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By Victor H. Brombert


The Montréal Review, July 2021



by Victor H. Brombert

The University of Chicago Press (2013, pp.200)




A Humanistic Message?

It was hardly an insurrection. But some of the students—and not only Jewish students—were disturbed that, in describing the hell of the extermination camp, Primo Levi chose to devote an entire chapter to a canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy—a medieval Christian poem that, they felt, had strictly nothing to do with Auschwitz and with the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. What kind of Jew was Levi, really!

I did my best to explain. As a culturally assimilated Italian Jew, Levi knew far more about Dante, studied by all students in Italy, than about Jewish lore. But that was not the point. In the context of his Auschwitz experience, the chapter entitled “The Canto of Ulysses,” a clear reference to canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno, is profoundly moving. A fellow prisoner, an Alsatian Jew, had asked Levi to teach him some Italian. To provide material for the lessons, Levi struggled to recall certain lines of Dante he had learned at the liceo classico, and this retrieval of poetic fragments, this shoring up against oblivion, turned out to be a form of survival or even resurrection. It had a special meaning under the circumstances. The recourse to lines of poetry buried in the memory, but not really forgotten, carried a humanistic message. It seemed to provide a defense against death.

So at least went my argument: Ulysses in Dante’s poem is not so much the Homeric hero who outsmarted the ferocious Cyclops as he is a teacher to his men, imparting a lesson in human dignity. Levi’s invocation of Dante’s Inferno comes entirely under the aegis of teaching and the transmission of culture. At its core it is manifestly transcultural. Dante’s own teacher in the poem is the Roman poet Virgil, who guides him through the nether regions, the same Virgil who in the Aeneid had celebrated the destiny of the Trojan hero Aeneas, founder of Rome, and thus joined the epic world of Homer. From the Greek poet Homer, to the Roman poet Virgil, to the Italian poet Dante, to Primo Levi—who teaches Italian to an Alsatian Jew, his companion in misery—the survival of lines of poetry in a death camp comes to illustrate what Ulysses explicitly teaches his men: that human beings are meant not to exist like beasts but to pursue excellence and virtue.

A number of students continued to be disturbed by the implicit optimism in the genocidal context of Auschwitz. How could a Jew, himself a victim of the Nazi Holocaust, have turned to a medieval Christian poem in his account of an atrocity that could in no way be justified in either theological or poetic terms? And how could I, their teacher—this being expressed with great courtesy—how could I interpret this lengthy reference to Dante as a reassuring cultural message?

But then reactions changed altogether when some students found out on their own that, many years after surviving the death camp, Levi committed suicide. This self-destruction was quickly interpreted as the long-delayed but inexorable consequence of Levi’s camp experience, and it therefore largely invalidated, so it was felt, his humanistic optimism. Letting himself fall to his death from his fourth-floor landing negated his message for a surprising number of students. This act was moreover viewed as a fundamental contradiction, as proof of a flaw in Levi’s character and way of thinking.

The Law of Contradictions

Allowing opposites to coexist in one’s mind, questioning one’s dearly held assumptions, accepting to live uncomfortably with conflicting thoughts, may, however, be not a flaw but a sign of complexity and deeper truth.

Levi was always drawn to paradoxes and contradictions. In the preface to his personal anthology The Search for Roots (La ricerca delle radici, 1981), setting out to discuss the books that really mattered in his life, he notes that all of them involve a tension stemming from “fundamental oppositions” embedded in the fate of any sensitive and thoughtful human being. Meditating on the art of the novel—he himself tried his hand at fiction in The Wrench (La chiave a stella) and If Not Now, When? (Se non ora, quando?)—he observes that protagonists need to be “incoherent,” as we all are, in order to reveal an underlying coherence.

Paradox and contradictions lurk behind the façade of lucid objectivity and self-control in all Levi’s writings. Conflicting images alternate but are also understood to be exchangeable or convertible. Shifting moods are not infrequently perceived as simultaneous. Levi himself records in The Periodic Table (Il sistema periodico) that, at the time of his arrest in his partisan hideout in the Piedmont mountains in late 1943, his resignation at the idea of death alternated with a maddening desire for every imaginable human experience while life itself seemed to be oozing out like an unstoppable hemorrhage. Despair and hope did not merely alternate at dizzying speed; they were interlocked, as were images of death and rebirth. His personal baggage of atrocious memories—his arrest, the interrogations, the deportation in cattle cars, the horrors of the death camp—was for him “a wealth” containing the seeds that would ultimately feed renewed life.

Opposition can also mean “inversion” or “conversion,” and that carries its own danger. In one of his science fiction stories collected in The Sixth Day (Storie naturali), Levi imagines the discovery of a substance called “versamina” that converts pain into pleasure, thereby leading to self-destruction. Soldiers to whom the substance is administered rush gleefully toward their death, just as animals injected with the drug quickly meet their doom. For pain protects. A substance capable of converting the greatest physical pain or mental suffering into joy might thus act as a tempting incitement to suicide. The story entitled “Versamina” in fact concludes with a disturbing “then, why not?” (“allora perché no?”).

Musings on Suicide

Levi occasionally wondered how much of his taste for debate and contradictions rested on a talmudic heredity (“ereditá talmudica”), on an atavistic Jewish fascination with subtleties and intricate discussions, which he considered essential features of the diaspora mentality. He refers admiringly in If Not Now, When? to the bold fantasy of the Talmudists (“fantasia temeraria dei talmudisti”). But neither the taste for contradictions and inversions nor parables such as “Versamina” about the self-destructive elimination of pain can explain why throughout his life Levi never ceased reflecting on the question of suicide.

These reflections are most visibly centered on the death camp experience. But in a negative fashion. Why did so very few inmates even think of committing suicide? Levi’s answer summons up a paradox. Death in Auschwitz was so omnipresent that there was no time to think of death. Suicide, moreover, requires a human will, and, from the moment of their arrival and initiation, the camp inmates were reduced to the state of animals by brutal methods of degradation and dehumanization. The initial moments in the camp produced a “metamorphosis.” Stripped of their clothes, of their hair, even of their names; transformed into grotesque puppets in filthy rags, with a number tattooed on their left arm; deprived of all dignity and forced to run naked in front of the SS during the ritual of “selection” to determine whether they should be sent immediately to the gas chamber—the victims were further transformed (the most diabolical of SS achievements) into collaborators in brutality. “We lived for months or years at an animal level,” Levi recalls in The Drowned and the Saved (I sommersi e i salvati, 1986), reflecting on the events he had written about forty years earlier, after his liberation by the Soviet army. He once again explains why suicide was so rare in the Lager. Suicide is a premeditated act, “not a spontaneous, instinctive act”; it implies a deliberate choice, an “atto meditato”—and for that, according to Levi, there simply was no time in a death camp. The victims’ mental space for any choice—especially a moral choice—was reduced to zero. Even the notion of good and evil disappeared. There were no more moral laws.

But, if cases of suicide were almost unheard of in the camps, they were not at all uncommon after survivors had returned to so-called normal life. Whether it was a delayed reaction, an ultimate surrender to depression, or the impossibility of adjusting to the realities of a daily life totally out of touch with their radical experience beyond good and evil—it would seem that the demolition of a human being continued its lethal work long after the atrocities of the camp. Every postliberation suicide could thus be counted as a Nazi victory well after the defeat of the Third Reich. This is precisely how Elie Wiesel and others interpreted Levi’s suicide more than forty years after he returned from Auschwitz to his home in Turin. Levi himself came to feel that camp survivors only appeared to have survived. Well aware of a number of camp survivors’ suicides, he was especially struck by the case of the essayist and philosopher Jean Améry (Hanns Mayer), who was tortured by the Gestapo and exposed to the harshest physical labor in Auschwitz and later wrote a book on suicide before taking his own life.

Suicides made a lasting impression on Levi as early as his student days. Ian Thomson, in his meticulous biography, provides a rich documentation of Levi’s depressive reactions. Young Primo was seriously disturbed when a fellow student at the Institute of Chemistry, Agostino Neri, inexplicably took his life. He was also shocked to learn that Professor Ignazio De Paolini, a luminary in the field of analytic chemistry, had committed suicide. When Lorenzo Perrone, the Italian laborer who had at mortal risk provided extra food to Levi and saved him from starvation at Auschwitz, later literally drank himself to death, Levi interpreted this as a suicidal act. And there was the shock, in 1950, of the novelist Cesare Pavese’s suicide. Pavese had briefly been his teacher at a reputed liceo classico, noted for its antifascist faculty. Later in life, when Levi frequented the Goethe Institute in Turin to improve his German, another teacher of his, Hanns Engert, hanged himself when he was about to be exposed as a homosexual. It was on that tragic occasion (two years before his own suicide) that Levi asserted to an acquaintance that suicide was a right we all have. More telling still, during one of the recurrent depressions of his student days, he confided to his friend Alberto Salmoni that he seriously contemplated suicide.

Throughout his life, Levi considered suicide a very private affair as well as an awesome mystery. About the death of Jean Améry, he commented that this suicide, which troubled him particularly, gave rise, like all suicides, to a galaxy of explanations. The term he used, nebulosa (nebula), referring to an astronomical metaphor of fog or cloud-like patches in the sky, further stressed the notion of a mystery beyond grasp.

That suicide should be linked in Levi’s mind to the idea of a secret is hardly surprising. Suicide was indeed a family secret. It was an integral part of a collective memory, of the family mythology. In The Periodic Table, Levi mentions the rumor that his paternal grandfather had taken his life. It was not a rumor, however, but a fact. The engineer Michele Levi, at the age of forty, threw himself out of his window—it was said at the time because of insolvency and his wife’s infidelities. A premonitory event: the grandson chose a similar end by letting himself fall from the fourth-floor landing of his Turin apartment house.

The ultimately secret nature of his own suicide is ironically foreshadowed, well before the tragic act of April 1987, in one of the essays collected in Other People’s Trades (L’altrui mestiere) describing an industrial test to which he was subjected soon after his return from captivity. The least expected among the many questions of the test ran as follows: “Do you sometimes think that your problems can be resolved by suicide?” To which Levi’s private comment was: “Maybe yes, or maybe no; in any case, I’m not going to tell you.” Even more uncanny is a passage written much earlier still, in the last chapter of the Auschwitz memoir, in which Levi refers to catching diphtheria in the unsanitary conditions of the camp barracks as “more surely fatal than jumping off a fourth floor.”

Self-destruction comes up repeatedly in Levi’s writings. In the anthology of literary works that Levi claims had a special impact on him, The Search for Roots, he grants a privileged place to Job, but the passages in the biblical text that he stresses are those that express not faith in adversity but Job’s death wish and his longing for nonbeing:

Let the day perish wherein I was born. (3:2–3)

Why died I not from the womb? (3:11)

My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. (7:15)

The wish is moreover for a death without resurrection:

So man lieth down, and riseth not. (14:12)

Even certain of Levi’s metaphors provide unpredictable images of self-destruction. In one of his science fiction narratives about a very special word processor, “La Scriba,” Levi imagines that the inventive gnomes who conceived the machine saw to it that, in order to cancel a text, an elaborate procedure is required, during which the computer would announce: “Careful, you are about to kill yourself ” (“Bada, stai per suicidarti”).

But the most striking themes of self-destruction appear in the science fiction story “Westward” (“Verso occidente”), a dual parable that can also be read as a confession in disguise. Two ethnologists, Walter and Anna, fascinated by the migratory drowning of lemmings, traditionally understood to be a form of mass suicide, engage in a discussion about the desire to die and the instinct of survival. Anna refuses to believe that a living creature would want to die; even without a reason we all wish to live, and life in any case is better than death. But Walter questions such an irrational clinging to life. There are individuals who simply do not love life and others who can lose this love. Moreover, between those who love life and those who have lost this love, there is no longer a common language. Walter’s deep pessimism denies any purpose to sheer existence. We are all condemned in any case, waiting on death row, while witnessing the execution of our dear ones. The tone is truly Pascalian—only Walter is a Pascal without God.

The story has a further, even more telling development. The scientific discovery of a hormone capable of fighting the “existential void” has led to the production of a new drug, Factor L, which cancels the suicidal drive. And this leads to the second part of the story, which carries an almost Voltairean ring. Walter and Anna, the two ethnologists, visit the Arunda, a gradually vanishing tribe living near the Amazon River—a tribe that knows no metaphysics, no churches, no priests, no punishments, no rewards, whose population steadily declines because of the widespread and highly approved practice of suicide. When the elder of the tribe is offered the miraculous drug, Factor L, which restores the desire to live, he politely refuses to accept the gift. He returns the remedy, explaining in an accompanying letter that the members of his tribe collectively prefer freedom to drugs and death to illusion.

Since the Time of Noah

But the law of contradictions continues to function. Anna’s faith in the attachment to life, irrational though it may be, informs Levi’s memories as well as his written record of Auschwitz. Survival remained the supreme value for the inmates, unless they had given up all hope and, according to the terrible expression, become “crematorium-ripe.” The title chosen for the American edition, Survival in Auschwitz, is surely a betrayal of the original title, If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), yet the word survival captures an essential theme of the book, broached early on when a veteran inmate of the camp admonishes the new arrivals not to lose their self-respect, to wash even in dirty water and without soap, and to clean their footwear—not to please the SS, but in order not to “begin to die." The urgent need for human ingenuity to achieve some measure of salvation in the midst of utter wreckage—especially in the final chapter describing the apocalyptic last ten days of the camp—unavoidably brings up the symbolic figure of Robinson Crusoe. Philip Roth was quick, in his interview with Levi, to perceive that the figure of Robinson loomed over the book’s survival motif. Levi himself, in one of his science fiction stories, refers admiringly to Robinson as a supreme survival artist who for twenty-eight years lived in the most distressing circumstances without ever losing hope or the joy of being alive and was ultimately rescued. Survival and rescue stories were, moreover, as Levi well knew, an integral part of Jewish history in biblical accounts. He makes that point in the opening chapter of The Periodic Table when he refers to the atavistic survival instinct: “We are a long-lived people, since the time of Noah.”

Such a myth-rooted attachment to life might explain Levi’s admiration for Rabelais, whose vitality he extols on various occasions, even though Rabelais’s tone and substance seem quite remote from Levi’s inner world. It may also explain why, after his liberation by Soviet forces, followed by daily contact with Russians in Starye Dorogi, he came to envy the “Homeric capacity for joy” of the Russian people, whom he describes in The Truce (La tregua) as “vigorous and life-loving.” Even his early passion for science, as he himself chose to see it, implied a fascination with the principle of life (“materia prima della vita”) allowing for no defeatist surrender to “incomprehensible matter.” In a mood for literary allusions to heroic models, Levi invokes in The Periodic Table the struggle against the white whale in Moby Dick, a book he had read in the translation by Cesare Pavese, his former liceo teacher. And it is noteworthy that in If Not Now, When? the desperate struggle of the Jewish partisans against the German forces in the forests of Eastern Europe ends with the symbolic beginning of new life: the birth of a child.

Attachment to life is of central importance in The Truce, the colorful account of Levi’s circuitous way back home, which he refers to as his thirty-five-day-long “railroad odyssey.” Once again, Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) is on his mind—Ulysses the tenacious and cunning survivor who, after the ten-year-long carnage of the Trojan War, amid new hardships and delays, returns to his human Ithaca, away from the inhuman world of gods and monsters. The Truce abounds in echoes of the Odyssey. Recalling Ulysses and his men, Levi sees himself and his group, on their mock-heroic railway journey, as modern versions of Ulysses and his companions. He humorously describes their “Homeric feasts of grilled meat” and the intense pleasure they took in spending the night recounting past adventures and remembering lost companions. (The pleasurable narration of past troubles—tsores—is tersely evoked in a Yiddish saying that Levi uses as the epigraph for The Periodic Table, one of his most personal books.) But plain physical survival was not enough. As Ulysses makes clear in Dante’s canto, which Levi remembered in Auschwitz, human beings are meant not to live as brutes but to seek virtue and excellence.

The Word as Survivor

The self-conscious literariness of Levi’s writings serves his transhistorical humanistic message. It underlines the sacredness of the logos. In the Nazi camp, as though in an accursed Tower of Babel, all the languages of Europe could be heard. But this cacophony was not altogether dismal. For words live, are threatened, seem extinct, yet somehow survive or can be resuscitated. Language, Levi loved to repeat, is what distinguishes us from animals. And whoever does violence to human beings, he maintained in The Drowned and the Saved, is bound also to do violence to language. Levi had a passion for etymologies—a study that recaptures the origins, the history, and the successive meanings of words and ultimately the sense of a surviving identity. For etymology is also a form of archaeology. Languages can become extinct or disappear, as can entire peoples and cultures. At the beginning of The Periodic Table, Levi sets out to record and thereby preserve the dialect of his Piedmontese forefathers “before it disappears.” Elsewhere, he modestly refers to his dilettantish philological curiosity. In an essay revealingly entitled “Fossil Words” (“Le parole fossili”), he more proudly confesses that all his life he has carried on an intense relation with etymological dictionaries.

Levi’s love of language is seldom of a purely sensuous nature, in spite of his abundant use of metaphors. Rather, it stems from his faith in clear communication. “To write means to transmit,” he asserted apropos Paul Celan’s famous poem “Death Fugue” (“Todesfuge”), which evokes the horrors of the death camp but in terms that were too hermetic for Levi’s taste. Levi went so far as to say that literary obscurity is a form of “presuicide.” Faith in verbal communication and literary expression implies communion but also redemptive virtues. During his captivity in Auschwitz, he was impressed by the nightly rounds of the cantastorie, the barracks’ bard, who recited in Yiddish rhapsodies and rhymed quatrains the details of daily realities in the camp.

His literary vocation, as Levi himself recognized, began in the Lager. From the start, the telling of what it was like held for him exorcizing and redemptive virtues. He later referred to his Auschwitz memoir as a liberating book and vividly recalled the intense joy (“gioia liberatrice”) with which he wrote its chapters. It was for him a resuscitating narrative. Its exorcizing effect is stated explicitly in The Periodic Table. Levi records that, having written the book with the compulsion of the Ancient Mariner impelled to tell his ghastly tale, he found some peace at last, feeling again like a human being. Mainly, he had exorcized (but had he really?) the worst memories, among them the guilt-ridden image of the woman who “went down to the netherworld” with him and did not return. The mythological resonance of this descent to hell (Levi uses the words discesa agliinferi) stresses the tragic condition of the surviving witness. Levi never got over the gassing of Vanda Maestro, his companion in deportation.

The Lager as Only Truth

Writing held out promise of salvation and rebirth, but survival could mean shame and guilt. In its extreme form, as Ian Thomson put it succinctly, Levi’s sense of guilt made him feel that he had in some ways “collaborated with the Nazis.” For he had survived by accepting to work as a chemist in the Auschwitz IG Farben Buna Werke on the development of synthetic rubber, which was badly needed for the German war effort. This had saved him from being worked to death or sent outright to the gas chambers. Shame and guilt were moreover attached to the act of witnessing, whether orally or in writing. What right did he, Primo Levi, have to speak for those who had really known the bottom, who had known total abjection, and not survived? Others had died in his place and thus invalidated the liberating and exorcizing book he had written. For the worst often survive—this is one of the themes of his ultimate reflections on the camp experience in The Drowned and the Saved. And what right did he have anyhow to speak for the dead? This lasting shame of not having died is known to some of the Jewish partisan fighters in Levi’s novel If Not Now, When?—the shame of not having died as others did in the death camp, the shame of being alive without deserving it. This sense of survivor shame, as one of the liberated prisoners explains, drove not a few to commit suicide.

The obsession with the drowned and the disappeared accompanied Levi to the end. In an essay on the art of the novel, he conjures up images of cinematic projections of people who have died. Such posthumous playbacks, or “riprese fi lmate,” creating ghostly effects, are likened to black magic. In a more generalized sense, a mortuary unreality oppressed Levi when he returned to Turin from Auschwitz. It was a multiple unreality: a nightmare within a treacherous illusion. The actual homecoming was fraught with bitterness; it led to despondency, to an irremediable sense of the emptiness of life, its nothingness, its utter vanitas, a word carrying emptiness at its core. The Lager experience could simply not be overcome; the poison of Auschwitz continued its lethal work. A terrible sentence, in the final paragraph of Levi’s account of his homecoming in The Truce, sums up his hopelessness: “Nothing was true outside the Lager.” Forty years after his return from camp, he again confirmed the permanence of this reality in his daily thought. In pages devoted to our common fragility and to the fear that it can happen again, he warns that the lords of death are still alive and that the death train stands nearby, ready to depart.

A History of Depressions

Even Anna, the life-loving ethnologist in the story about the suicidal lemmings, admits that she has experienced a sense of utter futility, a total “emptiness,” after giving birth. (Levi went through periods of dejection almost every time a book of his saw the light.) But even earlier, before knowing swings of mood as a writer, he was given to crises of anxiety characterized by a feeling of emptiness or worse. Shortly after his liberation, while still in the Russian zone, he lost his way in a forest near Starye Dorogi and suffered spasms of panic that he attributed to ancestral fears. There is much evidence that already as a boy, and certainly during his adolescence, he underwent periods of anguish: fear of failure, distress over his sexual timidity, doubts about his virility. His sexual awkwardness gave him, as he records, a feeling of being afloat after a shipwreck and of letting himself willingly sink to the bottom of the sea. He recalls intense experiences of nonbeing when he would close his eyes and shut off his ears and the world was canceled.

Though not a habitual reader of Giacomo Leopardi—he even claimed to feel alienated by the poet’s radical pessimism—Levi’s own brand of pessimism expresses itself occasionally in unmistakable Leopardian terms. The essay in praise of birds is an extended reference to famous pages of Leopardi in which the poet envies the joyful song and soaring freedom of the apparently carefree birds, so unlike humans, who are “unhappy above all living creatures.” Levi latches on to a notion Leopardi put forward: birds do not know noia (a term that combines the ideas of deep boredom, futility, emptiness, and vanity of existence)—the very noia Levi knew in its full dimension “vast as the sea” and heavy as the entire world.

Subject to crises of pessimism, Levi was subject also to irrational fears. He himself described his childhood terror of spiders, which he confesses never to have overcome. In an essay entitled “Fear of Spiders” (“Paura dei ragni”) he recalls how at the age of nine, lying in bed, he was terrorized by the sight of a spider, a black monster with spindly legs, advancing with the “inexorable motion of Death.” By his own account, his arachnophobia had literary roots: an illustrated edition of Dante’s poem carrying the well-known etching of Arachne by Gustave Doré in canto 12 of the Purgatorio.

Ian Thomson provides a detailed account of Levi’s depressions. During his student days, his friends were well aware of them. It got worse after Auschwitz. Already in the camp there were despairing dreams about telling and not being believed or even listened to. Depressions became more frequent, almost regularly after each book he finished, and more intensely so as of the late 1960s. With the passing years he felt increasingly out of touch with the young, who could not understand why the inmates in the extermination camps did not simply revolt or escape, in Hollywood movie style. His own children did not want to hear about his camp experiences. Then, in the late 1970s, came revisionist denials that the gas chambers had existed and that millions of Jews had perished. And there were more strictly personal reasons for swings in mood and states of dejection: the illness of his mother, about whom he had a real fixation, his own bout with shingles and then his prostate operation, and repeated anxiety about losing his memory. (The latter was a particularly painful thought for one who until the end believed that the story of the Third Reich could be interpreted as a total war against memory, a vast enterprise of falsification and negation.) Shortly before his suicide, he wrote to his translator Ruth Felman that he was going through his “worst time since Auschwitz,” that in some respect it was even “worse than Auschwitz,” concluding with the deeply sorrowful words of the Psalmist: “de profundis.”

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Levi mentioned his ancestral fears in the forest near Starye Dorogi. On other occasions, he specifically invoked his Jewish genes. The Periodic Table alludes to the lack of virility of his Jewish forefathers, more given to studying books than to physical action or manual labor. As an adolescent under fascism he was made to feel out of touch with the cult of force and martial exploits. As a young Jew under Mussolini he defined himself as an “enemy of violence.” If Not Now, When? his fictional account of Jewish armed resistance, makes much of the traditional Jewish horror of killing, always considered a sin. The band of Jewish underground combatants experience an atavistic sense of sadness and fatigue. Mendel, the world-weary partisan with whom Levi admittedly identified, is tired of war, suffering from a “thousand-year-old fatigue.” He feels that he carries in his veins the “pale blood” of his forebears. The dislike of violence is one of the reasons Levi offers for admiring Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers: it celebrates the victory of the weak over the Esaus and the Cains of this world. In a letter to Hety Schmidt-Maas, Levi openly refers to his Jewish “atavismus” as the root of his anxiety and depression.

According to theories circulating at the end of the nineteenth century, a recorded high incidence of Jewish suicides was of characterological significance. Such speculations about the Jewish temperament cast light on notions made fashionable by Otto Weiniger, a Jewish Austrian philosopher who himself committed suicide at the age of twenty-three. In his influential book Sex and Character (1903), Weiniger argued that the archetypal Jew was feminine, passive, unproductive. It is hardly surprising that Nazi propaganda later made use of his ideas. And there is little doubt that such antiheroic notions of the Jewish psyche prepared Levi to be especially sensitive to the reproach he heard so often coming from the young that the camp inmates had not fought back, that they allowed themselves to be led to slaughter like sheep, that they had not tried to rebel or escape rather than be conveyed passively to the gas chamber. They also explain his decision to write a largely fictional account about the wartime exploits of Jewish partisans behind the Nazi lines in western Russia. And supercourageous they are in Levi’s account. In order to overcome the prejudice about their lack of physical bravery, the Jewish combatants, as one of them puts it, have to be twice as brave as the others. Yet they continue to hate violence, and while engaged in killing they remember the injunction not to kill. Gedale, their leader, a cheerful avenger of many faces, plays the violin, dances like a figure out of a painting by Chagall, and sings. But his song is about the obligation to fight back: “If not now, when?”

Levi could not forget his own ineffectiveness as a young antifascist partisan hiding in the mountainous regions of Piedmont, not even sure how to use his pistol. He was obviously more at ease relating the feats of a scientist or a specialized worker, such as the adventurous rigger he described in a novel that won the Strega prize, The Wrench (La chiave a stella, 1978). Its central figure is a Piedmontese engineer by the name of Faussone—a rigger (montatore), who assembles and erects cranes and bridges as well as pylons and off shore oil derricks, with whom the narrator (transparently the writer Levi himself ) engages in dialogue. Combining the art of listening with a performer’s mimetic talent, the narrator projects the rigger’s voice and speech patterns, which consistently express pride in work well done. The rigger appears as the incarnation of homo faber, man the maker. Enterprising by temperament, he takes on difficult assignments in Alaska, India, and Russia, intrepidly facing risks and dangers. His heroic image as well as the notion of the heroism of work in general are illustrated by an admiring reference to his father, reported to have died “with a hammer in his hand.” Faussone’s own view of the epic nature of his profession is proudly affirmed by the title of the book. He likens the emblematic wrench hanging from his side to the swords of the knights of yore. And beyond the medieval knights looms the figure of Ulysses once again. Faussone’s daring and ingenuity (invenzione) are made manifest in the context of veritable battles leading to “defeats and victories.”

The ultimate message conveyed by The Wrench is that love of work represents a privilege, that man’s relation to tools and machines is not alienating, but fulfilling, and even ennobling. It corresponds to Levi’s personal code of work ethics, confirmed by the link he establishes between his own vocation as a chemist and Faussone’s engineering destiny. “I am a chemist-rigger” (“Io sono un chimico montatore”), Levi writes at one point, an affirmation that harks back to his early belief in the nobility of science, defined in The Periodic Table as the mastering of the material world by understanding matter and vanquishing it. Such dominion over matter was for Levi in the first instance the way to create the self by taking charge of one’s destiny, thus becoming “faber sui.”

But there is more behind the figure of Faussone. The full Latin saying about “faber” and responsibility for one’s fate— “Homo faber suae quisque fortunae” (every man is the maker of his destiny)—is echoed in a revealing essay on chess players, who are described as subject to the severe law of not being allowed to change a move once it is made—a move that may lead to the death of their king, which is symbolically the player’s death as well, a death for which the player is fully responsible.

In the final analysis, the story of the engineer Fausonne turns out to be self-referential, not only because of the implicit parallel between Levi the chemist and the montatore of derricks. Levi could not avoid suggesting that, as a writer, he too was a rigger of sorts, painstakingly assembling words, sentences, and thoughts, always with the risk that they would shift and fall apart. He took pride in clear, effective writing, precise work aimed at communicating, and repeatedly warned that obscurity in literature is ultimately self-negating and self-destructive. But Levi was not naive. He suspected deep down that “clear writing” might be illusory, that, despite the craftman’s satisfaction and the exorcizing virtues of verbal communication, the act of narrating was always, in one way or another, a struggle against despair. Obscurity and the irrational forces were always looming, and so was the sense of the abyss and the existential void. In characteristically Pascalian terms that ring quite personal, Levi has his anthropologist in “Westward” affirm that there is no valid protection against the black forces, that we are all on death row (“condannati a morte”), ignorant of the day of our execution.

The Face of the Irrational

The memory of Auschwitz is the memory of madness. Inside this demented world situated beyond good and evil it made no sense to ask why. The lesson was quickly learned by every inmate. Years later, in an exchange of letters with a German who had been his supervisor at the IG Farben chemical plant at Auschwitz and had treated him almost as a human being, Levi was again tempted to ask: “Why Auschwitz? . . . Why gas children?” But he knew better. He knew that the question would be senseless. The irrational was simply overwhelming.

Yet, from the time Levi asked his father to buy him a microscope, his early dream had been to scrutinize the world around him, to make sense of apparent chaos, to study chemistry out of a “hunger to understand things.” The title of his most personal and arguably most original work, The Periodic Table, points to organizing principles and to a rational display of observable elements. In this work he elevates the quest of comprehension and knowledge to a heroic level (and by implication to a tragic one) by viewing the pursuit of chemical studies as an epic struggle. When he invokes the image of “killing the white whale,” he adds the injunction never to surrender to incomprehensible matter. In this context the use of the Italian adjective incomprensibile is not exactly a hopeful signal.

Levi’s fear of the irrational casts light on his science fiction. When these stories began appearing, not a few readers thought that Levi was indulging in escapist entertainment. But these stories, many of them collected in Storie naturali (1966) and Vizio di forma (1971), while utopian in nature, are essentially disturbing, associating destruction and self-destruction with science and specifically with chemical substance. At their core lies the paradox of the irrational use of reason, together with a warning. The geometric madness of the Nazi camps with their alignment of barracks is not at all forgotten. In one way or another Levi’s science fiction narratives—“Versamina,” “Knall,” and a number of other stories— deal with inventions that can kill. There was no escape from Auschwitz and from the deliberate, calculated death plans supervised by the SS. Levi claims to have hesitated about publishing Storie naturali. But he felt that there was a connection, a bridge (ponte), between Auschwitz and his science fiction: the Lager, he explained, was for him the most “threatening of monsters born from the dreams of reason.”

The irrational use of reason—or reason placed in the service of the irrational—was for Levi a source of deep anxiety. Not only could the Nazi nightmare be repeated (the lords of death were still alive, and the death trains were waiting), but modern science, unleashing nuclear forces, threatened to put an end to all human life. Levi’s fantascienza (the Italian word for science fiction) thus served to warn of monstrous, potentially genocidal transgressions. In an essay on coleoptera, Levi describes with a dose of black humor how, after a nuclear catastrophe, only the beetles will survive, inheriting the earth, and replacing human beings as masters of this world. With bitter reference to Kafka’s “atrocious hallucination” in his “The Metamorphosis,” Levi predicts that the new kings of the earth will parasitize and devour one another. But how, one could ask, will that be different from what humans are doing to one another now?

Nature as Selection

In the final chapter of his personal anthology, The Search for Roots, Levi states his pride in the human investigation of nature. Having read an article on black holes in Scientific American (December 1974), he marvels that in this immense and ultimately unknowable universe the human mind, this sole and infinitely small island of intelligence, is capable of conceiving a notion such as a region of space from which nothing can escape. Yet, far from providing reassurance, his pride in science only increases his perception of our essential solitude. “We are alone” (“siamo soli”) in a universe that was not made for us—a universe both hostile and violent. A bitter truth for one who chose to believe in the possibility of clear communication. Levi could never forget, especially after Auschwitz, that all of us are ultimately alone in the face of death.

Survival can be grim. The Spencerian and Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest comes up repeatedly in Levi’s writings, usually in association with a pitiless natural selection in the struggle for life. The word selection has a necessarily sinister ring for Levi. In the death camp it meant the ruthless decision to send to the gas chamber those found to be unfit (or no longer fit) for hard labor. The memory of those “selections” colored even the older memory of competitive school exams, such as the academic selections for the Institute of Chemistry in Turin, about which Levi years later uses the expression “survival” (“sopravivenza”) and “selezione naturale.”

A nature that imposes such a pitiless natural selection can be called only cruel and murderous. Levi speaks of the “cynical evolutionary design of nature,” of its gigantic bloody competitions, of its developing animals that are “splendid killing machines” that devour and are in turn devoured. Death is at the center of his view of nature. Not as in Milton, where it appeared as a result of the “mortal taste” of the forbidden fruit, but as a basic flaw in the overall design (“someone somewhere made a mistake”), a gross defect, a fundamental imperfection that Levi sums up in the telling title Vizio di forma (vizio meaning “flaw”)—a book in which he muses on collective suicide and instruments of death. To have faced the truth of the vizio in the grand design is to have gazed directly at the petrifying face of the Medusa.

Death and the Medusa

Levi pretends to have withstood the sight of the Medusa. In a poem carrying the dedicatory title “A Mario e Nuto,” he claims to have tolerated the view of thechthonic monster without being turned into stone. Yet minerals and death are associated in a quite personal way as of his earliest writings. Two so-called mineral stories (racconti minerali), later incorporated in The Periodic Table, can probably be considered his very first literary efforts, at a time when he was working as a young chemist in an asbestos mine. In these stories, “Lead” and “Mercury,” lead is declared to be “the metal of death,” associated with the mythological planet Tuisto, supposedly known as “the planet of the dead.” The second of these fantasy tales, “Mercury,” situated on a volcanic island named Island of Desolation, has at its center a weeping forest (“Foresta che piange”).

These fables are rooted in early fears and lasting pessimism. His lifelong spider phobia was, as we have seen, interpreted by Levi himself as the horror of “inexorable . . . Death.” But there is more to this horror. A sense of the sin of existing seems to underlie his recurrent sensation of an immense void. Meditations on a Pascalian “eternal silence” of the universe led him, but in a most un-Pascalian manner, to transfer to nature and to a nonexistent God the responsibility for the unfathomable presence of evil in this world. In a very curious text entitled “Lilith,” Levi tells a story he claims to have heard from a fellow inmate in Auschwitz—a somewhat perverse account of the creation of Lilith, a rebellious mate of Adam’s who left him and became a she-devil with whom God himself sinned, thus causing the world’s suffering and our exile. The parable, according to Levi, conveys the kind of incurable sadness that blossoms on the ruins of “lost civilizations.”

The Incomparable Loss

In If This Is a Man, Levi raises the specter of vanishing (and vanished) civilizations. The apocalyptic final chapter, “The Story of Ten Days,” makes this explicit, even though it also serves as the prelude to the survivors’ liberation in the limbo of the infi rmary abandoned by the Germans as the Soviet army approached: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us.” Paul Valéry’s observation that even civilizations are mortal was experienced in the flesh by those who, like Levi, had known the inhumanity of the camps. In later, more serene and reflective years, Levi repeatedly mourned the disappearance of cultures and of their languages. Meditating on the Warsaw ghetto, the Shoah, and the decimation of Eastern Jewry, Levi asserted that the loss of Yiddish culture was an “irreparable” one. In an article entitled “The Best Goods” (“La miglior merce”), he maintained that the linguistic tradition of the Ashkenazim was their most valuable possession and that the extinction of a strongly creative culture with its collective memory and traditions is always a major calamity (sciagura).

Levi’s cultural and political pessimism became especially acute in the 1970s, when he complained about the “political necrosis” of Italy and other countries. Ian Thomson quotes from private letters and conversations in which Levi gave vent to his political and cultural despondency. To a Yugoslav acquaintance he wrote in November 1974 that Italy was “cancerous and decrepit” and possibly already dead and decomposed. And over a meal in Turin he confided to a British colleague that he thought that the end of Western society was near. In his science fiction the inventor Signor Simpson conceives a machine, the Torec (Total Recorder), that produces artificial sensations and at the same time a sense of total emptiness, leading the inventor himself toward death. The Total Recorder becomes the emblem of humanity’s demise.

Ulysses versus Job

Could it be that my protesting undergraduates were right after all—at least partially? Another revealing text, “Un testamento” (collected in Lilit), would seem to support the view that, despite his proclaimed humanistic faith, Levi repeatedly questioned it and ultimately even seemed to deny it by taking his own life. With an ironic reference to Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), “Un testamento” proposes a formula that amounts to a bitter parody: “I suffer, therefore I am” (“sicuro di soff rire ed ergo di esistere”). Pain is the only reality, just as Levi discovered on returning home that the Lager was the only truth.

Leopardi’s disconsolate observation, in his essay on carefree birds, that happiness is not given to humans finds an uncanny echo in Levi’s fictional dialogue between the “Poet” and the “Physician,” in which the poet appears as the total nihilist refusing all illusions, convinced that pain governs everything and that the universe remains indifferent. Though aware that he is sick, the poet refuses all medications and throws the doctor’s prescription into the gutter.

The sickness may indeed be beyond remedy. The return to Ithaca (or Turin) will always be poisoned. Past horrors can be repeated. “It has happened, therefore it can happen again,” Levi asserted in The Drowned and the Saved. Two key figures, Job and Ulysses, tower from the outset in The Search for Roots. But Levi’s Job is neither patient nor steadfast in his faith in God. Rather, he is oppressed by the world’s injustice and assailed by the death wish—a suicidal Job. Levi’s Ulysses, on the other hand, seems to justify the surprising statement in his preface—surprising to Levi himself—that, after all, his camp experience counted for so little. His Ulysses combines resourcefulness and courage. Unlike his Job, his Ulysses stands for the will to live, the will to return to Ithaca and to a fully human existence. And it is surely no accident that Levi chose Dante’s canto about Ulysses, the survival artist, to teach Italian to his companion in Auschwitz. For there is no doubt that this chapter is an early testamento, confirmed years later in The Drowned and the Saved as he rereads his old chapter “The Canto of Ulysses”: a testament that establishes a link between allegiance to life and the suicidal impulse, affirming pride in human achievements as well as faith in culture as survival.


* " Primo Levi: The Flawed Design" Reprinted with permission from Musings on Morality by Victor Brombert. Published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2013 by Victor Brombert. All rights reserved.


Victor Brombert is the Henry Putnam University Professor Emeritus of Romance and Comparative Literatures at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830–1980, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and the wartime memoir Trains of Thought.


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