What Levi would never understand was the willing remove of the Germans from their fellow humanity. The ability to look—for years on end—at a human being and see not a person but a thing became and remained for Levi the crime of crimes. Yet for this, he very nearly blamed not the Germans but life itself. After all, if thousands upon thousands of people were capable of not seeing themselves in others, could this capacity be anything other than innate? Life itself, he concluded, was to be pronounced guilty for having made possible such a monstrous divide within the human organism. This pronouncement became the unyielding indictment—enlarged upon many times in books, essays and stories—that made Primo Levi one of the greatest of the Holocaust writers. As Berel Lang, Levi’s newest biographer, puts it in Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, “That someone who was himself” struggling to remain human was “capable at the same time of recognizing and reflecting on” the existential meaning of his incarceration “makes Levi’s work distinctive both as philosophy and as history and memoir.”
Lang is an emeritus professor of philosophy at SUNY Albany who has written widely on the Holocaust. His book on Levi is an intellectual biography characterized by a somewhat schematic set of speculations on some of the basic elements of Levi’s life, each one arranged around the central experience of Auschwitz. Among the questions Lang ponders: If it wasn’t for Auschwitz, would Levi have written at all? If it wasn’t for Auschwitz, would he have become a self-conscious Jew? If it wasn’t for Auschwitz, would he have killed himself? The book begins with the question of Levi’s suicide, which Lang rightly says is almost always the first thing people talk about when Levi’s name comes up. Here is an example of how Lang proceeds:
The cause of death was judged to be a fall from the landing of Levi’s apartment on the third floor…. There were no witnesses…. The verdict of suicide was thus an inference….
Claims attributing Levi’s suicide to his months in Auschwitz surfaced quickly…
As Elie Wiesel wrote: “Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.” Lang continues:
Those who dissented entirely from the verdict of suicide…claimed (and still continue to hold) that for Levi to commit suicide would diminish or contradict too much else in his life and work, what he had lived through and for…he should not have done it or, more strongly, that he could not have done it….
Neither personal relationship nor independent analysis can fully settle the issue, although each item of evidence may add to or subtract from a conclusion in different measures….
Some of his readers have argued that to accept the verdict of Levi’s suicide…would undo the intellectual and emotional strength credited to Levi as survivor and witness.
Around each of these assertions, Lang gathers a prodigious amount of rumination that includes his thoughts on suicide in general, Levi’s in particular, and those of the imagined reader. Each of the chapters that follow treats Levi’s relation to another of the aspects previously named—writing, thinking, Jewishness—in the same manner.
Lang’s book does not represent an introduction to the life of Primo Levi. If the reader is expecting to find Levi, the flesh-and-blood man, on the page, he is not here. What is here is a philosophically minded investigation into the contextual nature of Levi’s life, mainly as a prisoner of Auschwitz. It asks: Under what conditions does suicide represent a “free death”? How does the mind of a trained scientist come to a prisoner’s aid? How does the visceral experience of the camp differ from the intellectual act of thinking about it?
The writing in Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life is not always felicitous. A great many of Lang’s sentences are awkward to the point of unintelligibility. Burdened as they are by the academic habit of piling clause upon clause upon clause, they sometimes fail to arrive, grammatically speaking. However, the book is carried by a rich and absorptive interest in the social and psychological realities that endow Primo Levi’s life with a sense of largeness. If you read it after rereading Survival in Auschwitz, you will inevitably experience a renewed sense of wonder at the near-epic value of its subject.
Levi was undeniably himself, but he was also like those hysterics who become commanding figures in the face of true crisis, when some previously untested essence within them is brought to life. In the concentration camp, a force greater than the fears that had routinely plagued him asserted itself. It was the force of the seriously stunned humanist who, trapped in an “end of civilization” scenario, looks into the void where the human condition in all its color and variety, beauty and horror, waywardness and firmness is expiring, and knows that should he live, he will be ordained to spend the rest of his days describing the unimaginable and the indescribable.
Ironically enough, it was precisely because Levi remained as human in the camp as he had been outside it that the person he had been before the war was there, waiting to claim him, as soon as he was once more a “free” man. Slowly, the old fears, anxieties and depressions seeped back into his inner being. That he kept them from closing in long enough to become one of the great tellers of those tales that warrant rewriting the Bible is a matter of true amazement.