Examine the meaning of the following statement: "If we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Primo Levi's narrative illuminates the pain and terror of the Holocaust on multiple levels.  Part of this exists on a literal level, while it also resonates on a psychological and philosophical level.  This is brought out in the quote, "If we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand." In articulating a condition where communication is impossible, Levi brings out some of the real terror of Auschwitz.

Levi precedes the quote with detailed analysis of what defines life when in Auschwitz.  The removal of dignity, the abuse, and the dehumanization create a situation where human identity is violated in the worst degree. Part of this process is the transformation from a human to a "phantom." Through this, Levi suggests there is no specific language that can communicate such a reality. Levi suggests that no lexical construction can effectively convey the terror of Auschwitz:  "Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man."  This is a significant point in understanding the meaning of Levi's quote.  Levi suggests that some of the worst experiences in our lives cannot be fully understood by another if the means of transmission is language.  For example, no matter how vividly I describe a revolting and tragic moment of my life, I will never be able to transfer another person to that moment in time.  It is because this instant is my own terror, a life of brutal desperation and there is nothing quiet about it. The shrieking that echoes in my mind is one that will never be able to fully transmitted to another.  

This is the worst element in the limiting function of words. Levi's analysis asks the reader to philosophically address how we can articulate something that lies beyond words to express.  Realities such as the memories of an assault, the moment in which one was abandoned, and the experience of Auschwitz are instances where one finds language to weak of a medium to exactly communicate one's narratives.

It is in this pivot where Levi's quote possesses significance.  If those who are suffering the worst in degradation speak, it is unlikely that anyone will understand unless they have endured the same dehumanization.  Levi cannot articulate his experience to one of his captors and perpetrators and expect his voice to be validated.  It is here in which the words of those who suffer will not be authenticated and respected in any meaningful way.  At the same time, Levi suggests that the real terror of the Holocaust is that it creates barriers to prevent true understanding.  For example, if Levi speaks and someone does hear him, his argument is that they will never believe that such horror is possible.  Thus, they will listen and "not understand."  

Levi suggests that it is in this lack of reciprocal communication that the predicament of those who struggle in Auschwitz represents "the bottom."  It has severed the ability to formulate community and solidarity because there is no base for understanding.  Since human dignity and identity have been removed, reduced to a series of digits, there can be no acknowledgement or belief in what has been experienced.  Through such a revelation it becomes clear that "no human condition is more miserable than this."  This is where the meaning of the quote becomes painfully evident.

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