cover image Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

Tzvetan Todorov. Henry Holt & Company, $27.5 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-4263-4

The concentration camp-including the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulag-marks a defining attribute of our century, declares Todorov (The Conquest of America), and the extreme experiences there make questions of virtue and vice more stark. In this resonant analysis, the Bulgarian-born, Paris-based critic draws on reports from Primo Levi, Victor Frankl and others, as well as on such philosophers as Sartre and Rousseau. Todorov's meditation is dense but accessible, raising a rich set of questions, even as he occasionally interjects harsh self-scrutiny about his family's life under Communism. He delves into the distinction and link between heroic virtues (courage) and ordinary ones (caring), the ``banal roots'' of monstrous behavior and the morality of recounting horrors (he finds Gitta Sereny's biography of Albert Speer more worthy than Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah). Though the camp experience seems to confirm that human good never expired, Todorov fears that our technological mentality has made it easier to demonize and depersonalize others. This book was first published in France. BOMC, History Book Club, Reader's Subscription alternate. (Jan.)