• April 20, 2014

Here There Is a Why: Primo Levi, Humanist

Here There Is a Why: Primo Levi, Humanist 1

Rene Burri, Magnum Photos

Primo Levi at his home in Turin, 1985

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close Here There Is a Why: Primo Levi, Humanist 1

Rene Burri, Magnum Photos

Primo Levi at his home in Turin, 1985

Writers closely identified with the Holocaust rarely escape their literary cells. Elie Wiesel has written 57 books—try naming a few of them besides Night. When Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish novelist and Auschwitz survivor, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, the Swedish Academy understandably cited his "writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history," even as Kertész, the first Hungarian to win the prize, expressed hope that it might more generally shine light on the "ignored literature of Hungary."

And then there is Primo Levi. When he plunged to his death down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building on the morning of April 11, 1987, only minutes after answering the doorbell of his third-floor apartment and thanking the concierge for his morning mail, a single question—"Did he commit suicide?"—threatened to turn Levi's entire life and work into a simplistic verdict on the possibility of a Holocaust survivor's transcending demons of the past.

One triumph of scholarship, however, is that it can ride the force of established reputation like a wave, and take us into new dimensions of a writer or subject. At first glance, Answering Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Science and Humanism After the Fall, a new collection of essays edited by Stanislao G. Pugliese (Fordham University Press, 2011), looks to be more of the same—another deserved monument to 20th-century literature's most disciplined witness to the Holocaust, that flinty, unsentimental voice like no other. But Pugliese, a professor of modern European history and Italian studies at Hofstra University, offers us a fuller portrait.

Levi, he reminds us, undertook "a political stance of consistent, fervent, and ongoing antifascism" throughout his career, and not just against the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. "Every age has its own fascism," Levi wrote in a 1974 essay that Pugliese aptly quotes, "and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many."

That fits Syria fairly well. Libya, too. And how about China and Russia? A few years ago, much battling took place in the intellectual world over the idea of "Islamofascism," and whether tossing that term around made any sense except as a kind of cultural hate-speech. Let's be more modest here. How about sticking to good old-fashioned fascism, secular style, and recognizing that writers such as Levi, who confronted it head-on in the Holocaust, can be among our best guides to it in contexts we don't normally associate with them?

As Pugliese puts it, "Fascism begins by denying the fundamental freedom and equality of human beings." Levi rightly saw that "science and humanism were our only hope against a recurrence of madness." For Pugliese, whose scholarship on Italian political culture includes a fine biography of novelist Ignazio Silone, it meant a political system "that sought to strip away the private sphere from the individual and turn it over to the state. On another front, it inflated language to its own ends so that rabid nationalism and distorted history become the common tongue of empire."

In Pugliese's own essay, and in several by his contributing writers, we see "why Levi did not want to be known as a 'Holocaust writer'; he aspired to the simple title of 'writer' without any adjective." Levi knew fascist ideology threatened human beings in many cultures, in many eras. Joseph Farrell, professor emeritus of Italian studies at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, helps to make that point here in "The Humanity and Humanism of Primo Levi," pointing out that a constant refrain in Levi's work is pinpointing the Nazi program of "demolishing the human," of brutalizing enemies in a manner we see copied today by despots from the Congo to Libya.

Viewing Levi in the broad perspective this book encourages—other strong essays include Johan Ahr's "Primo Levi and the Concept of History" and Risa Sodi's "Primo Levi in the Public Interest: Turin, Auschwitz, Israel"—helps one to grasp how a "Holocaust writer" can serve as tribune against fascism writ large. Ahr properly stresses that Levi rejected overarching historical theories, preferring "wary induction over bold deduction." Levi founded his philosophy of life, Ahr writes, "on mistrust of any scheme in which individuals lose the positions and functions they make for themselves." Sodi, in turn, reports how Levi, from 1959 on, took on the duties expected of a consummate Italian intellectual, "writing op-ed pieces and newspaper columns, giving press interviews and public lectures," and not just about the Holocaust.

He performed those tasks with the gift for telling detail that marked all his work. Many know the anecdote from Survival in Auschwitz, Levi's famous memoir of Auschwitz that was published in English as If This Is a Man. Levi, a young prisoner in Auschwitz suffering from thirst, noticed an icicle through his cell window and sought to grab it. A Nazi guard knocked it out of his hand. "Warum?" ("Why?"), asked Levi. "Hier ist kein warum" ("Here there is no why"), answered the guard in a phrase that became symbolic of the Holocaust's careening away from rationality itself.

Levi's whole life and writing career developed into an effort to restore that why—to keep reason and humanism alive, to serve as the voice of rational coping with the Holocaust, whatever the conclusions of those who think he took his own life. Others, including this writer, believe that Levi suffered a dizzy spell or neurological incident that terrible morning in April 1987, possibly as a result of medication, and that his death was an accident. Could this sober, restrained, fastidious, and intensely thoughtful man, always concerned with the dignity of himself and others, have imposed such a gruesome scene on his family members, several of whom lived in the building? No one will ever be sure what happened—there's evidence on both sides—but I think not.

It is worth remembering, nonetheless, the ugliness of Levi's wartime experience, which compounded his later depression over his failing health and the burden of caring for his mother and mother-in-law, both nonagenarians who lived with him and his wife. Arrested in 1943 in the mountains of Italy with a ragtag bunch of partisans, Levi was 23 when he arrived at Auschwitz in a cattle car from Fossoli di Carpi. Only 24 of 650 prisoners on that train survived Auschwitz. How did Levi make it through his 10 months? Among the explanations: his ability as a chemist (he ate raw glycerin and made fritters from sanitary cotton), the kindness of a doomed fellow deportee, the happenstance of contracting pleurisy that spared him from the notorious death march of prisoners away from Auschwitz as the Soviet army advanced on it.

And what sort of character did Auschwitz forge in Levi? Years later he could display enormous grace, an unwillingness to apportion blame unfairly. In his years as a factory manager, he would wear short-sleeve shirts on his visits to Germany, so the "174517" on his arm could be clearly seen. But later he would write to Heinz Riedt, the German translator who took on Se questo e un uomo (If This Is a Man), "I have never nurtured any hatred for the German people, and if I had, I would be cured of it now, having known you."

What defined him as writer and man was the determination to stay strong, to bear witness, to insist on clear moral distinctions, to reject suicide, to insist on the dignity of man. He wrote of Auschwitz: "My time there did not destroy me physically or morally, as was the case with other people. I did not lose my family, my country, or my home." Indeed, after Levi returned to his family apartment, in Turin, following the nine-month journey that he recounted in The Truce, he lived peacefully as a chemical engineer, factory manager, and honored writer the rest of his life. In The Drowned and the Saved, his final collection of essays on Holocaust themes, Levi reiterated the point: "Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again."

Part of that purpose was to distinguish evil from non-evil. In a passage of The Drowned and the Saved, in the very chapter—"The Gray Zone"—that became a locus classicus of Levi's realism about behavior in Auschwitz, he nonetheless drew a sharp line: "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, not only in Germany, and still exist, retired or on active duty, 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."

Thanks to such clarity, he evolved into the noble, dignified witness to the fate of innocents under fascism, the careful reporter with the steel-trap intellect, whose lean prose distilled his life and beliefs as efficiently as any chemical apparatus. Resolutely rational, Levi exemplified on the page the indomitability of the human over the bestial. His equanimity in the face of evil, his sober indignation without any will to sermonize, his retention of a visceral moral optimism, inspired readers as much as it edified them.

In The Periodic Table, his 21 "tales of militant chemistry," he recalled his Baconian love of science as the conqueror of nature. Once fascism violently interfered with his scientific goals, Levi came to understand that no element mattered as much to him as the human. How, though, did one apply a chemist's mentality to this substance so different from raw matter?

Levi solved the problem by absorbing the great chemist Lavoisier's point that physical elements are simply "substances we have not yet been able to decompose." In the stunning climax of If This Is a Man, Levi painfully depicted the final decomposition of human character in Auschwitz—of prisoners waiting for others to die so they could steal their crumbs of bread. It made Levi all the more committed later in life to the idea that our humanity, at best a fragile compound, must be defended at all costs.

One imagines that Levi, if he were still with us, would join the vast majorities who, polls indicate, view the killing of Osama bin Laden as just retribution, and the brutality of Bashar Al-Assad and Muammar el-Qaddafi as the fascistic mayhem it is. When the so-called Historikerstreit erupted in Germany in 1986—the debate stirred by Ernst Nolte and "new revisionist" historians who questioned the uniqueness of Nazi crimes—Levi made plain, in The Drowned and the Saved and elsewhere, that he did not "forgive" the Nazis, as fellow Holocaust survivor Jean Améry once charged. Levi had, according to his biographer Carole Angier, "been glad to see the most responsible punished at Nuremberg, at Frankfurt, in Jerusalem."

Because Primo Levi was not just a Holocaust survivor or "great Holocaust author." He was a humanist who insisted on justice—one whose incisive voice against those who murder the innocent still speaks to all lands, and all cultures.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.

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