The Frontal Cortex

What is the What

I’ve been reading Dave Eggers new book, What is the What. It’s a beautifully told story of a boy’s flight from Southern Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia to the slums of Atlanta. Based on a true story – the novel’s subtitle is “The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng” – Eggers recounts, in searing yet simple prose, the Job-like life of Deng. He has seen his friends get eaten by lions, starve to death in camps, get shot at by bandits, and get mugged by American gangsters. His survival is nothing but a miracle.

While reading the book, I kept on thinking about Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, another true story of unbelievable woe. Levi begins the book by explaining how someone can survive a situation so terrible it exceeds my own capacity to imagine hell:

“Sooner of later, everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes, and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.”

Or, as Dostoevsky put it, “Man is a being that can get used to anything.”