Travelling in the Classic Style

Thomas Laqueur

  • Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics by Robert Gordon
    Oxford, 316 pp, £45.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 19 815963 3
  • Primo Levi by Ian Thomson
    Hutchinson, 624 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 09 178531 6
  • The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography by Carole Angier
    Viking, 898 pp, £25.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 670 88333 6

Primo Levi is among the most read and most resonant witnesses to the greatest human disaster of a disastrous age. He created more powerful images, more mind-sustaining turns of phrase through which to think about these matters than any other writer. The ‘drowned and the saved’, for example: that appallingly stark, Darwinian division between those who managed to secure a few extra grams of food for themselves, or respite from labour, or shelter from the cold, or friendship, and those who ended ‘on the bottom’, the ‘Muselmänner’, whom a pitiless system had reduced to the merely biological, the already dead whom everyone shunned. Or ‘the chemistry examination’, in which the starving prisoner, wondering what it would be like to be in the mind of his well-fed examiner, Dr Pannwitz, looks at him ‘as if across an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds. If he could explain that look he would have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.’

He created memorable characters from among the companions who sustained him: Jean the ‘Pikolo’ of his Kommando; Lorenzo the mason who saved him with an extra daily portion of soup; Alberto his friend in a friendless place; Steinlauf who on his first day gave him the advice that saved his life; ‘Hurbinek’ the nameless, language-less child of unknown origin who somehow survived the camps only to die after liberation: ‘nothing is left of him; he bears witness through these words of mine.’ It is no more possible to think seriously about the ‘great insanity’ without Levi than to think deeply about 19th-century London without Dickens or 19th-century Paris without Balzac or Baudelaire.

That said, Levi’s claims for his subject are, relatively speaking, modest. In his writing much of what we take to be the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’, the essence of its cosmic, trans-historical, metaphysical portent, is missing. He has no sympathy for the term itself, with its suggestion of redemption – ‘it is naive, absurd and historically false to think that a devilish system like National Socialism sanctifies its victims’ – and its ties to a version of Jewish history that he rejected. What happened was a human catastrophe in which Jews suffered disproportionately for specific political and racist reasons but not as a result of the Diaspora; it did not justify what he regarded as Israel’s tribalist and aggressive actions in the name of sacred history and unique suffering. He has none of Elie Wiesel’s mystical faith or elegiac longing for the lost world of the shtetl, Yiddishkeit or the Kabbala. Heroically secular, he has nothing but contempt for anyone – including himself at a moment of weakness during a ‘selection’ in the camp when the idea of praying crossed his mind – who thinks that God had anything to do with Auschwitz.

Levi rejected even non-religious views that seemed to place the horrors in which he participated beyond the limits of ordinary thought and analysis: what he witnessed was not ‘unspeakable’, ‘ineffable’, ‘beyond language’. ‘I never liked the term “incommunicability”, so fashionable in the 1970s,’ he says in his last book. No moral or ontological voids for him. The Nazi crimes were unique only in the sense of their particularity, not because they were of a different order from other enormous evils. Levi was a resolute anti-Postmodernist and prided himself on being able to write and talk about the camps in limpid, even clinical prose. He thought that Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological theories about the camps were so much arid intellectualism. He responded to Jean Améry’s criticism that he was a ‘forgiver’ by broadening the debate: ‘I never forgave our enemies of that time, nor do I feel I can forgive their imitators in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia or South Africa because I know no human act that can erase a crime.’ What the Nazis did was not in his eyes a crime so enormous as to diminish all others.

On the other hand, he also rejected politically motivated claims that all great crimes were morally equivalent. In the depth of his last depression he took to the pages of La Stampa to launch a vigorous attack on the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte’s view that Hitler’s crimes were just a later version of the Soviet gulags: never before had a government planned total genocide; never before were the bodies of its victims so exploited, so totally obliterated – industrially murdered and industrially exploited. These were unique evils. The crimes of which Levi writes were cataclysmic but still comprehensible within the Enlightenment tradition of universal reason and a self-conscious humanism; they were a chapter in the long history of the heart at its darkest: a ‘Holocaust’ for all seasons.

At the same time, the ‘Holocaust’ he describes is spectacularly specific. Levi’s genius is not for the grand rhetorical style but for the well-observed detail, the limned gesture, the unexpected twist. His is famously and self-consciously a prose of understatement and restraint. He claims that he remained a man at Auschwitz because of his ‘detached curiosity’, because he could regard the seemingly unimaginable camp as ‘a gigantic biological and sociological experiment’. His first publication about Auschwitz was not If This Is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz in its mistranslated American title) but a technical article on the sanitary and nutritional conditions of the camp that he wrote with his fellow inmate and great friend, the doctor Leonardo de Benedetti, and published in the leading Italian medical journal.

Levi writes about his wartime experiences with the same attention to detail that he brought to his chemical work and to his close reading of beloved texts. He read, he says, ‘with a magnifying glass’; it was ‘a pitiless exercise’. This is a man who could find in the ‘fine structure’ of Manzoni’s The Betrothed – the great 19th-century novel to which he returned again and again as his appetite for new books diminished – a tiny physical gesture that was not quite right: at no point in his leap onto the gravedigger’s cart could Renzo have raised his fist as Manzoni describes it; it is also ‘completely unnatural to ride while holding one’s fist in the air’. ‘Only an acute observer of the human soul knows how to condense it in a few words and give us back the truth,’ but even Manzoni is susceptible to the overly theatrical gesture, the rhetorical flourish that may have worked in his day but now strikes us as an exaggerated movement from the silent film era.

Levi was not himself a great novelist; If Not Now, When? is his weakest work even if it was the most immediately successful. He was not a great writer of short fiction. He was a great essayist. Like Montaigne, he had the gift of transforming a moment, a pain, an object, a fleeting thought, into something universal. Like Montaigne, who also lived through murderous times, Levi salvaged a humane, optimistic moral vision from mankind at its worst.

How his ‘Enlightenment liberal ethics survive Auschwitz’, shaken, challenged to the core, ‘but intact’, is the subject of Robert Gordon’s superb book. Its thesis is that very early in his career Levi moved beyond the language of testimony to the ‘language of ethics’, a ‘flexible, sensitive, intelligent language’ that extends his work on the death camps into ‘a hypothetical general study of the human mind’, and brings the ‘Holocaust’ into ‘a rhythm of exchange’ with his enormously wide world of interests and curiosities. This is a book about ‘the fluid persistence’ of Levi’s ‘moralism’. It is a major achievement, a brilliant reading of Levi’s work that appreciates both its literary cunning and its broad cultural significance. Gordon’s is the sort of strong interpretation which, like certain performances of classic plays and operas, changes the way we see the work itself.

Levi never stopped talking about the camps. Even when he was preternaturally busy with his chemical and literary work he continued to lecture about his experiences in schools throughout Italy. To survive a place whose whole purpose was to obliterate any memory of its victims, he said, one has ‘to want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness’. He was borne to his grave by six survivors. But he bridled at the suggestion that he might have been touched by grace at Auschwitz, that his survival was ‘the work of Providence’, so that he might bear witness. All this struck him as ‘monstrous’. The scope of testimony was limited: no witness could speak for ‘the drowned’ – ‘we survivors are not the true witnesses.’ And at a more mundane, personal level, testimony as therapy had only a limited place in fashioning a life after Auschwitz. ‘It seemed to me,’ he writes about the first years after his return, that ‘I would be purified if I told its story.’ And he was. ‘By writing I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again.’ But once purged, he moved on: ‘my writing turned into a different adventure, no longer the painful itinerary of convalescence.’ Levi was not a man to wallow in trauma.

Gordon’s main point, however, is that Levi’s testimony was too intensely literary for the role in which he has been cast; he is ‘more of a writer than the label of witness will allow’. This literariness, in turn, associates Levi with a broad range of moral philosophy that emphasises virtue over rules: virtuous acts that have their origins in a virtuous character rather than abstract knowledge of ‘the Good’. Broadly speaking, Gordon associates Levi with a tradition which begins with the Aristotelian notion that ethics is a branch of practical philosophy. Writings about ethics are not, as Aristotle said, ‘undertaken for the sake of understanding . . . or in order to know what goodness is but to become good men’. Literature is important in modern versions of this view because it offers concrete examples of virtuous behaviour and because it reveals, through narrative, whether an action was indeed virtuous. A good character, in both the literary and the ethical sense, makes itself known through stories, through actions observed over time. And the more we know about a situation, the more thoroughly it is embedded in narrative detail, the more difficult it is to make black and white judgments. This approach to ethics might be contrasted with the rule-governed morality of utilitarianism and the categorical imperative of Kant, purportedly applicable in all places and at all times.

We should not draw the line between virtue and rules too sharply, however: these are transient academic problems. What matters is that Gordon suggests we read Levi within a capacious tradition that aspires to practical, flexible virtues, constantly open to reassessment but still rooted in the belief that there is an ethical core which reflection can make manifest. His central claim is that Levi’s ‘narrative and other reflections’ work their ‘way around ethical issues by figuring out just such a practice of virtue(s), even in the face of the void of Auschwitz’. Especially in the face of the void, we might add.

Levi’s virtues have multiple origins: the Enlightenment commitment to individual freedom, universal justice, equality and the avoidance of pain; the Reformation tradition that puts the centre of the moral life in the home, in work, in marriage, in the family rather than in holy orders or ascetic retreat. But the important point is that they are ‘ordinary virtues’, and that their opposites are ‘ordinary vices’. Charles Taylor, whom Gordon cites, lists five features of these ‘ordinary virtues’: they are rooted in dispositions accessible to anyone; they begin at home, in daily life; they subsist in the interaction of each of us with our fellow human beings at the first level of contact between the private and the public; they are small-scale and aware of their historical roots; they develop through stories and experience rather than through codes – that is, through narrative rather than rules. And we can guess at their opposites: cruelty, treachery, misanthropy and hypocrisy of any sort, small vices from which great wrongs grow. We are solidly in the world of Middlemarch, with its concluding paean to unsung quotidian virtues that Nietzsche so despised; or in the secular, humane, educated, private bourgeois world of Turin in which Levi was born and died, and very far from the heroics of the Greeks.

Gordon translates Taylor’s five general categories into 13 specific virtues – he could have chosen fewer or more – and devotes a chapter to each. He does a wonderful job of mobilising Levi’s major texts and minor writings to give one a sense of the nuances and rich colouring of his thought, but despite his best efforts there is no overarching principle to his exposition precisely because Levi himself resists such a logic. There is no single principle that purportedly organises everything.

That said, Levi does begin with the ethics of ‘the black hole of Auschwitz’, with the ‘anti-ethical system’ that seems ‘to preclude the very possibility of making the ethical moves that characterise his work’, and Gordon follows his lead. But there is another reason to start with the camp: a major point to emerge from this book is that Auschwitz, too, is horribly ordinary and all too historical. Despite all that’s been suggested in the debate surrounding human rights abuses during the past fifty years it is not so far beyond any other conceivable evil that all other horrors pale by comparison and can be somehow ignored if not excused.

Levi’s virtues appear most clearly in their negation. ‘Looking’, seeing and being seen, which figures so powerfully in If This Is a Man, and the look denied that is at the heart of the anti-ethics of the camps: the embarrassed look; the look avoided out of fear or shame. ‘Memory’: Levi’s struggle to move beyond remembering, which is solipsistic, impulsive, therapeutic and ultimately crushing, towards an understanding of memory and history as the arena for developing a common sense of value. The problem is to get beyond an elegiac, sentimental anxiety that direct experience of the camps will be lost to serious ethical engagement; to get beyond the sheer literariness of remembering to the real stakes of the enterprise. At the same time, literary memory – the cultural baggage impressed on liceo students – made life bearable for Levi: one thinks of his beautiful account of reciting Dante to his uncomprehending companion in the most unpromising of circumstances. Memory recalled Ulysses’ reminder to his shipmates that that they were men, not beasts. (All this has a general import but is also idiosyncratic: ‘The Canto of Ulysses’ did not have a big impact on his friend and fellow inmate Jean Samuel, who scarcely remembered the incident – he kept his mind alive by constructing algebraic problems.)

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