Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Ivan Kenneally (@IvanKeneally). Ivan is a writer who lives in California. He taught philosophy for many years at several universities, and his articles have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Open Letters Monthly, and The New Atlantis.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
The first time I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, I was a high school senior encountering a memoir of a concentration-camp survivor for the first time; I lacked the context, historical and literary, to appreciate the uncommon power of the work, its peculiar alloy of moral indictment and scientific objectivity. I had that experience so common in adolescence—I was profoundly affected, but unable to adequately articulate the sources of my response, an untidy tangle of excitement and distemper.
This year I couldn’t resist the enthusiastic endorsement issued by Tina (@theesteemedfox) of Levi’s sequel to his remembrance of Auschwitz, The Truce—Tina is an infinitely cheerful advocate of infinitely sepulcher literature. [Ed. – And thank God for that!] I saw this as an opportunity to revisit If This is a Man, and after finishing both books I was so besotted by Levi’s writing, I ordered an edition of his complete works in English, a mammoth collection, three thousand words delivered in three hefty volumes, published by Liveright in 2015. [Ed. – Appreciate you giving the correct/accurate titles: American readers might know them as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, respectively.]
Before finally pausing, I read the two memoirs in quick succession, and then The Periodic Table, The Monkey’s Wrench, Other People’s Trades, If Not Now, When?, The Drowned and the Saved, and Natural Histories. I was immersed in Levi’s work for the better part of two months, simultaneously invigorated by his indefatigable clarity and exhausted by his increasingly disheartened worldview. [Ed. – It’s true. He was so depressed, angry, and suffering at the end of his life.] Two uncharacteristic works served as reprieves of a sort—Other People’s Trades is a collection of newspaper articles that peripatetically meander from discussions of butterflies to Italian etymology: it displays both the range of Levi’s intellectual curiosity and his inclination toward an exacting pedantry. [Ed. – Interesting. And well put.] In Natural Histories one finds a series of sci-fi short stories at least partly inspired Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics—for a time, Calvino was Levi’s editor. Both books are a departure from Levi’s more familiar work not only for the subject matter, but also the tenor of the prose—absent is his signature moral urgency, the tensile cord of fury and descriptive restraint that typifies the memoirs.
The last book Levi ever wrote is a collection of essays, The Drowned and the Saved, a return to the subject of the Holocaust. It is the angriest of his works, the one in which his livid indignation comes closest to overwhelming his heroic attempts at philosophical discipline. One can see this especially in the last essay, “Letters from Germans,” a reflection on the correspondence he received from German readers after If This is a Man was translated into their language. One epistle from a doctor from Hamburg infuriated Levi—it featured a rehearsal of increasingly familiar exculpations focusing on how little the Germans understood of Hitler’s mad depravity. Levi’s response is as devastating as it is “irate,” as he called it, but one detects no sense of triumphalism in it, no smirk of victory. The doctor’s arguments were defeated, but not the general attitude Levi believed they represented, an inclination to erase a morbid history through mealy-mouthed self-acquittal.
In The Periodic Table, Levi tells another story of a German doctor incapable of countenancing his own guilt—this time one he had first encountered while at Auschwitz working in a laboratory. In 1967, Levi stumbled upon the man’s name again in the course of his work as a chemist at an industrial paint-manufacturing plant: Dr. Muller, once the manager of slave labor at Auschwitz, now returned decades later to the responsibilities of quotidian life. Levi sends him a letter and a copy of If This is a Man, and in return receives yet another manifesto of blinkered self-absolution. He writes a rejoinder, but before he can send it he discovers Dr. Muller has suddenly died. Here, Levi recounts a portion of the letter he never sent, which can be counted as a precis of his understanding of German guilt:
As to the specific judgment on his behavior, which Muller implicitly asked of me, I tactfully cited two cases known to me of his German colleagues who in their actions toward us had done something much more courageous than what he claimed to have done. I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world, the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.
Levi’s one and only conventionally structured novel—If Not Now, When?—is a literary elaboration of this declaration; a band of Jewish partisans in Russia, armed and brimful of vengeance, roam the countryside in search of opportunities to sabotage German forces. Levi had no penchant for violence—he makes this clear in an essay on Jean Amery in The Drowned and the Saved. “I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or blows.” However, he didn’t aggrandize his personal distaste into a universal prohibition—he believed that after Auschwitz, physical vulnerability could no longer be suffered.
Levi killed himself shortly after writing The Drowned and the Saved, joining a grim club of writers who survived the Holocaust only to die at their own hand, a membership which includes Paul Celan, Jean Améry, and Tadeusz Borowski. [Ed. – Well, it’s complicated. In Levi’s case—though the evidence suggests similar ambiguity about Borowski’s death—it’s unclear if it was suicide or accident.] Like Améry, he despaired of the possibility that as the generation of witnesses perished so would the vivid memory and meaning of their torment; Amery believed that in some nontrivial sense this would constitute the final vindication of the Nazi guards who taunted him with the reminder that the stories of the victims would never be told. Levi might be obliquely referencing this possibility in The Monkey’s Wrench when discussing the art of listening to stories:
In fact, just as there is an art of story-telling, strictly codified through a thousand trials and errors, so there is an art of listening, equally ancient and noble, but as far as I know, it has never been given any norm.
Levi experimented with a broad spectrum of writing forms, but his life’s work was bearing witness to what he considered a historically unique catastrophe. However, one cannot bear witness without a receptive audience, and he worried that the same will to oblivion that made Auschwitz possible would make equally possible the evaporation of its memory, rending his work futile. Levi’s exasperation at this prospect crackles thoughout The Drowned and the Saved, which Cynthia Ozick considered a suicide note. “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” [Ed. – Ozick’s is a compelling formulation, though I bristle at its retrospection. Had Levi found a medication that worked for him, for example, (admittedly difficult at the time) he might have lived to write many other works.]
The Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész didn’t share this particular anxiety of Levi, a point he makes in The Holocaust as Culture, a book that collects a lecture he delivered of the same name with a lengthy interview, published by Seagull Books: “Auschwitz casts a long shadow over European civilization and is still the vital question of our culture.” Moreover, he believes a full reckoning of the Holocaust transcends the question of German guilt:
But this is not something peculiar to German history. We speak of collective guilt, the collective guilt of the German nation. But Auschwitz is the collective crime of the entire world, not just of the German nation. If we think of the Holocaust as a war between Germans and Jews then we will never understand it. [Ed. – True.]
Levi sometimes expresses hope in the rational lucidity of science, and the possibility that the scientific extension of human knowledge can redound to the moral and cultural improvement of mankind. In fact, he refuses to brook any polarity between science and the humanities. As he puts it in Other People’s Trades: “I have frequently set foot on bridges that join (or ought to join) scientific culture with literary culture, crossing a crevasse that has always struck me as absurd.” In the same book, he conveys an idealism so unbounded it inspires credulity: “I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is enough to absolve this end of the century and the millennium.”
By contrast, Kertész places his own hopes in the birth of a new literary culture that can potentially shake the Western world out of a decadent slumber:
If preserved, the tragic insight into the world of the morality that survived the Holocaust may yet enrich European consciousness, now best with crisis, much as the Greek genius, faced with barbarism and fighting the Persian War, created the antique tragedies that serve as an eternal model. If the Holocaust today has created a culture, and it undeniably has and continues to do, its literature may draw inspiration from the two sources of European culture, the Bible and Greek tragedy, so that irredeemable reality may give rise to redemption: the spirit, catharsis.
I think Levi was attempting to contribute to something like this, though in his version the result would be a matrimony of literature and science, a rational elucidation of the soul. One despairs to think he lost faith in his work, which would seem to entail losing faith in the world. I couldn’t help thinking of Levi when I read the last line of Kertész’s lecture:
As I said in the beginning, we live in the context of a culture, and in this context the dead body of Jean Améry is to be found in the monument—still under construction—to the Holocaust, where he himself laid it down, like a blood-soaked flower.