The Problem of Reality

Michael Wood

  • Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist by Myriam Anissimov, translated by Steve Cox
    Aurum, 452 pp, £25.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85410 503 5

Myriam Anissimov’s biography of Primo Levi, first published in French two years ago, begins with a kind of stutter surrounding the writer’s end. The book’s Introduction, prologue and opening chapter all invoke his death, as if it were a threshold that had to be crossed but couldn’t be crossed without returning. ‘On 11 April 1987 Primo Levi plunged down the stairwell of the house where he was born and had always lived’; ‘It was this man who on an April morning, after a period of dreadful depression, suddenly “exited life by the window”, in the words of the Italian critic Cesare Cases’; ‘One Saturday morning in April 1987, a tragedy disrupted the peace and quiet of the Corso Re Umberto. Primo Levi had taken his own life.’

Anissimov is right, of course, to see this death as peculiarly shocking and baffling. Levi, the lucid and eloquent survivor of Auschwitz, the man who had returned home and had stayed at home since 1945, who had converted much of his life into a work of witness, a defence of light against the century’s darkness, seemed not only to have taken his life but to have cancelled it, taken it back. Moreover, there is, as Anissimov notes, an odd premonition of this death in a passing image in Levi’s first and most famous book, If This Is a Man (1947). In the bombed and infected camp, when the Germans had all gone and only sick prisoners remained, diphtheria, Levi says, ‘was more surely fatal than jumping off a third floor’.

But we shouldn’t rush to think we understand this story, to find in it a ready-made tale about survivor’s guilt and the long arm of history. Levi’s death – certain of his friends still refuse to believe that it was suicide – was also miserable and banal, as he would have been the first to say, and even historically insignificant sorrows can be lethal. Levi had had a prostate operation, was depressed by what he thought was his loss of memory and his inability to write, and signed a letter to a friend ‘De Profundis’. He also knew that ‘perfect unhappiness’ was just as unattainable as perfect happiness, and memorably wrote of a sunny day in Auschwitz when he and others briefly and erroneously imagined everything would have been all right, if it had not been for the hunger.

For human nature is such that grief and pain – even simultaneously suffered – do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective ... It is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.

Levi was born and died in Turin. The year of his birth, 1919, was also the year of the founding of the National Socialist and Fascist Parties in Germany and Italy. The confused and erratic Italian racial laws of 1938 meant that Levi could complete his doctorate in chemistry (in 1941) but only with a physics professor, since no one else would take him on. After one or two precarious industrial jobs in Turin and Milan, Levi joined the Partisans in the mountains, but was soon arrested by the Fascist militia, and detained in a camp at Fossoli di Carpi, near Modena. Here he expected to wait out the war, but quite suddenly, in February 1944, with the German takeover of the camp, all the Jews in Fossoli, some 650 persons, were deported to Monowitz and Birkenau, two of the 38 Lagers which by that year comprised Auschwitz. Five hundred people, men, women and children, either died on the journey or were killed on arrival, the others were put to work. Only 23 came back.

It’s hard to write the biography of an autobiographer. The author has been almost everywhere before you, and you have to trail after him or her. Anissimov does a certain amount of this, but she has plenty of other sources, too, and the great attraction of her book is its direct and uncomplicated intelligence. She doesn’t delve much into Levi’s psychology, but she lays out the events of his life with admirable clarity: childhood in Turin, love of walking and mountain-climbing, hampered studies, survival in Auschwitz, the long return home, work in a paint factory. Levi insisted that although he was a chemist by profession, he was a technician rather than a scientist, as he would have wanted to be. If This Is a Man began to attract some attention only when a new edition was published in 1958, and Levi wrote almost nothing between 1947 and 1961. Then he published The Truce (1963), describing his circuitous journey back to Italy through a war-ruined Russia, and his writing career began to come alive. He retired from the paint factory in 1975, and after The Periodic Table (1975), a combination of fiction and memoir centring on the chemical elements, he wrote a stirring novel about Jewish partisans in Russia, called If Not Now, When (1982). But writing became difficult for him in his last years. He was at work on an epistolary novel when he died.

The Jewish community in Italy is said to be the oldest in Europe, and Levi thought of it, Anissimov says, as ‘the most assimilated in the world’. Levi wryly describes his own early sense of Jewry: ‘a Jew is somebody who at Christmas does not have a tree, who should not eat salami but eats it all the same, who has learned a bit of Hebrew at 13 and then has forgotten it.’ He soon learned a lot more about very different sorts of jews and came to admire East European Jews in particular, but he never thought assimilation was either a simple solution or a major problem. He said to Philip Roth that he thought it was ‘an advantage to belong to a (not necessarily racial) minority’: ‘To possess two traditions, as happens to Jews, but not only to Jews, is a richness: for writers but not only for writers.’ Those ‘not onlys’ (and that ‘not necessarily’) are entirely characteristic, and when late in life he was being fêted and lionised in New York he was surprised to find himself surrounded exclusively by Jews. He told an interviewer that his wife had asked: ‘But where are the others?’ Attacked in the American magazine Commentary for failing to see the specificity of Nazi genocide and its relation to attempted Jewish assimilation, Levi said he couldn’t see the connection. ‘I see no correlation between assimilation (desired or attained) and anti-Semitism. The antisemite hates the Jew no matter what.’

Thinking of If This Is a Man and its sequel The Truce, Roth wrote of ‘those sentences suffused with mind’. ‘Mind’ here means irony and something more than irony. Irving Howe called it ‘moral poise’, but that misses the edge and complication, the curious crisscrossing of anger and comprehension. ‘It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.’ This is bitterly sarcastic, but the good fortune, in the gruesome historical context, is also faintly, miserably real. Anissimov tells us that by 1944 food rations in Auschwitz had been raised for two years running, and the ‘average life expectancy’ was now six and a half months, as compared to three or four. In The Drowned and the Saved (1986), Levi says that ‘the greater part of the prisoners who did not understand German ... died during the first ten to fifteen days after their arrival.’ Not that knowing German would have saved them. ‘I don’t mean to say that they would not have died, but they would have lived longer.’ Life, luck, time are all redefined in the camp, as Levi says other words were. ‘We say “hunger”, we say “tiredness”, “fear”, “pain”, we say “winter” and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men.’ There are sayings, proverbs and rhymes on the walls of the huts, all praising ‘order, discipline and hygiene’, and on a shelf in a corner there are ‘two rubber truncheons, one solid and one hollow, to enforce discipline should the proverbs prove insufficient’. What this discreet joke picks up is not only the cynicism of a phrase like Arbeit macht frei, but the brutal power beneath the many verbal charades of the Reich, and the ability to make the joke at all seems like a small gasp of freedom, a crack in the enclosure of despair.

We are not really talking about a sense of humour here, but about a vestigial and courageous ability to think differently from the enemy. Not many prisoners retained this, and no doubt very few of us would in those circumstances. In the hospital section of Monowitz, when they were no longer struggling with the harshest daily physical discomforts, Levi says he and his companions learned ‘that our personality is fragile, that it is much more in danger than our life’. The business of the camp, Levi says again and again, was the destruction of humanity: not just extermination or wastage, but the reduction of the human to the less than human. Levi defined humanity in a number of different ways: through the ability to love or remember or share or feel gratitude, to be something more than a bundle of ‘suffering and needs’, more than someone else’s instrument; through the ability to value time or recognise other worlds, to do good or imagine the possibility of doing it, to act, even hopelessly, against oppression; even through the ability to commit suicide – ‘I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself.’ But recurring in all these definitions is what Roth calls ‘mind’ and Levi himself calls ‘story’ or ‘history’ or ‘thought’ – storia, pensiero. Those in Auschwitz whom Levi calls ‘the drowned’, I sommerse, the ones who have lost all chance of life and/or of returning to the human, all ‘have the same story’, he says, ‘or more exactly, have no story’.

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.

Is this to intellectualise the horror, to overrate story and thought? Levi’s view is exactly the opposite. The camp not only held a lesson for him (and by extension for us) – it taught him to ‘look around and to measure man’ – the learning of the lesson was itself a form of defiance and an aid to survival.

I may be an ‘intellectual’ today, even though the word fills me with vague discomfort; I certainly was not one then, because of moral immaturity, ignorance and alienation; and if I became one later on, paradoxically, I owe that precisely to the Lager experience.

This is precisely the sense of Levi’s poem ‘Shemà’, which serves as an epigraph to If This Is a Man, and provides the book’s title – its original title, The Drowned and the Saved, also the title of one of the chapters, was finally used for Levi’s last book. The horrors of the Lager are not only to be remembered, they are to be meditated on.

You who live secure
In your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
    Consider whether this is a man,
    Who labours in the mud
    Who knows no peace
    Who fights for a crust of bread
    Who dies at a yes or no.
    Consider whether this is a woman,
    Without hair or name
    With no more strength to remember
    Eyes empty and womb cold
    As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been.

The invitation is to consider a historical fact and to ask ourselves a question. If we say these are not men and women, the Nazis will have won again or after all; if we say they are (of course) unfortunate men and women, we shall have missed the immensity of the Nazi project, a machinery for turning people not only into corpses but into nothing.

Towards the end of his life Levi was much exercised by the growing denial of the historical fact, famously by Robert Faurisson, but also by children Levi talked to, and the ground of his distress is more crowded and intricate than it looks, and its consequences get more and more troubling. The reason anyone would want to deny the Holocaust and the reason they can are one and the same: the sheer unthinkable monstrosity of the event. Levi’s writings are full of instances of this response, from all sides and angles – indeed, we might say that understanding this response is a major part of his writing project. A German socialist who has spent most of the war in Dachau doesn’t at first believe the (true) stories about Auschwitz. Levi himself is surprised that a chemistry book seen in a camp can be the same book as people are using elsewhere, that a laboratory in a camp can be ‘surprisingly like any other laboratory’:

The smell makes me start back as if from the blow of a whip: the weak aromatic smell of organic chemistry laboratories. For a moment the large semi-dark room at the university, my fourth year, the mild air of May in Italy comes back to me with brutal violence and immediately vanishes.

At another point Levi says: ‘Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things happened.’

This is, of course, the haunting secret, and the secret of many hauntings. Levi quotes Simon Wiesenthal quoting the address of the SS to their prisoners: ‘However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world will not believe him.’ This is what Levi also calls the Third Reich’s ‘war against memory’: ‘It is important,’ he remarks, ‘to emphasise how both parties, victims and oppressors, had a keen awareness of the enormity and therefore the non-credibility of what took place in the Lagers – and, we may add here, not only in the Lagers, but in the ghettos, in the rear areas of the Eastern front, in the police stations, and in the asylums for the mentally handicapped.’ ‘The implausibility of their actions,’ Adorno says of the Nazis in Minima Moralia, ‘made it easy to disbelieve what nobody ... wanted to believe.’ So we need not only memory but a kind of retroactive faith in the historicity of what should not have happened.

Levi recounts a recurring dream of his, shared in some version, he says, by many prisoners, or at least recalled in some version by ‘almost all the survivors’ of the camps.

This is my sister here, with some unidentifiable friend and many other people. They are listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling ... It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent; they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word. A desolating grief is now born in me, like certain barely remembered pains of one’s early infancy. It is pain in its pure state, not tempered by a sense of reality.

This dream not only registers the birth and the anxiety of the idea of witness, it unfolds the truly Kafkan logic of this kind of horror. It is because I have ‘so many things to recount’, and because those things are so extraordinary, that no one is listening to me; my own disbelief in what is happening to me has infected my hearers, and the pain of their indifference is the perfect fulfilment not of a wish but of my deepest fear. A witness in this situation needs not only to have been in the place of horror but to re-create it again and again for his or her listeners or readers, to remake the place as that which cannot be denied. Or to put that another way, writing or speaking not only arranges the facts here, it is the very condition of our taking the facts as facts. Language is what overcomes, or fails to overcome, our lack of faith or our sheer incredulity.

In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi recounts the argument of a poem by Christian Morgenstern. A man is knocked down by a car in a street where there is not supposed to be any traffic. He gets up and thinks about the event, decides that since there is not supposed to be any traffic here there can’t be any, so he hasn’t been hit, his very bruises do not belong to a possible reality. In context Levi is talking about what he sees as the German love of law, of things as they should be rather than as they are, but the poem has a wider application, very relevant to Levi’s own continuing concerns. There are a number of criteria for our deciding to take things as real. One is that they should exist or have happened, that we have not hallucinated them, but that is scarcely enough. Another criterion is that we are able to get our minds round these things, accept them as part of a universe we find credible. When a party or a society sets out to do precisely those things we cannot and should not find credible, the problem of belief is precisely the problem of reality.

In fact, the incredible not only happens, it can take over. What Levi shows us in his extraordinary books is not the banality of evil, itself an important phenomenon, little understood in spite of its celebrity, but the sheer ordinariness of the unthinkable, once it catches up with you. ‘Gradually, the conditions worsened,’ Anissimov says of the camp at Fossoli, ‘each stage creating a new normality until the moment when the Germans took total control of the camp.’ The horror is that even in Auschwitz new normalities could be created, each one less credible than the last, but just as irrefutably real for the sufferer. The impossible begins to seem like the only possibility.

Normandy and Russia were so far away, and the winter so near; hunger and desolation so concrete, and all the rest so unreal, that it did not seem possible that there could really exist any other world or time than our world of mud and our sterile and stagnant time, whose end we were by now incapable of imagining.

It’s easy (well, not that easy, but it’s often done) to misread Levi’s tone, to mistake his modest wryness, his awareness of multiple possibilities, for an emotional detachment – or to take one of his angled ironies for a straight line. The danger is at its greatest with his famous remark about those who survived the camps and those who perished. ‘The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died.’ So there are no true witnesses to the real horror; the only witnesses are collaborators or those who in some way managed not to plumb the depths. ‘I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses.’ Anissimov says Levi is ‘impugning his own testimony’ here, and thinks his conclusion is ‘deluded’ – ‘a judgment that many see as both absurd and untrue’. It is certainly the case that even late in life Levi thought the only major rule for surviving or not in the camps was chance. This is what he says in If This Is a Man, and it is what he said again to Roth in 1986: ‘I insist there was no general rule, except entering the camp in good health and knowing German. Barring this, luck dominated.’ But then this is also (almost) what he says in the famous passage about the best and the worst, and the full context of the argument makes clear what is happening.

Levi’s physics teacher, Nicola Dallaporta, the man who took him on when the chemists wouldn’t, was interested in the doubts rather than the certainties of science, and much taken by Eastern religions, and by the possibility of combining Hinduism and Catholicism. He tried to persuade Levi, after the war, that Levi’s being spared was the work of Providence or Grace. Levi found this idea ‘monstrous’, and it is because he knew for sure that Providence had let so many good people die, that he allowed himself, in a burst of what seems to me noble theological anger, to arraign Providence for its neglect or corruption. If Providence saved anyone (but it didn’t), it saved the wrong ones.

Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the ‘gray zone’, the spies. It was not a certain rule (there were none, nor are there certain rules in human matters), but it was nevertheless a rule ... The worst survived, that is, the finest; the best all died.

Levi continues with a roll-call of those who died: Chaim, a watchmaker from Krakow; Szabo, a Hungarian peasant; Robert, a professor at the Sorbonne; Baruch, a longshoreman from Livorno; all heroes and helpers, tireless in their devotion to anyone who needed them. ‘These, and innumerable others, died not despite their valour but because of it’

We can argue with some of this, and perhaps we should. No doubt survivor’s guilt is acute only for those with genuinely delicate consciences, and everything suggests Levi was being too hard on himself. But the proposition is not only about him. Levi is refusing, on our behalf, the consolation of ordinary reason, even of the spiritual kind, when faced with the historical occurrence of the non-credible. Extraordinary reason might have a chance, but we still have to find it, and meanwhile we can keep working on our ‘ever-insufficient knowledge’ of the nature of unhappiness, social, political or personal.