Primo & Pimple

by jkatejohnston

9 July 2014

Dear Max,

I’ve been re-reading Survival In Auschwitz (wonderful!) and thinking about my pimple (terrible!) and wondering if this is all wrong.

But it’s not. That book stops me in my tracks every time. Knowing is always better than not-knowing, and besides it’s super fun to read. And as for my pimple—well, you should see it.

I caught Teresa looking at it, and she said, “I can’t help it! No matter where I go, it’s looking at me! It’s like the Mona Lisa.”


It dawned on me that most language is conventional and should be. Enzo’s inspired word-choice—a chorus of zombies—so often wrong and virtuosically expressive, can’t last forever. Eventually you have to choose the right words: the ones you don’t even notice. Language that calls attention to itself is insufferable.

10 July 2014

Dear Max,

My pimple has slopes that gradually get steeper, a summit, even a small active crater. You can scale my pimple. You can sacrifice virgins in it.

I don’t lose myself in reading anymore. That gift of youth has faded away, so that when reading I’m aware of many other things, including my pimple’s weight and presence. The multiple-ness of experience astounds me.

I’m trying to get to Primo Levi and how great he is. It’s all tied up in my mind with a chapter I’m working on which starts with opening statements, in which lawyers are supposed to tell the jury what the evidence will be, but not argue, not persuade, not allude in any way to what those facts mean. As if fact and narrative could somehow be separated from thinking things through. And Primo Levi is one of the great proofs that you can’t separate the two and shouldn’t and why would you want to? He’s giving evidence, drawing conclusions, all the time.

This is from a chapter called Chemical Examination:

Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them, and sits formidably behind a complicated writing table. I, Haftling 174517, stand in his office, which is a real office, shining, clean and ordered, and I feel that I would leave a dirty stain whatever I touched.

When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and look at me.

From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he filled his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revange, but merely from a personal curiousity about the human soul.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarim between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Gemany.

One felt in that moment, in an immediate manner, what we all thought and said of the Germans. The brain which governed those blue eyes and those manicured hands said: ‘This something in front of me belongs to a species which it is obviously opportune to suppress. In this particular case, one has to first make sure that it does not contain some utilizable element.’ And in my head, like seeds in an empty pumpkin: ‘Blue eyes and fair hair are essentially wicked. No communication possible. I am a specialist in mine chemistry. I am a specialist in organic sytheses. I am a specialist …’

And the interrogation began, while in the corner that third zoological specimen, Alex [the kapo] yawned and chewed noisily. (Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 106, ellipses in the original.)