The Drowned and the Saved

February 1981. The night I was stranded in Paris on a flight back to London from Geneva. Gatwick was fogbound. The experience sharpened my perception of how we all react in a crisis in our personal lives, forced me to look again at a familiar New Testament story and afforded an opportunity to explore the experience on four different levels.

Level one was simply what happened — how differently human beings behave in a crisis. Some accept their fate without complaining and without emotion; they sit alone at a table, as if all meaning had gone out of life and they no longer want human contact. Some run madly from one phone to another, changing Swiss Francs to French Francs, phoning it seems not to matter whom. Some (of both sexes) use the situation as an occasion to flirt; air hostesses doff their uniforms and take to civvies, approachable now no longer as officials but as people. Some just eat and drink. Some just drink and eat. Some become offensive and aggressive. Nice, friendly people, no doubt, who normally have a light evening meal (which they had already had on the flight) and a hot drink before they retire, suddenly begin by asking politely for dinner and then become aggressive in their demand for food when they learn that they can only have it if they pay for it.  Some always have the latest rumour, others have the latest up-to-date information, and it soon becomes clear who will be the first for whatever is going next.

Then I noticed how the mood can change. When told there is a delay of an hour, faces drop. When it gets to two or three hours, there is a sort of panic: families have to be told, engagements cancelled. But then after a night and half the next day it no longer seems to matter. Calm, leading almost to indifference, seems to have set in.

For want of better occupation, I found myself wondering what would happen if we had to stay together for a week, a month, or even a year. Would we become like hostages? Or the Jews in the concentration camp? Perhaps it was because on the flight I was reading a book about Auschwitz: Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man.

Level Two therefore inevitably became the bringing together of the two worlds. Primo Levi was an Italian partisan, captured by the Nazis in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz, where he is was one of the lucky ones who survived. If This Is a Man relates his experience, and in one chapter, ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, he shows how the experience of living in a camp seems to produce two well-differentiated categories  of human beings: the survivors and the capitulators.

He proceeds to speculate why this might be. Perhaps it is because in the camps men are alone, in a way they are never alone in real life. Perhaps it is because in the camp the struggle for mere existence is at its greatest. But whatever the cause Levi clearly identifies those who quickly lose all hope and strength and go straight to the bottom of the heap (the drowned) and those who have a unique capacity for staying alive (the saved). He then quotes Matthew 25:29: ’to him that hath, more will be given . . . and from him that hath not, even that which he hath will be taken away’. In life, a ferocious law. In the camp, plainly recognised by all.

Level Three inevitably led me to reflect on the parable and when I got home I did some digging. The commentaries reminded me that ‘talents’ had got nothing to do with ‘gifts’. Jesus was talking about real money and resources, and whatever we had we were meant to use. I discovered also that Jesus was probably quoting an old Jewish proverb, saying that in real life it seems too often to be true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

That put it very sharply. This story now became our story. It was the crisis we were all involved in, all the time. We needed to recognise it in our own country, and (to keep it in perspective) in other countries and other cultures. In Britain, for example, following World War II, even after twenty years of socialist rule, the gap between rich and poor had got wider, and today after a further forty years, including a further thirteen years of socialist rule, the gap is even wider and widening.

Or think of families. Shakespeare understood it when he wrote, ‘when troubles come they come not single spies’. We all know families who seem to have every misfortune and others to whom nothing adverse even seems to happen. Or think of Stone Age Indians in the Amazon, whose numbers were reduced from 4 million to 120,000 by the infiltration of the white man; families massacred by illegal settlers, bombarded from the air by hired gunmen, given food laced with arsenic and handed out clothes laced with disease, as the settlers exploit their land for a few years and then move on.

Recalling all this Primo Levi’s story left me with three things I might otherwise have missed. None of it was really new, yet now, in a new way, I felt the force of what Jesus said. The first hearers also felt the force of what Jesus was saying. Those who have will benefit. Those who haven’t will lose.

Level Four was trying to work out what Jesus might have had in mind. In the course of digging I re-discovered T W Manson’s paraphrase of this verse:

‘To him who has added something of his own to what I entrusted to him, more of mine will be entrusted and he will have abundance. But from him who has added nothing of his own to what I entrusted to him, what I entrusted to him will be taken away .’

This seemed to be exactly what Primo Levi discovered in Auschwitz.

‘The Drowned seemed to have nothing . . . the divine spark is dead within them . . . they are the non-men who march and labour in silence . . . through no fault of their own, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves, and they follow the slope all the way to the bottom, like streams that go down to the sea. In Auschwitz the end is the gas chamber, and they finish up there in their thousands.’

But there are others, the saved. To begin with they are not very different, but they fight to survive and they win. There is something inside them — Levi says ‘call it five talents, if you like’ — and they come through almost with flying colours. 

I looked again at Britain and other nations, at those families and the Amazonian Indians, and the people who seemed to have nothing. I began to identify and recognise those who had that spark that enabled them to live. Never again could I read that parable without seeing it differently and as I looked at the casualties of life I began to see them and to respond to them in a different way.

That left the hardest bit of all — taking away from the third man even the little bit he had and giving it to others. I turned back to Manson. What Jesus is saying, says Manson, is that if we fail God’s work will still go on, only it will go on without us and our talent or opportunity will be given to someone else.

Did that then put a fresh complexion on the failures? On the disciples, who failed because they were trying to save themselves, and even on Jesus who was crucified because he refused to compromise? All were lost opportunities. One by one the lights were going out, and the last one went out with the cry of dereliction on the cross. But as the cry went out on Golgotha there was a glow in the garden. The future, after all, was not to be with the saved but with the drowned as God takes their lost opportunities and gives them to others. Jesus dies, and the disciples become new creatures. The disciples die, and the church is born.The church suffers persecution, and the faith is strengthened. Never before had I seen the parable of the talents as a pointer to the resurrection.

© Alec Gilmore 2014