I am not sure why, but up until this day, it had never occurred to me that compassion could become a cunning cottage industry. I shake my head at my own profound naivety in the face of all.
This day included a rare long slow morning in my favourite chair, the winter sun pouring in the south-facing windows and a book I have hungrily devoured. Its author hold secrets born in suffering that were seared on his soul and upon my reading are whispered into mine.
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, lived to speak of the atrocities endured in the holocaust. In his book If This is a Man, he writes of the nuances in human nature that were amplified in the petri dish of unspeakable affliction.
Many of his word pictures tackle my soul, leaving me breathless, softly but soundly knocked to the ground. My heart lays mangled with my troubled mind; every thought engorged with emotion. In one such segment he discusses the various psycho-social strategies which aided prisoners with survival. He chooses to highlight four individual characters, as well as each individuals character. With descriptive yet succinct detail each mans external and internal workings are briefly and beautifully painted with words.
I muse thoughtfully through the narrative of Schepschel, contemplating his rudimentary thievery as a method of subsistence. I comb the page, quietly marvelling at Alfred L. His organizational capacity was in full swing, along with his ability to remember that a ‘respectable appearance is the best guarantee of being respected.’ I read eagerly through Elias, a mostly happy madman with super human strength. My heart nearly stops and my blood runs cold when I get to Henri; his cunning ‘instrument of penetration was compassion.’ Henri had the uncanny capacity to assess his host quickly and subtly so as to know when, where, how, and in what tone, to deposit the syrupy, sweet serum of calculated, cunning compassion.
In one easily overlooked sentence, Levi likens Henri to the ‘ichneumon wasp’ who stings the hairy caterpillar with bullseye accuracy in its only ganglion. This astute archer does so to stun its prey before depositing the near liquid seed of its offspring into a soft, unwitting host. I was intrigued by this – further investigation ensued. It appears that the wasp can seemingly ‘divine’ the location of grubby, caterpillar type hosts, even through solid wood. It manages to snake its ovipositor through almost any barrier, stun its squishy prey and deposit its equally fiendish seed. In most cases, the larva of the wasp will hatch after the caterpillar has cocooned itself and is awaiting metamorphosis. The starving but calculated larva will wait until it’s host has reached near optimal maturity and then eat it alive; a devious and deceptive devouring.
Primo reports that Henri is helpful, as he has snaked his ovipositor into the cruelest crevices in the camp; seemingly through any barrier. He has worked all levels of power, able to tap into brutes and bystanders by subtly subverting compassion into cottage industry. He speaks of a general malaise that would overtake him after each encounter with Henri… ‘a confused suspicion of having been, in some inadvertent way, not a man to him but an instrument in his hands.’
Survival was thus achieved by an innocuous mix of thievery, organizational capacity, respectably kept rags, madness and calculated compassion. The first four are congruent with what I knew to be true. Even a thief is understood when he steals to survive. We live in chaotic world, inside and out; order is a comprehensible strategy in the face of desolation and disarray. I can run with respectable rags; it is often said that clothes make a man. Truly, it takes a madman to thrive in a mad society, this too, intuitively makes sense. It is the ‘ichneumon wasps’, the insect-like Henri’s of this world, who I am slowly and with unimaginable agony coming into reality about.
I naively assumed that a man’s deposit of warmth, tenderness, interest or compassion was authentic. It never occurred to me that compassion could cover the exoskeleton of a hardened heart or become a means of personal gain. How nefarious. I close my book, dumbfounded and doubtful that I will ever be in the presence of another ‘Henri’ and not have a violent visceral response. I quietly wonder what barriers could be erected to protect the soft places of my heart that await metamorphosis, from the divining reach of insects posing as educated, empathic and articulate men of compassion.