Primo Levi, vita e opere

Primo Levi anthropologist of normality
I would like to start by sharing a memory. I first met Primo Levi in February 1963, a month before the release of his book The Truce. I had just walked into the press office at Giulio Einaudi publishing house. I had not yet read If This Is a Man, which at first had been turned down by Einaudi in 1946, but was released in 1958 in a new edition with 30 additional pages. I knew absolutely nothing about Levi, but the first three pages were enough proof even to a beginner that he was reading a masterpiece.

We became friends, in the way many Torinese are friends: with discretion, reserve; doing together the things that needed to be done without too much talking. I tried to convey to the reviewers our enthusiasm every time another one of his books was published. But really, Primo’s books could have found their way without my help. More than the reviews, what mattered were the readers, their word of mouth.

We would usually run into each other at the publishing house. Only once did my wife and I succeed in having him over for dinner, as he did not want to leave his elderly mother alone: she lived in his house, and had been bedridden for several years. On that occasion he brought a stuffed animal as a gift to our daughter. It was a guinea pig, he explained, when I couldn’t name the fluffy brown-and-white toy. We were moved (but not surprised) by the fact that instead of choosing a typical teddy bear or bunny, Primo had gone to the trouble of looking for this unusual animal. The guinea pig, though, was not meant as a symbolic self-representation. Primo was not a self-promoter, like his friend and fellow writer Italo Calvino (and like Calvino’s fictional Baron, who looks at the world from the tall branches of a tree). Primo always preferred a background position and tried to hide his traces, presenting himself as a dilettante writer—a chemist who writes in his spare time.

He feared the aggressiveness of the literary world; he was afraid of being considered an outsider because he ran a factory that made insulating paints. That is why for many years he presented If This Is a Man as a book born almost organically out of the necessity of telling, and bearing witness to the facts. On the contrary, If This Is a Man is a carefully constructed, masterly meditated piece of work, projected and executed with absolute professional rigor, although the author was only 27.

And back to the stuffed guinea-pig—when I first saw it, I thought of a quote from a Hiroshima survivor that Elsa Morante had used as an epigraph to her novel La Storia: “There is no word, in any human language, to comfort the guinea pigs, who do not know the reason why they die.” Primo agreed with Aldous Huxley: a novelist should be a zoologist, or at least have many animals in his or her home. There is much to be learned from them.

Primo was an acute observer of animal behaviors, and some of his last writings are dialogues with animals: a seagull, a giraffe, a she-spider. He himself had been treated like an animal, one of the lab rats on which the Nazis had carried out their lurid experiments, destroying personalities before they destroyed bodies. He had managed to resist and to avoid being annihilated; he had not been passive or resigned or an accomplice.

The newly minted graduate sent to Auschwitz had used all his intellectual energies—all his solid and broad classic learning, built on science and technology but mostly on Dante, and all his powers of observation—to imprint into his mind every significant detail of his atrocious experience, so as to be able later to transfer it to paper.

With his gift of a guinea pig, Primo wanted to draw our attention to the destiny of the many innocent living beings tortured without a reason. He also wanted to highlight the fact that animals and things, even the humblest objects, can be an infinite source of wonder and pleasure for those who can see through them with their eyes and mind. The city byways are fully worthy of our attention, and they can reveal countless details about their inhabitants’ behaviors. Even the repellent tapeworm, a poor blind creature forced to devise its laborious survival niche in the human intestine, is admirable for the creativity it puts into performing the great Darwinian drama.

Such curiosity, which is actually a special ability to see (another trait Levi shared with Calvino), is explicitly reaffirmed in an unpublished short story written a few months before his death. In it Primo explains, in the style of a scientific letter of the 18th century, why, via boiling, an egg becomes solid instead of liquid.

Writes Levi: “For as long as I live, I will continue to marvel not only at eggs, but also at flies, mosques [an untranslatable joke between mosche, flies, and moschee, mosques], polyhedrons, specks of dust, and river stones. . . . There is no object that fails to elicit marvel or curiosity when observed by a focused eye in sufficient proximity”.

Primo Levi’s work has been seriously misunderstood for many years, both in Italy and abroad. In the United States, If This Is a Man was published in 1961 by Collier Books with a different, and misleading title: Survival in Auschwitz. It makes the book sound like a war report, emphasizing the protagonist’s trials and tribulations, and concluding with a happy ending. Besides the fact that the actual work ends with a scene of death and desolation (the abandoned infirmary), the new title avoids the question posed in the original title: Is this man? Is it the German, the good family man who belongs to the most civilized country in Europe, the country that produced Bach and Goethe, and that plans an extermination with bureaucratic rigor? Is it the Jewish prisoner who becomes a Kapo, collaborating to gain a few more days of life? Was Auschwitz an accident in history, and as such it cannot be replicated? But in fact it has been replicated (in Soviet gulags, Cambodia, Chile, Argentina, Bosnia, Congo-Zaire, and Sudan). Or is Auschwitz the rule rather than an exception? Is it imprinted in the human DNA, a deviant gene ready to unleash a metastasis, the sadism described by Sigmund Freud?

These are the questions that Levi tried to answer for 40 years, and this is the burden he carried on his shoulders. Who could have shared his anguish? Not the nihilists, such as the French-Rumenian philosopher Emil Cioran, who would just shrug and say that they already knew all of this. Not the Marxists, who were already tormented by the doubt that between social project and human biology there might be some gap that could never be filled. Not the postwar philosophers, who were elegant, subtle, and captious, like the so called Italian masters of weak thought, but not likely to test themselves with such fundamental questions.

The second American misunderstanding: in 1965 the translation into English of The Truce was released, and once again the publisher decided to change the title. But the new title, The Reawakening, conveyed a sort of peaceful return to life. But “Truce” literally means a moment of pause between two moments of the same dramatic conflict. It is not a coincidence that the book ends with the nightmare of the siren in Auschwitz returning to haunt the protagonist. Levi has not come to reassure us and tell us that the nightmare, that the war is over. War is not over at all. War is ever, as an unforgettable character of The Truce, Cesare, says. On the contrary, he wants to disturb us and invite us to double our guard, because, as he puts it, “it happened, therefore it can happen again.”

And in fact happened and keeps happening, every day. Levi wants us to sharpen our interpretive tools. Nothing is less appropriate than a simplistic, optimistic, soothing reading of his work. Levi is not a secular saint trying to impress us with his classical balance of justice and knowledge. He is a scientist and a writer, and he acts as such. He is not trying to move us. He does not complain or play the victim. He does not care for the compassionate tears of readers who can enjoy the luxury of right-feeling in the cozy shelter of their comfortable homes.

Within the catastrophe of the Shoah, humanity was fortunate that the train leaving Italy for Auschwitz in February 1944 was transporting a very special envoy: an anthropologist not yet aware of his talent; a young chemist who would later become a writer and who had already written short stories and poems. One of them, set in a Milanese suburb among factories, describes a morning siren, announcing the start of the workday, that seems to prefigure the chilling sirens of the camps. Levi is capable of elaborating an articulate interpretation of the facts because his approach is rational (not impressionistic, not rhetorical) and comprises a wide range of disciplines, from the sciences to linguistics and ethology. Of course, knowledge in and of itself is not enough: it needs to be transmitted, as Galileo, Darwin, and Freud, all excellent writers, were able to do.

Long described as a mere witness, Levi the scientist is a great writer, among the greatest in the Italian postwar panorama. Witnessing is not enough. It is necessary to be able to see, understand, and tell. A writer has the ability to choose among the thousand details that compose an instant, a situation, or an event—those very details that explain, interpret, and reveal it. Writing is the place where everything becomes true and necessary. Precisely because he is a scientist and writer, Levi is not satisfied with his initial results but repeats his tests multiple times. Till the very end, he keeps checking experimentally all the data gathered. This expert in vortexes, as he described himself, the calm rationalist, the presumed positivist, never hid his fascination with the opposite: chaos and impurity. As he used to say, “Life is born out of impurity.”

In this respect, Levi was a son of the 20th century. He knows that the human existence unfolds amid ambiguity and duplicity. He knows that the human being, the “confused creature” described by Thomas Mann, faces every day in first person the clash of mercy and brutality; error and truth, wisdom and folly, generosity and selfishness. For the longest time, as a conscientious laboratory technician, Levi observed this hybridity, appalling and fascinating at once, knowing that the entanglement of flesh and mind, divine breath and dust, can not be undone.

Levi warns us: “I have avoided brutal details and rhetorical or polemical temptations. The readers may think that other more atrocious reports have gone overboard. While this is not the case, this is not the aspect of truth that I am interested in. Nor did I want to recount exceptions, of heroes and traitors, but I tried to concentrate on the multitude, the norm, the ordinary man, who is not a bastard nor a saint, whose only asset is pain, but he is able to understand it and contain it”.

For these reasons The Drowned and the Saved, that summarizes 40 years of researches and reflections, is one of the key books of the 20th century. A book that should be delivered to every citizen who reaches adulthood, along with a copy of the Constitution, to furnish him o her a compass to navigate the world.

Levi is not an anthropologist of the exceptional, of the extreme-case, of the devilish. He is concerned with the disturbing normality of the human being, of his promptness to be manipulated, indoctrinated, forged and then thrown against another man. Levi works on the man as is. He knows his limitations and weaknesses, but does not make them the object of a moralistic condemnation. He does not forget and does not simplify. He recognizes to the human being the inability to suffer everybody’s pain, but he insists on the importance of not returning the blow, of not entering the spiral of revenge, that degrades the victim to the same level as its oppressor. He reaffirms the idea that often it is the worst who survives, the most selfish, the most violent, insensitive, the collaborators of the “grey zone,” the spies. That the Lager can be described only by those who lived it completely. He dismantles and remounts the mechanisms of memory to denounce their weakness. He feels that he is never impartial enough, not even when he studies the justifications invented by Eichman and Hoess, the Auschwitz commander who had invented the gas chambers.

He writes that the prisoners are not ideal witnesses, not by their own fault. They could hardly acquire an overall vision of their universe. They did not know where they stood, where the others were in the Lager, for whom they worked and why. Their eyes where fixed to the ground in search of something to eat or to exchange.

Those who could have a more complete vision belonged to a privileged category and usually ended up enslaved: this is why their testimony is not reliable. The best historian of the Lager is the one who was able to reach a privileged observatory without accepting compromises. They were often politicians provided of finer intellectual categories to interpret the facts.

Human memory is a defective instrument. Memories are not engraved in stone. They tend to change and evanish under the weight of traumas, the interference of other memories, repressions, and denial. The memory of the victims removes the most profound wounds and concentrates on the moments of respite and on funny episodes.

In a beautiful statement, Raffaele La Capria wrote that memory behaves like a writer: incessantly re-writes the original memory in progressive re-elaborations that complete and embellish it.

Quote: “There is a fantasy in memory that operates without us knowing it, and instead of finding the past in a well organized archive, re-invents it each time reconstructing it with a process that resembles that of the narrator, starting with a pretext rooted in circumstances”.

The victims are not reliable because they are victims nor are they necessarily good. Levi had the courage to speak about the phenomenon of collaborationism even though he does not judge it.

The main responsibilities fall, in Auschwitz like elsewhere, on the structures of the totalitarian regimes that start the machine of enslavement. In Levi’s anthropology, no clear roles are defined. Victims, perpetrators, and ordinary people meet in a neutral zone inhabited by miserable and pathetic characters, who are not exceptional, but normal.

We are in the middle zone between those who command and those who are subjugated, where the responsibilities are not neatly defined and the evanishing of the moral sense induces the acceptance of the worst. The so defined banality of evil of which Hanna Arendt spoke, is embodied in the category of the minor commanders, of the clerks who sign whatever document, who shake their head but accept and say: If I did not do it, someone worse than I would do it.

From there the analysis expands to he profound instincts that move human beings and on the mechanism of power: the narrower these mechanisms are, the greater is their need of outside collaborators, who are tied through compromise and can no longer escape. Levi studies the behaviors of the oppressed: the stronger the repression, the more widespread the collaboration. From the ambiguous reactions of post-war Germans, we pass to the so-called revisionist historiography that would like to minimize or even deny the extermination of the Jews.

Among the critical responses that The Drowned received in Italy, Primo said to prefer one by Giovanni Raboni who had defined him as “polemic and irritating, someone who does not demand consensus but rather the discomfort of those who did not seek to know more. Its relevance and urgency lie on the fact that the book offers the naked objectivity of the facts. That it challenges intellectual nuances in favor of a solid and suffered common sense. That it opposes to the labyrinth of complexity, an elementary and opaque memory”.

A chemist, Levi indefatigably continued to distinguish the elements, weigh them, and analyze their properties. For him knowledge passes through the hands, the nose, and the senses. He does not have the ambition to arrive to the absolute root of knowledge. He only wants to go from a level to another in an attempt to understand more than before.

He refuses overall interpretations and the shortcuts of ideology and escapes the temptation to ascribe facts to an assumed nature of the Germans. He knows well that he cannot attain to the reality and the truth: ”I know that I reconstructed a segment, a small segment of reality. In an industrial laboratory this is a great victory”.

In his narrator’s journey, Levi wants to be the devil’s advocate, who proceeds against the currents and never appears there, where one expects it. Immediately after the war, when Italy is immersed in the fervor of reconstruction and the denial of what has just happened, Levi demands to go back and look. Towards the end of the 1950’s with a sufficient detachment from the Shoah, he writes short stories in the style of scientific divertissement, challenging the hypocrisy of the politically correctness that would like him to be taken as an icon of martyrdom and witness. In the years of the cold war he dares saying that work is not only slavery and alienation but that working with passion and competence is a good approximation to happiness. To the prophets of disgrace, who announce the coming collapse of complex societies, he oppose a positive confidence in the “homo faber” and in the ability of humanity to correct its own errors.

At the beginning of the 1980’s, when Italy celebrates the fasts of a new and shallow hedonism, Levi returns to propose to us a tragic truth: Auschwitz always exists, and what has happened can happen again. We, the norm, are the potential inhabitants of the new city if evil. It takes little to become complicit with the new mass murders.

The message of Primo Levi was never cathartic, reconciling, or reassuring. Levi does not seek pacification, he is not a positivist who wants to re-establish the violated order of the world. Through literary strategies, often subtle and dissimulated, he faced the tensions and contradictions of the 20th century but at the same time claimed an intellectual flexibility that does not fear contradictions, but in fact accepts them as a necessary ingredient of life.

Levi enacted short-circuits between claims to order and transgressive curiosities, he imagined the creation of new hybrids, he did not subtract himself to the risk of the monstrous. As himself claimed, his scientific mindset was equally attracted to the absurd and the harmony of nature, which he enjoyed subverting; to humanism and educated evil.

Levi’s passion for hybridity is well known: Levi seeks clarity not through magnifying lenses or a strenuous search of nuances, but through the clash and a spark between the opposite poles of the oxymoron. In a superb essay, Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo showed that the oxymoron is key to understand Levi’s attitude toward the spectacle of a reality that is at once fascinating and sinister. His multiple oxymorons (for instance, “shaken, skeptical, and moved”) represents the highest homage that Levi’s rationality paid to the complexity, the chaos, the ambivalence that characterize great part of reality.

Levi teaches us diffidence toward all that seems easy, immediate, understandable. His work is not archeology but an ever open laboratory overlooking the future. Like his friend Calvino, Levi thinks that from easiness can come only disasters. He is used to move in a hostile environment. He knows that matter is ambiguous and is a traitor. The universe is possessed by a ferocious and permanent instability. The essential components of matter are governed by asymmetry: the topic of his doctoral dissertation returns obsessively in his last writings.

Today more than ever we must cultivate discomfort and awareness. The game stays open, the laboratory can not afford to close. To defend the little that is left of the human being we must continue to write our story over and over, go after new documents, consider new evidences, organize them according to new interpretative models. Italo Calvino said that a classic is a book that never stop saying what it has to say. Well, our understanding of that contemporary classic embodied by Primo Levi has just begun.
New York, October 26, 2009