indian government, the Indian bureaucracy,” he continued. “There were local legends about places where unspeakable forms of torture were inflicted on young Kashmiris.”

All this rattled the young Mishra, and what shocked him most, he said, was how little people back home in India, themselves the very recent survivors of an imperial occupation, seemed to care. “We had grown up with the thought that virtue was on our side,” he lamented. “As a post-colonial country whose national narrative, whose main mythology consisted of depicting itself as a victim of imperialism that has finally, heroically overcome the imperialists, won independence, and have then embarked upon a great, noble experiment in secularism, pluralism, democracy, and even socialism.” And yet, when it came to the oppression of Kashmir’s Muslims, Mishra concluded, this noble experiment was all but forgotten, giving way to brute power made possible by the population’s willful ignorance of the crimes committed in its name.

Enter Primo Levi.

The author and Holocaust survivor passed away in 1987, in a fall down his Turin apartment building’s staircase that many consider suicide; he died, Elie Wiesel noted at the time, “at Auschwitz, forty years later.” A few months before his death, he published his final book, The Drowned and the Saved. Gone was the chemist’s cool gaze, that unjudging analytical approach that made Levi stand out; instead, the aging author was angry, and more than one of his insightful fans took the work to be a lengthy, philosophical suicide note. In the book’s most famous chapter, “The Gray Zone,” Levi promotes a difficult idea: There is no black and white, no good guys and bad; the entire universe is one murky spectrum of moral compromise, which means that we neither have to cast out the murderers as monsters nor exalt the victims as saintly souls incapable of any wrongdoing themselves.

Levi applied the idea to figures like Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat in the Lodz ghetto who excused his ruthlessness by arguing that he was merely doing his best to help his community survive. Fortunately, there were no Rumkowskis in Mishra’s world, and no Auschwitzes either; but the principle—we are all gray on the inside—was too good to pass on, particularly for an intellectual, a subspecies that feeds on complications. Therefore, seeking for someone to “gray” up, Mishra landed on Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who, despite being born two years after his nation declared its independence from colonial rule, still embodies, to Mishra, the victim turned aggressor.

But India wasn’t what Mishra had come to talk about. He came to talk about another nation wrestling with its own traumatic legacy, a nation that haunts the sort of people who see themselves fit to opine on topics like political evil. He had come to talk about Israel.

Arriving about 20 minutes into the speech, the Jewish state was foreshadowed the same way the creature is in any good monster movie: There are intimations of it, hints that something forceful and ravenous lurks in the dark, and when it finally makes itself known, somewhere toward the end of the first act, you clutch your popcorn and smile in satisfaction, knowing that the thing you’ve paid to see was finally afoot. Like every good storyteller, Mishra unleashed his beast gradually, drumming up the tension before giving us a good, long glimpse. “There are many disturbing revelations, especially now, when you read The Drowned and the Saved, but one of them, one of the most striking ones, is that the memory of former victimhood, whether at the hand of Nazis or other European imperialists, does not prevent one from becoming a brutal perpetrator,” he said. And then, finally: “There is no country in the world where the memory of genocide is as routinely commemorated as in Israel, but again, who can say, who can really argue, that Israel’s policies today are unimpeachable when it comes to the right of Palestinians.”

Just how impeachable are those policies? Just how cruel have the Nazis’ victims grown? A good monster movie always has a stock scientist at hand to deliver a short and terrifying speech, lest anyone fail to be impressed by Godzilla’s evident might. For Mishra, that scientist was Levi himself: In 1982, as Israel entered Lebanon to rid it of Palestinian terrorists attacking civilians along its northern border, Levi wrote a short article in La Stampa, titled “Who Has Courage in Jerusalem?” Mishra quoted it at length. “Israel, less and less the Holy Land, more and more the military state, is starting to act like the other countries of the Middle East, with their radicalism, their distrust of negotiation … I feel indignant toward those who hastily compare the Israeli generals with the Nazi generals,” Levi wrote, “and yet I have to admit that [then Prime Minister Menachem] Begin draws such judgments on himself.”

Mishra had about half-an-hour longer of such remarks at the ready. He was never strident—that would shatter his introspective air. He offered no policy prescriptions or calls to action; intellectuals are above such dross. He merely kept on attaching one Levi quote to another, patiently knitting a fragile theology: Levi was great not only because he bore witness to the evils of the Holocaust but mainly because he questioned the value of bearing witness as a purifying act, recognizing that, because all of us live in the “Gray Zone,” we are just one minor provocation away from purchasing some barbed wire and dreaming up camps of our own. It’s a depressing thought, Mishra admitted as he slouched toward the end of his speech, but also a hopeful one because it reminds us that a man as morally honest and intellectually acute as Levi once existed and that his light shines on even as the rest of the world gets darker.

The two dozen people or so in attendance—about a quarter of whom worked either for the Centro Primo Levi, the organization that had invited Mishra, or for the publisher of Levi’s collected works—nodded sympathetically. They asked questions, mainly ones designed to showcase that their souls and their minds, too, were as pressed as Mishra’s by the question of political evil, a grand abstraction that had no patience for petty things like historical facts.

That this was Levi’s greatest weakness was a fact that did not escape even his most adoring critics. “In 1938,” Edward Rothstein noted in his review of Levi’s complete works, “he even delivered a paper to a study group of Jewish intellectuals in Turin; its proposition was that anti-Semitism was then at its ‘low ebb’—this at a time when Italy’s Racial Laws had stripped Jews of civil liberties, of the right to an education and of the right to travel abroad.” Jewish identity was scrubbed from most of Levi’s works because it gets in the way of his grand, universal theory: Power corrupts, corroding both the Germans and the Jews, which meant that the only way to keep another Auschwitz at bay was to practice perfection by means of self-abnegation, a task only the few and pure of mind and heart can accomplish.

You can take whatever issue you’d like with this formulation. You can argue that to curse power in all its forms is to deny people religious associations, national affiliations, and other forms of elected affinities that had helped mankind thrive for millennia. You can note that Levi himself was the first to admit that great suffering did not confer on its bearers any celestial insights. What you can’t do is deny Levi his vantage point; he had paid dearly for it.

Had Mishra?

As the late afternoon sun died softly, and as Mishra patiently replied to the last of his admiring listeners, I started asking myself just what I was doing there, listening to him. It’s not that I believe the left’s new progressive race laws that hold that only members of a particular oppressed minority are permitted to speak of that minority’s particular experiences, and that anything else is cultural appropriation, the gravest sin of our time. I’m still a liberal, which means I still believe that anyone is entitled to speak about anything, even though I amused myself, as I was getting up to leave, by toying with the idea of returning the favor, walking up to Mishra, and lecturing him about the virtues of Bibi Netanyahu as evidenced by a close reading of the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, there was something almost charming about inviting one quintessential universalist, Mishra, to celebrate the centennial of another, Levi—intellectuals of the world, unite.

But Mishra wasn’t there as an emissary of some benign brotherhood of cosmopolitans. He was there on a mission, and his mission was to argue that three things were inherently true when it came to Primo Levi: First, that it was possible, even advisable, to read him out of context, which meant that the Holocaust should be viewed as anything but a specific historical occasion that happened to a specific people, the Jews, for a specific set of reasons; second, that it was permissible, even laudable, to distill Levi’s intricate legacy into a potent political brew guaranteed to fortify one’s leftist credentials; and third, that it was logical, even inevitable, that intellectuals alone, the few and the proud, should serve as their nations’ moral compass, remaining upright as the unwashed masses were led astray by bloodlust and fear.

To see the world this way is to rob the Jews of a very private and formative experience, a genocide fueled by a concrete and ancient hatred that was anything but random in choosing its victims. It’s also to rob Levi of his ultimate meaning, expanding the boundaries of the “Gray Zone” from the hell of the camp the writer had observed so carefully and meticulously to just about every place where humans dwell, a reductio ad absurdum that turns a lengthy and varied literary career into a single broad metaphor. And finally, it’s an affront to the very notion of democracy: There were, Mishra noted at some point in his talk, fine writers and intellectuals in Israel who spoke out against the horrors of the country’s brutal policies, but they were an enlightened minority; in Israel, like in India, the mob was always falling in love with some fascist. Follow this logic to its end, and you’ll be tempted to do away with such pestering things as elections or free speech, which only have an awkward way of enhancing the benighted opinions of those boorish majorities; far better to entrust the ship of state in the hands of those smart and sensitive enough to lead it to safety.

In Auschwitz, Levi noted in The Drowned and the Saved, intellectuals were at a disadvantage, their orderly minds useless at understanding a strange new reality that was illogical and immoral. The same was true of Levi himself: His power as a writer stems from the powerful and private interaction that occurs when a victim survives and proceeds to judge his executioners. Listening to Mishra turn this intimate exchange into a bedtime story for the worldly woke left me not angry but amused. After all, maybe Mishra had it just right: The question of political evil presses on, and if we listen to Levi—really listen to him—we’ll know that the last people we can expect to grapple with it in any meaningful way are intellectuals.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.