“The aims of life are the best defense against death.”
November 2, 2015 7:54 PM   Subscribe

The Art of Witness by James Wood [The New Yorker] How Primo Levi survived.
“Primo Levi [wiki] did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer.”


- The Mystery of Primo Levi by Tim Parks [The New York Review of Books]
In her introduction to this three-volume collection of Levi’s works, Toni Morrison remarks how “the triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.” These are heartening words but they are not true. Rather Levi tells us about human identity crushed and corrupted by unspeakable evil; his work is powerful because it squares up to that reality. “The personages in these pages are not men,” he tells us; everybody in the camp, torturers and tortured alike, was “paradoxically united in a common inner desolation.”
- On Primo Levi’s Defiant Humanism by Toni Morrison [The Guardian]
“Everywhere in the language of this collection is the deliberate and sustained glorification of the human. Long after his 11 months in what he calls the Lager (Auschwitz III), as a survivor, Levi understands evil as not only banal but unworthy of our insight – even of our intelligence, for it reveals nothing interesting or compelling about itself. It has merely its scale to solicit our attention and an alien stench to repel us.”
- Primo Levi, The Art of Fiction No. 140, interviewed by Gabriel Motola. [The Paris Review]
Interviewer: Tell me about Lorenzo, the man who gave you food.
Levi: It was a different thing for Lorenzo. He was a sensitive man, almost illiterate but really sort of a saint. After the war, when I met him in Italy, he told me that he didn’t only help me. He helped three or four prisoners without telling one he was helping another one. Mind you, we almost never spoke. He was a very silent man. He refused my thanks. He almost didn’t reply to my words. He just shrugged: Take the bread. Take the sugar. Keep silent, you don’t need to speak.
- Profile of Lorenzo Perrone, Primo Levi's rescuer in Auschwitz [yadvashem.org]
The last meeting in Auschwitz between the two occurred one night after a heavy Allied bombardment. The blast had burst one of Perrone’s eardrums, and earth sprayed by the explosion had spewed sand and dirt into the bowl of soup he was bringing to Levi. When he gave him the food, Perrone apologized for the soup being dirty, but did not tell Levi what had happened to him, because he did not want his friend to feel indebted to him. Perrone reminded Levi that there was still a just world outside Auschwitz and that there were still human beings who were uncorrupted. Levi believed that he survived Auschwitz thanks to Perrone.
- Primo Levi's Last Moments [Boston Review]
Levi's death, especially the manner of it, came as a terrible shock to his many admirers in Italy and abroad. His friends were devastated by what some considered a totally unexpected event. "Until the day of his death I was convinced he was the most serene person in the world," Norberto Bobbio said.5 Still, no one showed much difficulty in coming to terms with it. After the fact, Levi's death seemed so predictable—the "inescapable" end of the life of an Auschwitz survivor.
- In memory of Primo Levi, author and Auschwitz survivor. by Eileen Battersby [The Irish Times]
“Someone from the publishing house had come to greet me. I was early and the previous interview had not yet finished. A man in a suit was reading through notes and a camera person was waiting. The sound engineer was late. The man with the notes looked up and asked, less to test me than to goad his colleague: “Do you know who is in there? Have you heard of Primo Levi?” I was not expecting to be spoken to and heard my mumbled reply, something not overly eloquent, along the lines of, “Yeah, wow. The Periodic Table.” It was enough to make the man with the notes smirk in triumph. “See, most literate people would know.” The girl holding the camera equipment had not and it didn’t bother her a bit. The man told me that I should go on in and say hello. “You’ll be glad you did,” he said, sounding slightly less posh and more fatherly. And I was glad, so very honoured to have met Primo Levi. When he asked where I was from, I had to repeat myself four or five times. His hearing wasn’t poor; it was just difficult for me to speak. He seemed like a saint who had walked back from the doors of Hell, which of course he had.”
- Al visitatore: Primo Levi's text for the Italian Memorial in Auschwitz, 1980 [.PDF] [Italian]
- Primo Levi: Back to Auschwitz, a documentary broadcast by the Italian State Television, Rai, in 1983. [YouTube] [Part 1] [Part 2]
- Periodic Table of Videos: a discussion on the chemist and acclaimed writer Primo Levi. [YouTube]
- Primo Levi: Auschwitz and After, a new lecture in the Alfred F. Mannella and Rose T. Lauria-Mannella Distinguished Speakers Series. This year's lecture, on Jewish-Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, will be given by Nicholas Patruno, Ph.D. [YouTube]
posted by Fizz (8 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is Primo Levi, in the end, didn't survive. Thank you for making this post, though. He was a great writer.
posted by Nevin at 9:49 PM on November 2, 2015

I agree with the New Yorker writer that he did survive, in every important sense. He came out of the camps with his ability to speak and his individual humanity intact and, when he died, he died as an individual. He fell in love, he got married, he had children, he had friends, he wrote books. It seems reductive to say that his suicide, if it was suicide, represents the success of the Nazi project - that wasn't the kind of death that the Nazis aimed at. He survived dehumanisation.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:10 PM on November 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

"The problem is Primo Levi, in the end, didn't survive."

The problem is that, in the end, we all die.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:02 AM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all these links, Fizz. The Periodic Table has long been a book I hold particularly dear. Tim Parks also wrote an interesting follow-up up piece to the one linked above: Looking for Primo Levi.
posted by misteraitch at 1:27 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.”

Unlike in English, the word "chutzpah" as used in Yiddish is generally not a positive term -- the implication is that of shamelessness. This is one hell of an illustration.
posted by ostro at 11:17 AM on November 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

The problem is that, in the end, we all die.

He committed suicide.
posted by Nevin at 12:58 PM on November 3, 2015

posted by flippant at 9:42 PM on November 3, 2015

Thanks to Fizz for putting together this FPP. I missed this when it was first posted, but I just finished reading a couple of these articles (the New Yorker piece and the Boston Review), and I was considering posting something myself until I did a search and saw that Fizz had put together a much more comprehensive post than I'm sure I could have done.

He committed suicide.

Not necessarily. I would really encourage everyone to read through the Boston Review article. The ultimate conclusion is that we can't really know what happened, but Gambetta has done a very comprehensive overview of the evidence both for and against the suicide theory, and based on that, I don't think this is anywhere near a foregone conclusion. Personally, if I had to weigh the evidence myself, I would lean much more towards the interpretation of an accident.

The evidence really is pretty compelling, although again, there's no way to know for sure. I do think it's unfortunate that even in the James Wood New Yorker article, I feel like he only mentions in passing the possibility of him not committing suicide. Either way, I do agree with Wood's thesis that even if he did commit suicide, this shouldn't overshadow, contradict, or take away from his writings.

Still, I'll admit that I'm bothered by the fact that most people at the time and even today seem so willing to accept the suicide theory as absolute fact. As someone who suffered from severe depression and suicidal ideation for years, I definitely wouldn't fault him if he did take his own life. It really can feel like the best and even only option. But ultimately I think jumping to that conclusion when the evidence is nowhere near conclusive does him a disservice.

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of these articles and maybe I'll even dive into the complete works if I get over the price tag.* Even if I don't go for the complete works, I'm definitely going to check out some of the individual books, especially the Periodic Table. As an atheist who was raised Jewish and also having a chemistry background, I'm really interested to dive into his writings.

Seriously, why is the kindle book essentially the same price as the hard copy? I don't mind when it's a $10 book, but there's something kind of galling about spending $60 for something that's just a file on the computer. At the same time, I much prefer reading things on my ipad, and I already have way too many hard copies of books.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:40 PM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

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