The Connoisseur of Suffering

Other Shores, pp. 142-146

Since adolescence, I have become a quasi-authority on survival stories—stories about people who are pushed beyond every conceivable recourse—and I realize that the attraction lies in the extremity. Survival is the extreme moment of everyday life as marathon swimming is the extreme moment of sport. And although one is never in direct peril of losing one’s life during a long swim (good friends disagree with me here), many of the stages of a marathon swim correlate closely with the stages of survival.

Probably the most devastating survival stories during the era of modern man are those of the Nazi concentration camp prisoners. The words of the survivors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Russian camps resound with the purest testimony to the subtle yet relentless life force that is the human will. These people were inescapably immersed in an environment bent on eradicating their dignity, their sense of self. Time was no longer meaningful; every minute of every day seemed precisely the same. There was no goal or purpose; after all, they had no idea how long the ordeal would go on. The values of civilized life no longer counted; intelligence, experience, education, cunning were insignificant. Every moment hinged on the basics: food, air, excretion, warmth. Survival was the only issue every minute of the day, every day of the month, every month of the year. There was no sweet memory of the past, no swelling of optimism for the future; there was only the stinking, suffering, horrific present.

The German SS managed to strip away all sense of self from most of the millions of prisoners by subjecting them to the cruelest of atrocities, by destroying any hope for a future. But there were those who insisted, quietly, on making it through. There were those who would not let the boundary, however thin, between themselves and their environment dissolve. They resisted, they said no, they retained their dignity. These survivors are fascinating to everyone; but for me their tales stir an especially fervent interest. Certainly I never thought that I would have to go without food for months at a time or sleep in a bed of urine and feces or withstand all the monstrous pressures of the Nazi camps in order to appreciate life’s most precious gifts. Yet I was always attracted to the test of the spirit, and I always knew that it would have to be an extreme situation, indeed, that would draw that strength of spirit to the surface.

One of my favorite stories was David Howarth’s We Die Alone (“On mourra seul,” Pascal), which was about a young Norwegian man, Jan Baalsrud, who attempted to sabotage the Germans as they occupied his country during the early years of World War II. He barely escaped capture, swimming through freezing channels, skiing and walking for miles and miles without warm clothing, trying to reach the neutral border of Sweden. Crushed by an avalanche, he lay unconscious in the snow for several days until severe frost-bite turned to gangrene. When he awoke, he could no longer walk. On a plateau with blizzards whipping up from every direction, he spent twenty-seven days and nights without food. He was buried alive under four feet of snow for a week, and for the rest of his twenty-seven-day ordeal he had only a sip of brandy every two days.

In an anti-German effort, men from the towns who had discovered him came up every few nights to keep him alive. Several more weeks passed. Knowing that the gangrene was spreading to his legs, Jan cut off his own toes with a blunt pocket knife. Finally, taking great risk of being caught by the Germans, the townsfolk brought him to a cove to regain warmth and strength, and a Lapp offered to carry him on his sled to the Swedish border. His weight was then seventy-eight pounds, half of what it was when he debarked on his mission. But he made it.

It took three months in a Swedish hospital to save his feet, but he made it. There are countless cases of people exhausted from hunger and exposure who give up; the strength of will fades simultaneously with the strength of body. That is why Jan Baalsrud’s story excites me so. The physical breakdown was complete, there was no reserve from which to draw, and Jan himself says that the temptation to capitulate, to close his eyes and die peacefully, grew stronger and stronger each day. Yet the spirit within that lifeless body was indomitable and could seemingly take any and every abuse. At one point during the twenty-seven-day nightmare on the plateau Jan recalls thinking that he would most likely lose his feet and perhaps his legs, but that he would grow tremendously in experience.

Of course, Jan Baalsrud and the few who managed to live through Auschwitz and the other death camps comprise a category of survivors unique unto themselves in that it was war. Their situation was directly created by a merciless enemy, and their decision to remain alive must in part have been ignited by anger and the wish to one day retaliate, if only by their power to bear witness.

But there are other life and death experiences that present the same problems, although the ultimate escape is from Nature herself rather than from a calculating human force. The most recent case is probably that of the Uruguayan soccer team whose plane crashed in the Andes and especially of the two boys who, having played each last desperate card, dug deep past their physical potential to the life force that enabled them to climb an impossible mountain to rescue themselves and their friends. When there were no more calories to burn, when strength had faded to nothing months before, when frostbite was so severe that walking a few steps took a monumental effort, the boys pressed on. The need for dignity and the will to resist giving up are subtle, almost mysterious threads that somehow allow a person to transcend what once were the outer limits.

And in the sports world, the marathon swimmer also faces this extreme moment over and over again when actual physical strength and conscious presence of mind have long since been drained. The battle for survival is against an indefatigable foe, the sea. When you lose as much as ten to fifteen pounds in just a few hours (I once lost twenty-four pounds in forty hours in the North Sea), and when you have been shaking with the ice-cold of 55-degree water for perhaps an entire day without relief, and when you have been seasick from swallowing the sea water for a number of hours, there is simply nothing left. This is the point beyond which muscular coordination, a beautiful stroke and god-given talent no longer mean anything. Neither genetic predisposition toward great endurance nor the background of months and years of dedicated training count in the least [note: this is utter bullshit]. Now the words of encouragement from the coach’s boat are absolutely empty. And since there is simply nothing left, you have to dig deeper and deeper into your gut until you arrive at that same core of pride and dignity that the survivors know. Every minute seems like an hour, every hour is filled with constant discomfort and moments of excruciating pain. You lose sight of the original goal, and all the pain seems purposeless. You want to quit so many times, but there is a quiet burning near the heart that makes you clench your teeth and refuse to go out a quitter [C.f. English Channel].  You roll over on your back, you throw off your goggles, you say no, you sigh, you cry, and the quiet burning somehow makes you roll back over and pick the left arm up again. The body is 100 percent spent, but the will blazes brightly.