Remarks made by John K. Roth, CMC Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, on April 10, 2015
Tonight, we celebrate. Tonight, we celebrate the naming of The Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College. Made possible by the awesome generosity of Margaret and David Mgrublian and their family, joy fills this celebration. Our joy overflows with gratitude to them. It brims with pride and satisfaction because the Mgrublian Center ennobles the College, emboldens its conscience, and enlivens the education of CMC’s students.
Our celebration will be deficient, however, unless it contains more than gratitude, pride, and satisfaction, for our joy must be tempered and fortified to withstand the fact that the Mgrublian Center will exist in a world full of atrocious disrespect for human rights. The Center will do all that it can to resist and change that situation. Such work, of course, is not for the faint of heart. It is unlikely to be done without confronting indifference, failure, and discouragement. Nevertheless, the Center’s work can and must be done in ways that embody, create, and inspire joy.
To explain what I mean, consider that a hundred years ago tonight, a few weeks after the first use of poisonous gas in World War I, the Ottoman Turkish regime was about to launch the first state-planned genocide of the twentieth century by annihilating the Armenian people in their homeland. Seventy years ago tonight, World War II approached its European ending, leaving enormous devastation and death in its wake. That carnage was evident at Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945. Among the Jews who had been force-marched from Auschwitz to that place a few months earlier was a teen-aged boy named Elie Wiesel. Eventually the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel reminds us that “indifference and resignation are not the answer. . . . If life—mine or that of my fellow man—is not an offering to the other, what are we doing on this earth?”1
The Armenian genocide and the Holocaust took place decades ago, but the novelist William Faulkner was right when he said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”2 It had been hoped that “Never again!” might be more than a slogan, but on this day, 21 years ago, the Rwandan genocide had begun and very quickly was in full cry. In just 100 days between 500,000 and one million Rwandans, predominantly Tutsi, were killed. As the violence of ISIS and Boko Haram reveals presently, the impulses that lead to mass atrocity crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing—continue to wreak havoc and inflict horrific suffering. Another Auschwitz survivor, the Jewish philosopher Jean Améry, who was tortured by the Nazis, speaks for our time as well as his. “Somewhere,” said Améry, “someone is crying out under torture. Perhaps in this hour, this second.”3
The French philosopher Albert Camus thought that even by its greatest effort humanity “can only propose to diminish arithmetically the sufferings of the world.” But, he insistently added, “the injustice and the suffering of the world . . . will not cease to be an outrage.”4 That outlook led Camus to contemplate the fate of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king who passionately loved life and defied fate by thwarting death itself. The gods condemned Sisyphus to a ceaseless repetition that required him to push a weighty rock up a mountain only to have it roll back to the bottom as he neared the top.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus depicted him in ways that hone a needed edge for our celebration tonight. “At the very end of his long effort,” wrote Camus, “Sisyphus watches the stone rush down . . . whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain. It is during that return, that pause,” said Camus, “that Sisyphus interests me. . . . If the descent is . . . sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. . . . The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”5
The joy that Camus had in mind was not sentimental, occasional, or fleeting. It was scarcely synonymous with fun. Resistant and resilient, the joy Camus had in mind was what I like to call an in-spite-of joy. Refusing to be driven to despair, such joy encourages study and defiance of atrocity, even if not always victoriously. Kindled and sustained by friendship, by the help that we give as well as receive, by doing what is right and good, by love, such joy sustains solidarity with those who oppose and limit harm, relieve suffering, and save lives. Declining to give in or give up, in-spite-of joy keeps people going even though the work of studying, supporting, and defending human rights has no end and, at times, may seem to be a forlorn cause.
In his book Moments of Reprieve, the Italian Jew and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi touched on related themes by recalling his friend Lorenzo Perrone, the person Levi credited with saving his life in Auschwitz. Not a Jew but an Italian civilian, Lorenzo, a skilled mason, was “officially” a “voluntary” worker helping to build the industrial plant that the Germans were constructing at a place known as Auschwitz III. Established in 1942, this subcamp in the vast Auschwitz complex, also called Buna or Monowitz, housed prisoners—Elie Wiesel and Levi among them—who toiled at the synthetic rubber factory located on the outskirts of a Polish village. In fact, however, Lorenzo was more like a labor conscript, and he despised the German cruelty that he saw at Auschwitz.
After meeting Levi in late June 1944, Lorenzo decided to help his fellow Italian, although it was a crime with grave consequences for Lorenzo even to speak to an Auschwitz prisoner. For months, Lorenzo got Levi extra food, which was the physical difference between life and death. “I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today,” Levi would write, underscoring that Lorenzo’s help meant much more than food alone. What also sustained him was that Lorenzo “constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”6
When liberation came, Levi lost track of Lorenzo, but later he became determined to find out what had happened to his life-saving friend. They reconnected for a short time in Italy after the war, but soon Lorenzo died. At one of their postwar meetings, Levi learned that he was not the only Auschwitz prisoner whom Lorenzo had helped, but Levi’s friend had rarely told that story. In Lorenzo’s view, wrote Levi, “We are in this world to do good, not to boast about it.”7 Those words—“We are in this world to do good, not to boast about it.”—could be an apt motto for the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College. They sum up much of what I have in mind when I say, as I often do, that the Center energizes and emboldens the conscience of this College.
Remote though it often seems, difficult to define though it may be, the possibility that we are in this world to do good remains. More than that, the possibility becomes an imperative if the world is to be less corrupt and savage and more opposed to hatred and terror. I think Levi was right to suggest that it is difficult to define precisely how it is that we are in this world to do good, but it was not difficult for Levi to feel Lorenzo’s “presence” and to discern his “natural and plain manner of being good.” Lorenzo’s presence, his offering to Levi, his ways of being good were oppression-resisting, hope-sustaining, death-defying, and life-giving. Such qualities are the ingredients that inspire and nourish the in-spite-of joy that our celebration tonight should foster and that our lives need every day.
When William Faulkner said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” he was not thinking of Primo Levi’s friend Lorenzo. But let us hope that Faulkner could have been doing that, for the fact is that tonight—and it is a reason for the deepest-down kind of joy—more than one Lorenzo is here in this room right now. Two of Lorenzo’s finest younger sisters and brothers are named Margaret and David Mgrublian. They have given us and provided CMC and especially its students an unparalleled example of what being in the world to do good can mean.
It has been said that “moral beauty” happens “when someone carves out a place for compassion in a largely ruthless universe.”8 Margaret and David Mgrublian and their family have done just that. May our grateful and joyful response to their gift be steadfast commitment to ensure that the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College remains and increasingly becomes the oppression-resisting, hope-sustaining, death-defying, life-giving, and joy-creating place that it must always be.
1Elie Wiesel, Open Heart, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 73, 75. 2William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 73. 3Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1980), 24. 4Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 303. 5Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 89–91. 6Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 121. 7Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz, trans. Ruth Feldman (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 160. 8See Philip Hallie, Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 173.