Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi ou la Tragédie d'un optimiste
16 Novembre 96 - CULTURE
Un monument funéraire
Primo Levi: 'Je suis devenu juif à Auschwitz'
Pourquoi un écrivain fondamentalement optimiste mettrait-il fin à ses jours? C'est aux réponses à cette interrogation que l'écrivain Myriam Anissimov, née en Suisse dans un camp de réfugiés, a consacré plusieurs années de recherches. Le résultat: une monumentale biographie - la première - de l'intellectuel italien Primo Levi dont l'oeuvre est souvent présentée comme un pont entre deux mondes: l'avant et l'après-Auschwitz.
PRIMO LEVI, qui s'est donné la mort le 11 avril 1987 à l'âge de soixante-huit ans, en se jetant dans la cage d'escalier de l'immeuble où il a toujours vécu, est issu d'une famille de la bourgeoisie juive de Turin (1). Bien assimilé dans la société italienne, ce chimiste de formation, dirigeant une filiale de Nestlé à Milan, considérait qu'être d'ascendance juive ne signifiait pas davantage, dans le climat de tolérance qui régnait avant Mussolini, qu''avoir le nez de travers ou des taches de son'. Certes, des signes avant-coureurs l'avaient révolté au cours de ses universités. Un certain obscurantisme imprégnait l'enseignement qui y était dispensé. Mais Primo Levi était persuadé que la science, par son 'discours objectif', pouvait mettre en échec les idées fascisantes.
Ce n'est qu'en 1938, après que Mussolini ait promulgué des lois raciales inspirées par celles de Nuremberg, que l'origine sémite de ce jeune chercheur profondément humaniste et rationaliste devient socialement visible. Beaucoup de ses amis sont exclus de la Fonction publique, le corps des professeurs est épuré. Des biens et des logements sont mis sous séquestre, tandis que de pseudo savants rassemblés par le Duce affirment, dans le 'Manifeste de la race', qu'il existe une 'race italienne' à laquelle les juifs n'appartiendraient pas. Son père, ingénieur, qui cultivait l'amour passionné des livres et des sciences, s'inscrit sans conviction et de très mauvaise grâce au parti fasciste au pouvoir. Le jeune Levi a bien du mal à trouver un physicien qui 'prenne le risque' de lui faire passer sa thèse de doctorat. Avec quelques amis, il établit alors des contacts avec des membres du mouvement Justice et Liberté. Son groupe est rapidement repéré et infiltré par des miliciens mussoliniens. Le 13 décembre 1943, quelques semaines après la chute du Duce, il est fait prisonnier et transféré dans un camp près de Modène. Lorsque les allemands prennent le commandement du camp en février 1944, tous les prisonniers sont déportés à Auschwitz.
Primo Levi écrit: 'Je suis devenu juif à Auschwitz. La conscience de ma différence m'a été imposée. Quelqu'un, sans aucune raison au monde, établit que je suis différent et inférieur. Par une naturelle réaction, je me suis senti dans ces années-là différent et supérieur. Dans ce sens, Auschwitz m'a donné quelque chose qui reste. En me faisant sentir juif, il m'a aidé à récupérer par la suite un patrimoine culturel que je ne possédais pas auparavant.' Interné à Auschwitz-III-Monowitz, au camp dit de la Buna constitué par un gigantesque complexe chimique construit à sept kilomètres du camp principal par la firme IG-Farben, il partage d'abord le sort des quinze mille déportés esclaves, dont beaucoup mourront d'épuisement. C'est à son admission dans un des laboratoires de la Buna, où l'on travaille à l'abri des rigueurs de l'hiver, qu'il doit sa survie. Au moment où les SS, sachant l'Armée rouge toute proche, évacuent le camp, Primo Levi, malade, est abandonné avec d'autres invalides. Hospitalisé à Auschwitz, il est ensuite interné par les Russes dans un camp de regroupement à Katovice, puis évacué en Russie. Cette période lui a inspiré, au début des années soixante, un récit intitulé 'la Trêve', puis un roman 'Maintenant ou jamais'. Son premier ouvrage, 'Si c'est un homme', est un réquisitoire (2): 'J'ai voulu écrire les choses les plus importantes, les plus pesantes, les plus grosses. Il me semble que le thème de l'indignation devait prévaloir.' Primo Levi a survécu pour témoigner de ce que l'homme a fait à d'autres hommes: 'Chacun lutte férocement pour sa vie, sa pauvre vie désespérée et animale, et cette dernière mérite à ses yeux qu'on doive lui sacrifier la vie de tous les autres. Cette mort morale, cette dérision de tout sens de la solidarité, cet oubli de la dignité humaine, sont beaucoup plus tristes que la mort physique.' (3). Le manuscrit de Primo Levi est refusé par tous les grands éditeurs italiens. Il restera confidentiel jusqu'en 1958.
Ce n'est que très tardivement que Primo Levi peut renoncer à la chimie pour se consacrer à la littérature. En 1978, 'la Clef à molette' raconte les aventures d'un ouvrier monteur de structures métalliques. L'auteur y fait l'éloge du travail manuel et, malgré de vives attaques, ce livre remporte le prix Strega, équivalent du Goncourt de l'autre côté des Alpes. Son autobiographie de chimiste, 'le Système périodique', sera vendue à 200.000 exemplaires aux Etats-Unis et traduite dans le monde entier. En 1986, Levi écrit 'les Naufragés et les Rescapés', qui est une méditation très sombre sur son expérience concentrationnaire. Sous l'empire du désespoir, il affirme que, 'dans les camps, les meilleurs sont morts et les pires ont survécu'. Ce qui est évidemment une contre-vérité. La montée du négationnisme l'écoeure. Il est persuadé que les générations futures oublieront, et même nieront, l'extermination des juifs par les nazis. C'est alors que la dépression l'envahit. Lui qui avait écrit: 'Le suicide est un acte philosophique. J'ai été proche de l'idée du suicide. Avant et après le camp. Jamais à l'intérieur du camp', se jette dans la cage d'escalier de son immeuble le premier jour de la Pâque juive. Il ne laisse aucun message d'adieu à sa famille. Primo Levi avait confié à son ami Ferdinando Camon qu''après Auschwitz, on ne peut imaginer un dieu tout-puissant et totalement bon' (4).
(1) Il fait partie de ces juifs italiens qui sont arrivés dans la Péninsule avec les légions romaines après la destruction du temple de Jérusalem. Leurs descendants ont combattu en grand nombre dans les guerres du Risorgimento qui ont abouti à l'unification de l'Italie. La plupart ont réussi une intégration totale à la société italienne, après leur émancipation par la maison de Savoie en 1848.
(2) L'ouvrage, publié et traduit en français en 1987, a fait l'objet dans le cadre de la collection Pavillon (Robert Laffont) d'une nouvelle édition augmentée de textes inédits en France.
(3) 'Primo Levi ou la tragédie d'un optimiste', par Myriam Anissimov. Editions Jean-Claude Lattès. Page 227.
(4) Idem, page 279. Myriam Anissimov
Polémica sobre o livro em The New York Review of Books aqui e aqui
Critica em Overlook Press
Crítica em Le Monde Diplomatique
The New Republic
THE END OF MERITOCRACY
A review of
Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist
by Myriam Anissimov, translated by Steve Cox
by Michael Andre Bernstein
Tonally, everything was there from the beginning. Although it took more than two decades after its publication in 1947 for his first book, Se Questo e un uomo, or If This Is a Man, to be widely recognized as one of the indispensable texts of our epoch, Primo Levi seems to have emerged from his eleven months in Auschwitz not just as a survivor, obsessed by the need to bear witness to what he had seen and endured, but as a writer, whose immediately recognizable voice, narrative inventiveness, and lucid severity give his work a singular authority. His was the true Dantean voice of the infernal world built by the Third Reich, and his refusal, even in that hell, to abdicate any of his innate curiosity, intelligence, or capacity for moral judgment, makes him one of the few exemplary figures in postwar European literature. His writing embodies perhaps the last great testament of the Enlightenment's trust in the adequacy of reason to comprehend the world and to shape a fitting place for us in it.
Auschwitz forced Levi to test those rational, humane certitudes against an annihilatory assault for which they had never been intended--an assault that aimed expressly at eradicating every trace of such assumptions in victim and perpetrator alike; and his best work is an endlessly revised meditation on both the fragility and the tenacity of the values he had brought with him into the camps. And yet Levi's canonization as the emblematic moral voice of the Holocaust survivor has usually come at the price of ignoring the sheer writerly virtuosity of his books, as well as the often breathtaking idiosyncracy of his narrative decisions and point of view.
Se Questo e un uomo (so misleadingly renamed, for marketing reasons, as Survival in Auschwitz) opens with what must surely be among the most unexpected sentences in any account of the death camps: "It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944." Levi goes on to explain that by February 1944, when he arrived in Auschwitz, "the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination"; but the almost throw-away irony of the phrase "my good fortune", "per mia fortuna", resonates well beyond its immediate context, and signals the complex perspective from which the story will be told.
"My good fortune": the lines indicate an awareness of crucial facts of which the prisoner was completely ignorant in February 1944, and which he could have learned only after his liberation. The opening thus sets up the double focus that will dominate the whole book and generate its basic structure--the constant shift between the point of view of the baffled prisoner, forced step-by-step to try to learn some indispensable survival tactics in a setting whose irrationality deliberately thwarts any kind of systematic and prudential acquisition of knowledge about its operation, and that of the author who somehow lived through the ordeal and is now, in the very act of writing, trying to comprehend and communicate his experiences, supplementing his limited information with whatever sources he can find.
Like a classical invocation, Levi's inaugural naming of his fortuna acknowledges the external power that helped him survive while also crystallizing one of the central motifs of his story. Repeatedly, Levi stresses how many separate and unforeseeable events had to combine for him to stay alive in Auschwitz. These strictly "accidental" occurrences range from his encounter with Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian civilian worker who for six months, at the risk of his own life, brought the starving captive enough food to keep him alive, to the scarlet fever that a short time earlier would have immediately doomed Levi to the gas chambers as unfit for further labor, but instead confined him to the infirmary when the Nazis abandoned the camp and took all the able-bodied prisoners with them on a forced march back to Germany, during which virtually every one of them was murdered.
Levi makes clear how much pure luck, as well as a gift for improvisation and a certain inner resilience of spirit and physical health, was necessary to have any chance of survival at all, though he also emphasizes that for millions of victims, none of these qualities was sufficient to save them from extermination: "If the drowned have no story, and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable." The motif of his "good luck" recurs throughout Survival in Auschwitz, so much so that it becomes a touchstone not just of Levi's situation as a prisoner, but also of the voice and the temperament he has carefully constructed to narrate his story.
Levi's resistance to the lethal extremism of Nazi ideology takes the form of refusing to pitch his own rhetoric at the level of the extreme. He rarely mentions his own physical suffering, and, wherever possible, he focuses the reader's attention on what he would later describe as "marginal moments of reprieve": episodes in which a prosaic emphasis on the smallest and least horrific details are part of a conscious determination to narrate his Auschwitz experiences in a language that was not utterly severed from his readers or from his own pre-war and post-war existence.
Thus, while Levi never lets us forget that the Nazi policy was to work to death those prisoners not immediately condemned to the gas chamber upon their arrival, he also includes in Survival in Auschwitz the story of how Resnyk, one of the stronger men in Levi's work group, against all camp practices accepted the much weaker Levi as his partner in the back-breaking task of carrying heavy loads through the snow and the mud, and also tried his best to support the greater part of the weight himself. Another chapter is even called, only in part ironically, "Una buona giornata," or "A Good Day," because "today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud," and because an extra ration of camp soup meant that for once the ravenous, desperate hunger of Auschwitz was temporarily stilled. Toward the end of the book, Levi explicitly draws all these separate incidents together into a single reflection constructed largely on the theme of fortuna:
It is lucky that [e fortuna che] it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate [fortunati], how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy.
Here, as so often in the book, a single sentence shifts so smoothly from the impersonal ("one has the impression") to the first-person plural ("stops us ... allows us") that it is easy to forget that we are reading only a single prisoner's subjective account. By its very syntax, however, Levi's individual response is endowed with a communal point of origin, as though it were transparently articulating the attitude of all his fellow prisoners. Grammatically, large parts of Survival in Auschwitz are written almost like an ethnographer's recording of the tale of a tribe of which he himself is a member. Without ever claiming any special gifts or illuminations for the narrator, Levi's language speaks not just in the first-person singular that is characteristic of "testimonial" writing, but also in the first-person plural voice of the prisoners as a distinctive group about whose shared experiences it is possible to generalize. Even when Levi begins a section by describing some purely personal thought or encounter, he quickly shifts to the first-person plural, to the communal point of regard, so as to include his fellow captives in the narrative.
It is rarely just Primo Levi, the survivor-narrator, who is shown struggling to absorb the brutal lessons of camp life. Even as it registers the successful effect of the Nazis' deliberate strategy of turning the prisoners against one another in a vicious and ultimately futile competition for a few extra crumbs of food or moments of respite, Levi's prose resists that atomization. It makes the very acquisition of knowledge about how to survive seem a collective experience:
We still have a great number of things to learn, but we have learnt many already.... We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap around our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad our jacket against the cold. We have learnt, on the other hand, that everything can be stolen, in fact is automatically stolen as soon as attention is relaxed; and to avoid this, we had to learn the art of sleeping with our head on a bundle made up of our jacket and containing all our belongings, from the bowl to the shoes.
Phrases such as, "we, too, know," "we already know," and "we had soon learned" introduce most of Levi's detailed descriptions of camp existence, with the result that the intimately personal voice of Survival in Auschwitz is dense with the experiences of all those who were there with him. The creation of a syntax sufficiently flexible to accommodate sentence-bysentence shifts, and even phrase-by-phrase shifts, in the grammatical and psychological subject of the action--from "I" to "we" and then to "one"--may be Levi's least recognized triumph, but it is the bedrock upon which his moral and intellectual clarity depend.
Thus it is not only we, the readers of Levi's book, who have come to regard him as the representative voice of the Auschwitz survivor. His own language already achieves such a role. Levi's syntax ensures that the book's moral judgments seem to issue from the collective voice and experience of the prisoners, thereby preserving his own modesty while at the same time endowing his conclusions with the force of all the victims in whose name they are uttered. Yet it is also a "we" that, almost uniquely in Holocaust writing, seeks ways to engage with and find links to the reader, rather than maintaining an unbridgeable gap between the survivor and the rest of humanity.
It was a central aim of Nazism to sunder forever any link between Jews and humankind as a whole. Levi believed that if readers could not recognize and imaginatively grasp any elements in the descriptions of camp survivors' experiences, then the Nazis had succeeded in excising the core of their victims' humanity. The care that Levi always took to make himself understood to his readers, his fastidious attention to clarity, his insistence upon the communicative and communal function of language even regarding the infernal world of a death camp, is proof, at the level of the word and the sentence, that the Nazis failed to dehumanize him.
Like other survivors, Levi insists that hunger, exhaustion, and thirst had an utterly different meaning in the camps than in the outside world:
Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man ... it is not possible to sink lower than this.... Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name.
But at the very moment that he stresses the radical incommensurability of what was perpetrated in Auschwitz, he searches for analogies that come from the common world that he and his readers know equally well, and to which everyone, camp survivor and ordinary human being alike, has an equal imaginative access:
Consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we would immediately find others to substitute for the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories. Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.
In these sentences, the "we" that had hitherto been the collective voice of the prisoners has seamlessly expanded to include the book's readers as well; and in this opening toward a prosaic normalcy, with its concomitant refusal to isolate the survivor's experience from the rest of humankind--and hence to promote it as uniquely instructive--Levi is at his most subtly polemical, all without ever rupturing the evenhanded fluency of the prose.
Jean Amery, whose account of his experiences in Auschwitz, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, is deeply at odds with Levi's account, crystallized his very different perspective in a memorable epigram: "No bridge led from death in Auschwitz to Death in Venice." But to Levi, maintaining some bridge, no matter how fragile, between Auschwitz and the world from which he had been brutally severed, was indispensable--not just as a post-war writer for whom connecting with his readers was a personal moral imperative, but even more so as a prisoner trying to preserve his identity in the camp. In response to Amery, Levi proposes a counter-epigram: "The aims of life are the best defense against death; and not only in the Lager."
With his prosaic comparisons to daily life, and with his numerous allusions to the realm of non-Jewish European high culture (for which he has been routinely chastised by the zealots of identity politics), Levi refused to regard Auschwitz as a uniquely authoritative testing-place of human beings, let alone of modern society, human nature, or the character of Western culture as a whole. He rejected what would become perhaps the most potent of the ways in which the Shoah has been absorbed into intellectual and cultural discourse. Since so much of our culture is still captivated by the revelatory power of the extraordinary, and since we believe that there is an essential truth about ourselves, our society, and our values that becomes manifest only in these extreme moments which "ordinary life" covers over, and since we have been encouraged to imagine that it is only at the "cutting edge" of the unthinkable that the most valuable insights lie hidden, the Shoah is now being taken as offering the most authentic image of the underlying reality of our world. But Survival in Auschwitz contests every one of those assumptions almost as strongly as it contests the Nazis' division of humans into inferior and superior races, with the paradoxical consequence that, all the literary prizes and public praise notwithstanding, Primo Levi's own standpoint, his determinedly prosaic perspective, has remained fundamentally unheeded.
Its tonal mastery notwithstanding, there was an extraordinary price to pay for the lucidity and the sanity of Survival in Auschwitz, and much of Levi's subsequent career can be understood in part as a reflection on his precarious and problematic first accomplishment. The fortuna under whose aegis he placed his survival is shockingly unconnected to any larger orders of providence or degrees of personal merit; and as he grew older, Levi became increasingly haunted by the randomness of his "good luck." The historian Martin Gilbert has described such reactions as the "tainted luck of survival"; and in his darker moments, Levi judged the fact that his survival was "unearned" as signifying that it was also fundamentally "undeserved."
From such a perspective, though, the strategy of making the narrator of Survival in Auschwitz representative of the prisoners as a collective body was bound to strike Levi as morally unjustifiable:
We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck [fortuna] did not touch bottom. Those who did so ... have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are ... the complete witnesses, the ones whose depositions would have a general significance.
Since the whole justification for the first-person plural voice that he created to narrate Survival in Auschwitz was its "general significance," for Levi to doubt its legitimacy was, in effect, to undermine the book's enabling assumption.
In his last and most anguished text, The Drowned and the Saved, which appeared in 1986, Levi depicts himself as tormented by a sense of shame at having survived when so many millions died. He wrestles with the unbearable conviction that it was the noblest among the prisoners who were murdered because they refused the compromises necessary to live: "the `saved' ... were not the best, those predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary ... the worst survived--that is, the fittest; the best all died."
As bleak and self-accusing as these words are, it is worth noting how closely they echo the judgment of many Zionist leaders in the first years after the liberation of the death camps. David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1949 that "among the survivors of the German concentration camps were those who, had they not been what they were--harsh, evil, and egotistical people--would not have survived, and all they endured rooted out every good part of their souls." And David Shaltiel, later an Israeli Army general and ambassador, traveled to Palestine with several survivors and reported that "I believe that those who remained alive lived because they were egotists and looked out for themselves first."
For such sentiments, there is no adequate alibi. They cannot be rationalized away by invoking their historical or ideological context. Psychologically, no doubt, these charges serve as a flight from the unbearable arbitrariness of survival, by moralizing the situation and positing a greater element of free choice than is warranted. Instead of fortuna, and incomprehensible cruelty, they insist on finding a morally comprehensible struggle. But it is precisely such men as Ben-Gurion and Shaltiel, national leaders who were directly charged with the care and the rehabilitation of the survivors, who should have done the most to resist such a heartless and tawdry rationalization. At bottom, there is no significant difference between this harsh secular judgement and the offensive certainty of those ultra-Orthodox Jews who believed that the Jews murdered in the camps had been punished because European Jewry had fallen away from God's laws.
It is even sadder to see Levi, who made the moral indifference of fortuna central to Survival in Auschwitz, begin to blame himself for the good outcome of his bad luck, and to assign agency and choice where, as no one knew better than he himself, there was none. Still, it was Levi's ability to keep his darker moods largely out of Survival in Auschwitz that was so astonishing. Indeed, no aspect of that work has been more often remarked on by its readers, including Levi himself. In 1976, in an appendix to an annotated edition of Survival in Auschwitz intended for use in Italian schools and not yet included in the English translations of the book, Levi describes his literary strategy as follows:
... in writing this book, I deliberately took on the calm and sober language of a witness, not the plaintive tone of a victim nor the outrage of an avenger: I thought that my words would be most believable and useful the more they appeared to be objective and the less they sounded fervent. Only in this way does a witness fulfill his function, which is to prepare the ground for the judges. The judges are all of you.
So much of the narrator's persona in Survivor in Auschwitz, is, like the tone of the book, a purposeful literary construct, intended to achieve a specific effect. Nothing better illustrates the deliberate tonal control in Levi's account than a comparison of Survival in Auschwitz with the report on the medical and sanitary conditions in Monowitz camp that he and a fellow survivor from Turin, Dr. Leonardo De Benedetti, initially drafted at the request of the Russian liberators and then expanded into a brief monograph which they published in 1946 in the medical journal Minerva Medica. The monograph constitutes Levi's first published text about Auschwitz, and it has finally been reprinted in Marco Belpoliti's splendid new two-volume edition of Levi's collected works. (The report is much blunter and more brutal in its account of Auschwitz than anything in Levi's book, although the two texts were written at almost the same time. Here, for example, is a typical passage from the report:
In the month of August 1944 the men assigned to the chemistry Kommando were involved in reorganizing a small store containing sacs of a substance with a phenol base. Right from the start, particles of this product mixed with sweat and stuck to the workers' faces and hands. Exposure to the sun at first induced a deep pigmentation of the areas exposed, accompanied by an intense burning. It caused a widespread peeling of the skin. Although the skin thus exposed to the infecting agent became particularly sensitive and painful, the work went on for twenty days with no protective measures taken. And although fifty men were affected by this painful dermatitis, not one of them was sent to the hospital.
The specific incidents described in the monograph are uniformly sordid and grim, and the narrative is utterly bereft of "moments of reprieve" or unexpected interventions of a life-saving fortuna.
Even in Survival in Auschwitz, though, Levi's strategic avoidance of either "the plaintive tone of a victim [or] the outrage of an avenger" could never be entirely successful. And yet those emotions, when they do surface, take a form at once so oblique to, and yet so disruptive of, the rest of the text that most readings--including Levi's own--have simply omitted it from their interpretations. Before the initial mention of Levi's "good fortune" with which the "Author's Preface" opens, the book itself begins with a brief poem that I want to quote in full, so as to make clear its radical disjuncture from the work that it introduces. (Inexplicably, the English translation prints the poem after the preface.)
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces;
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your houses fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
The poem is dated January 10, 1946. When he printed it independently, Levi gave it the title "Shema" after the name and the opening word ("Hear!") of the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, a confession of faith that must be recited every morning and evening and at the moment of impending death. Although the Hebrew prayer consists of three passages from the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:12-21; Numbers 15:37-41), Levi only paraphrases those verses from Deuteronomy 6 that announce the people's obligation to meditate on God's commandments and to transmit them to future generations. To these, he adds a condensed appropriation of the lengthy catalogue of curses in Deuteronomy 28 that specifies the punishments for any faltering in obedience:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees ... then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
The most startling aspect of Levi's "Shema" is how completely it severs the readers who are commanded to meditate on the atrocities committed at Auschwitz from the victims who suffered those horrors. In the poem, there is none of the bridge-building between survivor and reader that marks the rest of the book. Even more unsettling, the poem's palpable anger is scarcely directed against the Nazi perpetrators at all. It is aimed at the readers who never experienced the camps and who, therefore, might fall away from their obligation to keep Auschwitz in the forefront of their consciousness. Elsewhere Levi categorically rejects the extracting of an ultimate lesson from the death camps, but here he formulates such a lesson in the rhythms and the tones--in an appropriation that verges on blasphemy--of the Jewish people's fundamental faith. All the bitterness that was kept out of the prose sections is already fully crystallized in the verses that stand at the gateway of the book, like an admonitory reminder of what would henceforth stay unspoken.
"Shema" expresses a position that is very close to a criticism of the moral thrust and the narrative technique of the book that it precedes. And yet the poem is clearly foundational for the book, since it provides both the title and the central question of the whole work. Initially, Levi wanted to call the book after its central chapter, "I sommersi e i salvati" ("The Drowned and the Saved"), but he was persuaded by his editor, Franco Antonicelli, to use instead the crucial fifth line of the introductory poem: "Considerate se questo e un uomo" ("Consider if this is a man"). Almost exactly forty years later, Levi would return to his image of "the drowned and the saved" for the title of his final book. For the earlier text, though, Antonicelli's suggestion was an inspired one, since the work is structured less as a sequential memoir than as a series of testings--of "essays," in Montaigne's sense--of what constitutes a person's humanity and what are the minimum conditions required to sustain it.
Unlike the rest of the book, though, the poem only pretends to ask its readers to participate in the question posed by its title. Grammatically, the question is addressed to the poem's readers, but emotionally and rhetorically the text denies them the right to do anything except "meditate that this came about." The reader's task is purely to contemplate the suffering of those who "labored in the mud" and "died at a yes or a no." For the poem's readers actually to take up the question "if this is a man" is an impertinence; but for the readers of the narrative it is a genuine, if deeply painful puzzle which they are asked, like the survivors, to "consider."
There is an absolute disjunction between how the poem's syntax and grammar reaches out to its readers, and the hostility with which its moral and emotional tone views them. But this disjunction is eliminated entirely in the prose chapters of Survival in Auschwitz, whose limpidity is founded on a seamless accord among its narrative voice, syntax, and moral tone. The difference between the prefatory poem and the ensuing text is the clearest evidence we have of how scrupulously Levi shaped his narrative, and of how much effort it took to create the measured, skeptical, and tolerant voice that we regard as "naturally" his.
Primo Levi often said that he modeled his literary style on "the weekly report commonly used in factories," where linguistic transparency and analytic objectivity are paramount. Already in high school, he had been strongly drawn to science as an antidote to the empty grandiloquence that dominated the teaching of the humanities in Mussolini's Italy, and many of his science teachers were strongly anti-fascist. One of these, Nicola Dallaporta, accepted Levi as a graduate student even after the passage of the anti-Semitic decrees in 1938, and in 1941 Levi received his doctorate in chemistry summa cum laude, with a special note added to indicate that the recipient was "of the Jewish Race." In Auschwitz, Levi's technical knowledge made him a potentially valuable "specialist" to the Nazis, who transferred him from an outdoor work squad to the factory where they were trying--in vain, as it turned out--to produce artificial rubber for the war.
That assignment helped to save Levi's life, and he never forgot that he owed his survival in the death camp, as well as his successful professional career after the war as an expert on synthetic wire enamels for the Turin-based SIVA paint company, to his training in chemistry. Yet he also insisted that the skills that he had acquired in his scientific work were foundational for his literary work: "I write because I am a chemist: my old trade has been largely transfused into my new one." He defined the chemist's task as "the art of separating, weighing, and distinguishing," and he regarded these procedures as equally valuable "for the person who sets out to describe events or give body to his own imagination."
Still, Levi's self-description as primarily a scientist compelled by external circumstances to take up writing has been a little too uncritically accepted. For it blinds one to the sly mockery of the postwar Italian literary establishment implicit in Levi's emphasis on the utility of his scientific training. There is a striking parallel between Levi's praise of science as a kind of mental ascesis and Robert Musil's injunction that "anyone who is incapable of solving an integral equation, anyone who is unable to perform a laboratory experiment, should today be forbidden to discuss all spiritual matters." Not all the empty phrase-mongering and pomposity were due to fascism alone, nor was all of it purged when Il Duce fell.
The demand for ideologically "committed" writing suited Levi little better when it came from the left than when it had come from the right, and his resistance to the politically tendentious or facilely experimental movements championed by powerful critics and publishers made him completely marginal to the Italian literary world of the 1950s and '60s. His work as a chemist earned him widespread recognition among his peers long before his writing attained a similar stature. Indeed, between 1947 and 1958, when a new and augmented edition of Survival in Auschwitz finally appeared, Levi was entirely ignored as a writer, and for years afterwards, even when his books began to attract international praise, it was rare for Italian critics to treat him as anything more than a kind of gifted amateur.
Yet Levi's self-description encourages one to overlook how masterful a craftsman he is, and how rooted his most powerful effects are in a complete command of literary resources and techniques. Levi did not stumble into being a writer because he had been in Auschwitz. At the age of 28, with Se Questo e un uomo, he entered Italian literature like a man taking possession of his own home. Except in the monograph composed in 1946 with De Benedetti, Levi never wrote about Auschwitz strictly as a scientist. Instead he combined the analytic judiciousness of his ideal scientist with a steadiness of moral observation and judgment that he explicitly associates with a particular constellation of classical authors. He invokes Dante and Manzoni often and centrally throughout his writings. This was not only because they embody the values that he drew on to preserve his humanity in the camp. For all his modesty, both genuine and strategical, Levi was in the process of creating a body of work that established him truly as their modern heir.
The remarkable thing is that no aspect of Levi's work has been less carefully studied than the specifically writerly qualities that enable the articulation of his vision and his voice. Formal analyses of Levi's writings are far outnumbered by thematic and biographical treatments. A part of the reluctance to think formally about Levi's writing arises, I suspect, because in the face of so urgent and grievous a subject as the Shoah there is a general freezing up of literary and intellectual discriminations, as though in such a context the very act of evaluation and analysis were somehow indecent. But Levi himself argued fiercely that these representations of extreme evil require more, not less, clarity, and demand an affirmation, not an abdication, of the ability to uncover fundamental distinctions.
Since Levi's writings draw so heavily on the events of his life and explore their implications with such acuity, he presents a formidable challenge to any literarily naive biographer. The temptation simply to paraphrase his works, and then to supplement the resulting synopses with a more-or-less thoughtfully assembled patchwork of pertinent historical and social information designed to serve as "context," can be especially hard to resist for a biographer who is reluctant to probe the differences between the man and the literary voice that he created to tell his story. Myriam Anissimov's biography, translated and lightly corrected from the original French version that appeared in 1996, is the first full-scale biography available; and it has been justly criticized for its lackluster qualities.
The criticisms have focused mostly on Anissimov's weakness as a historian, on her occasional errors of fact, and on the thinness of her discussion of fascism and postwar Italy, rather than on the blandness of her readings of Levi's texts. Yet the information that Anissimov has assembled, if not always what she does with it, is considerably more useful than some of her harshest critics would grant. Particularly valuable, I think, are the sometimes unexpected responses that her interviews elicited from several other Auschwitz survivors on whom Levi based some of the main characters in his books. One of these, Paul Steinberg, the "Henri" of Survival in Auschwitz, reacts to Levi's critical description of him with one of the most convincing criticisms of Levi's unyielding rectitude that I have encountered:
No doubt he saw straight. I probably was that creature obsessed with survival.... To a neutral observer of my image as he saw it, I was certainly like that, fiercely determined to do all I could to live, prepared to use what means I had available, including the gift of rousing other people's sympathy.... I will never know whether I am entitled to ask for clemency from the jury. Is it so wrong to survive?
"Is it so wrong to survive?" When thinking about Levi's own last months, it is hard not to wish that he could have heard Steinberg's question as addressed to him. Anissimov quotes responses such as Steinberg's, but she never analyzes their implications, and finally the biography's limitations arise less from its inadequacy as social or political history than from a kind of respectful dutifulness that assumes--as Levi himself never assumed--that his story can more or less tell itself. Neither the formal inventiveness of Levi's writing, nor its relationship to the literary and philosophical traditions that it invokes and challenges, seems to engage Anissimov's curiosity, and her reluctance to ask any but the most ready-to-hand questions of either the man's life or work ends up glossing over much of the complexity and the strangeness of both.
Outside of his own books and the numerous interviews that he gave during the last twenty-five years of his life, perhaps the most suggestive account of Levi's career is the detailed year-by-year chronology that appears in the first volume of Belpoliti's Einaudi edition. Much of the information gathered there confirms how different Levi's life was, not only from the great majority of death-camp survivors but also from most of the century's principal literary figures. Consider, for example, the very first sentence of the chronology: "1919: Primo Levi was born in Torino on July 31 in the house where he would reside the rest of his life." In its own way, this is nearly as unexpected an introduction to a twentieth-century European Jewish writer as Levi's invocation of his fortuna at the opening of Survival in Auschwitz.
Along with his wife Lucia and their children--both of them named in tribute to Lorenzo Perrone: Lisa Lorenza, born 1948, and Renzo, born in 1957--Levi set up household in the same apartment in which he had been born, and they shared it with his endlessly demanding invalid mother, who would outlive him. Lucia's mother, who was four years older than Levi's, lived only a few streets away, and when Renzo moved out of his parents' home, it was into another flat in the same building. Levi was the only member of his immediate circle to be deported by the Nazis; and when he finally made his way back to Turin after the Odyssean wanderings through much of eastern Europe and Byelorussia that he chronicled so vividly in The Reawakening (1963), he found his home intact, and the family and social structure in which he had grown up remarkably unchanged.
The Levis benefitted, of course, from the relatively higher rate of survival of Italian Jewry compared to other European countries under Nazi rule. Still, 245 Jews were deported from Turin alone, and 224 of them were murdered. Levi himself tells us that of the 649 Jews who were shipped to Auschwitz with him on February 22, 1944, only 23 came home alive. So his survival was, exactly as he described it in The Drowned and the Saved, "anomalous." Almost everything about Levi's life, though, turns out to have been anomalous, beginning with his self-representation as a kind of moderate everyman.
He was anomalous both for the fact of surviving Auschwitz and for the kind of survivor that he was. He entered Auschwitz with a deep commitment to experimental reason and analytic scrupulousness, and the central, shocking anomaly of his entire existence is that he saw no reason to abandon that way of being and thinking, in the death camp or in his subsequent accounts of what he had witnessed there. If Auschwitz was, to him, "pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment," then he treated his language itself as part of that appalling experiment, deliberately testing whether and to what extent a secular, humanistic, and, in the strictest sense, decorous vocabulary could endure under those conditions. That so much of his cast of mind and language not only survived Auschwitz, but was indispensable to his physical and moral survival there, was paradoxical enough; but still more so was how it continued to provide him with the resources for a whole series of major literary works.
The great paradox of Levi's style--its utter literary mastery of conditions of utter helplessness and degradation--was so idiosyncratic an achievement that for decades it scarcely found a readership at all. But the triumph of that clear, poised voice is also why his self-annihilation--a term I prefer to suicide, because it recognizes some of the ambiguities of his final act on April 11, 1987--can feel so demoralizing, since it seems to contradict the successful results of his lifelong "experiment."
Precisely what happened that day will probably always remain a mystery. Diego Gambetta's recent hypothesis that Levi suffered a momentary dizzy spell, induced in part by the anti-depressants that he was taking, is certainly plausible. Even if Levi's fall was indeed an accident, however, it still raises the specter of a fortuna re-entering his existence: the malignant counterpoise to the beneficent one that kept him alive in Auschwitz. Whether or not he finally ended his own life from too huge a burden of dreams, it still seems to me factually impossible, as well as spiritually presumptuous, to attempt to isolate and to rank the different griefs that made him choose death that particular day. There was, in any case, less and less separation for Levi between the fears from his past that erupted when he was asleep and the bleakness of his waking hours. Both were growing intolerable. He was in despair over what he perceived as the public attention paid to Holocaust deniers, and a growing indifference to the Shoah among the young, and the anxiety about the reemergence of right-wing movements in Europe; and there were also his actual nightmares from his days at Auschwitz; and all this coincided with a more quotidian unhappiness about his increasing difficulty in writing, as well as a serious depression following a prostate operation in March, 1987. To regard only the Shoah despair as "worthy" of Levi, and post-operative depression as "unworthy" of him, goes against the whole prosaic spirit that animated his writing; and the view of his death as a negation of everything that he articulated in his books also goes against it.
Anyway, the narrator and the man were never simply identical, and it makes no more sense to collapse them into one at the end of his career than at the beginning. Levi himself repeatedly stressed that the characteristic tone of his books was a literary construct that exists in its pure form only on the page. In one of his late letters, he tried to clarify the crucial difference:
In my books I have sometimes presented myself as brave or as faint-hearted, and sometimes as thoughtful or naive, but always as a stable person, which I'm really not. I've been through long phases of instability ... and that is something I've never written about ... I'm considered as a sort of guru. Perhaps there is a wisdom in my books, which I don't think I have.
Indeed, the literary texts themselves are far from imperturbable. The rage and the despair that erupt in many of the poems and the angry polemics of The Drowned and the Saved are as much a part of Levi's work as his more dispassionate and analytical passages. There is a palpable despair evident throughout The Drowned and the Saved, manifest in recurring questions such as this: "Have we--we who have returned--been able to understand and make others understand our experience?" There is also the severity of his verdict against those who would try to relativize his injury, the scorn that he felt for the facile psychologizing of the relationship between victim and oppressor:
I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed ... and still exist ... and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.
In Levi's work, this is a new intensity.
And yet the bitterness does not purge or cleanse him. Instead, it compels Levi to admit that the suffering that he endured is ineradicable and isolating:
The ocean of pain, past and present, surrounded us, and its level rose from year to year until it almost submerged us. It was useless to close one's eyes or turn one's back to it. Because it was all around, in every direction, all the way to the horizon.... The just among us, neither more nor less numerous than in any other human group, felt remorse, shame, and pain for the misdeeds that others and not they had committed, and in which they felt involved, because they sensed that what had happened around them and in their presence, and in them, was irrevocable. Never again could it be cleansed.
Levi's mordant equanimity was always fragile. The fact that he could not sustain it indefinitely only makes its accomplishment over so many decades more extraordinary. The loss of faith that there was a readership for what he had to say kept Levi from writing for nearly eleven years after the completion of Survival in Auschwitz. Yet when he did rediscover himself as a writer, what stands out is the sovereign self-assurance of his language. Even in a book such as The Drowned and the Saved, whose subject-matter includes a harsh scrutiny of his right to speak for other victims of the Shoah, it is remarkable how little he allowed his uncertainty and his self-doubt to deflect the clarity of his prose.
In The Drowned and the Saved, sentences often begin with phrases such as, "it is naive, absurd, and historically false," as though the more Levi struggled against his own despair at the growing trivialization of the Nazi genocide, the more his prose, in a kind of compensatory balancing gesture, asserts its right to render judgment with unwavering confidence. The first chapter, for example, opens with the kind of categorical assertion more often found in an essay by one of the great Encyclopedists or in a novel by Stendhal than in a meditation on the Nazi genocide: "Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument." Such formulations arise out of--and impart to the reader--a bedrock confidence in the capacity of language to speak lucidly and decisively about even the most wrenching material.
The result, in The Drowned and the Saved, seems to me something quite singular in contemporary writing: an optimism of syntax in the service of a deeply pessimistic reflection. It is a richer and more complicated amalgam than Levi had attained before, and it brings him, at the end of his career, very close to the classical style of writers such as Virgil and Leopardi. Charles Conreau, who was with Levi in the last days before the liberation of the camp, and who is one of the main characters in the concluding chapter of Survival in Auschwitz, described Primo Levi as "a marvelous weigher of souls." He was also, unmistakably, a marvelous weigher of words.
Michael Andre Bernstein's new book, Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing, will be published by Northwestern University Press next spring.
(Copyright 1999, The New Republic)
A biography of the Italian chemist who survived Auschwitz to bear witness to the Holocaust.
By VICTOR BROMBERT
The voice of Primo Levi (1919-87) is perhaps the most moving to have come out of the hell of the Nazi death camps. Its special resonance has much to do with tragic paradoxes at the core of his work. Levi wanted to speak for those who did not survive, yet he questioned his trustworthiness as a witness. He saw it as a sacred duty to tell the story of those who had reached the bottom of abjection, but considered himself unworthy, even guilty, because he came out alive. He felt compelled to denounce the horrors perpetrated, but preferred to understand rather than judge. At Auschwitz he had stared into the face of irrational cruelty, but he did not give up his optimistic faith in rationality. After the lager, or camp, there was no way for him to believe in divine providence. Yet the same man who referred to the stories that emerged from the camps as a ''new Bible'' ended up committing suicide.
When Myriam Anissimov's biography of him appeared in France in 1996, it was hailed as an important event. It was the first full-length account of the salient episodes of Levi's life: his growing awareness of the personal threat of Fascism, his capture by the Fascist militia in a Resistance hideout in the Alps, his deportation to Auschwitz, his liberation a year later by Soviet troops, the railway odyssey of his return to his native Turin, his work as a chemist and then as the manager of a chemical factory, his gradual emergence as a major writer and intellectual figure. Anissimov's book, now appearing in a shortened English translation, provides a serious, lively, at times fervently told story that is always sympathetic to Levi's shy personality and restrained tone.
Anissimov is at her best evoking Levi's gentleness, his somewhat puritanical and introverted reserve, his compulsion to talk about what he saw and suffered in the camp. She deals perceptively with his rude awakening to anti-Semitism in the late years of Mussolini's rule, when the unexpected racial laws of 1938 stunned not only Italian Jews (some of whom had been loyal Fascists since the early days of the regime) but most other Italians as well. Levi belonged to a thoroughly assimilated, well-to-do Piedmontese Jewish family. Like most of his friends, he attended the liceo classico, and then obtained a doctorate in chemistry. (This later saved him from the gas chambers at Auschwitz when he was put to work as a specialized slave laborer in a laboratory.) His cultural references were Dante and Manzoni, even Melville and Conrad, rather than Jewish lore, with which he was altogether unfamiliar. Auschwitz, with Yiddish as the dominant language, was for him a culture shock.
Levi's background helps explain why, at one of the high moments in ''Survival in Auschwitz'' (the correct title is ''If This Is a Man''), he refers at length to the 26th canto of Dante's ''Inferno,'' dealing with the figure of Ulysses, and describes his own victorious struggle to reconstitute in his mind half-forgotten lines of poetry. Some readers might have wondered why a Jewish victim of the Shoah should have turned to a medieval Christian poem when bearing witness to a collective atrocity that could not possibly be justified in theological or poetic terms. But for Levi the recourse to Dante's poem in order to teach Italian to a French-speaking Alsatian fellow inmate in a German extermination camp deep inside Polish territory became a symbol of universality and of the possible survival of meaning.
Levi's reputation is largely based on his account of the monstrous Nazi machine for reducing human beings to beasts before dispatching them to the gas chambers. The lager is described as a geometric nightmare filled with the cries of hunger and pain in all the languages of Europe. With a sobriety made more sharply painful by occasional humor, Levi depicts the unspeakable: the deportation of entire families in sealed wagons, the beatings, the gruesome work, the cold and filth, the merciless struggle for survival, the ''selections'' for extermination. But Levi's most original contribution, later elaborated in ''The Drowned and the Saved,'' is the analysis of what he called the ''gray zone,'' the contaminating conditions under which victims are tempted into becoming accomplices in the atrocities committed against them.
The existence of such a gray zone is corrosive of moral values and moral choices. To be a victim does not exclude guilt. Levi deals lucidly with a particularly dehumanizing reality of the camps, where the SS structured a hierarchy of violence that delegated to selected prisoners, known as Kapos, arbitrary and often homicidal power over others. At the lowest rung of this hierarchy of degradation were the Sonderkommando squads of Jews forced to stoke the crematoriums with the gassed Jewish victims.
It has been suggested that Levi's love of science and his training as a chemist explain his disposition to observe, describe and analyze under the most appalling circumstances. His faith in rational understanding led him to view the lager experience, in his own terms, as a ''gigantic biological and social experiment.'' He detected fundamental truths about human nature in the social structures of the camp, claiming that this ''cruel laboratory'' was a ''ferocious sociological observatory.'' He concluded, hoping not to be misunderstood, that for him and others the lager, the camp, ''had been a university.'' Rather than indulge in self-pity, Levi preferred to exercise, perhaps as a form of self-preservation, an anthropologist's curiosity. Throughout his life, he retained his faith in the clarity of thinking, his reverence for language and communication. His love of philology went along with a durable distaste for obscure writing. In ''Other People's Trades'' he denounced the cult of the ineffable and of hermetic literature as a form of suicide.
It is not easy to write a biography of an author whose books are largely autobiographical. Paraphrase is a constant danger. But Anissimov has done conscientious research and provides valuable background on the Jewish community in Turin, the details of camp brutalities (about which Levi is himself often reticent), the involvement of the industrial empire I. G. Farben in the exploitation of cheap slave labor in the camps, the slow recognition in Italy of Levi's literary accomplishments. She makes sound use of interviews and newspaper accounts. And she can be moving, as when she recounts the last night 650 Jews spent in the Italian transit camp in Fossoli di Carpi before they were deported by the Germans.
This important book is not always served well by Steve Cox's translation. Rendering into English a study written in French about an author who wrote in Italian poses certain problems. It does not help that the English version makes cuts, and often reshuffles the materials in an obvious effort to shorten the original at the risk of producing discontinuities. Even more damaging are the liberties taken with the text by sometimes adding parts of sentences to what the author said, or by making her say what she did not say.
Levi's range is wider than is generally known. He wrote some poetry -- not technically ambitious, but expressive in a dark mood of the recurrent anguish and anger of the survivor. In addition to the two books devoted to the death camp experience and to the colorful narrative of his homeward journey through Eastern Europe in ''The Reawakening'' (better translated as ''The Truce''), he has written short stories (''Moments of Reprieve''), cautionary tales in the form of science fiction (''The Sixth Day and Other Tales''), two significant novels (''If Not Now, When?'' -- a colorful story of Jewish guerrilla fighters in the forests of Belarus -- and ''The Wrench,'' about the epic technological adventures of an expert rigger), as well as an unclassifiable masterpiece, ''The Periodic Table,'' which blends autobiographical elements with a humorous essayistic fantasy.
Levi led an essentially sedentary existence. Auschwitz had been the one adventure of his life. After his return to Turin, he continued to live in the apartment where he was born, and he died in the same building. He remained attached to his Piedmontese roots and his Italian heritage. Like most Italian Jews, he continued to feel at home among his countrymen, the vast majority of whom were not anti-Semitic and who, even in the darkest moments of the war, had shown much humaneness. But he had learned to be critical, retrospectively, of political blindness. He deplored the lethargy of his generation, which had viewed Fascism with distaste and ineffectual irony without actively opposing it. Auschwitz taught him a political lesson. It also taught him a great deal about the broader community of Jews, especially the almost eradicated Ashkenazi culture of Eastern Europe, which he came to admire. Before writing ''If Not Now, When?'' he set out to learn Yiddish.
His eagerness to listen and understand has appeared to some as a limitation. His generally optimistic stance, it is true, does not seem to come to grips with the irrational. But his hope that problems can be solved by good will and reason also explains his deep frustration, even despair, as he began to realize that the younger generation no longer wanted to listen to him. His depression over revisionist denials and the impossibility of a meaningful dialogue with the young may be related to his suicidal impulse, though Anissimov is ever so delicate about suggesting any clear causal relation.
message of Levi goes beyond the honesty, dignity and self-respect of his
testimony. It demonstrates humanistic pride in the power of words and in the
human struggle against matter. It speaks of the essential fragility of human
institutions and of tragedy when they are allowed to collapse. For without
civilized institutions, human nature is naked and raw. In that sense, Levi was
hardly a naive optimist. And we might do well to ponder the warning given in his
last book, ''The Drowned and the Saved,'' of how stripped we are when we allow
the ideology of death to take over: ''Reason, art and poetry are no help in
deciphering a place from which they have been banished.''
Victor Brombert teaches romance and comparative literatures at Princeton University. His new book, ''In Praise of Antiheroes,'' will be published this spring.