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The Drowned and the Unsaved | The Nation

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The Drowned and the Unsaved

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He jumped, of course. But also he was pushed. And when Primo Levi, on "a sudden violent impulse," threw himself down three flights of stairwell in the Art Nouveau apartment house on the Corso Re Umberto in Turin--where, except for twenty months in World War II as "a dead man on vacation," he had lived his entire life--he killed something else besides a 67-year-old chemist, writer and witness (Auschwitz #174517). For lack of a better way to characterize our complicated investment in everything he stood for, let's just say that on April 11, 1987, he killed our wishful thinking.

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John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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I am about to blame Franz Kafka. This is spurious, even hysterical. But why let the Nazis have the last word? From Myriam Anissimov's anguishing biography Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist and a quarter-century of remarkable interviews assembled in The Voice of Memory, I want to cobble up some options.

We could blame instead a Corso Re Umberto family atmosphere that Anissimov describes as "both protective and repressive," with Levi, "the prisoner in Turin," trapped in servitude to a 91-year-old mother ("paralyzed, tyrannical and senile") and a 95-year-old mother-in-law (blind, requiring twenty-four-hour care). Plus which, he'd stopped taking antidepressants because of prostate surgery, he was so immobilized by fear of memory loss that he spent whole days playing chess with his computer, and his adult children, the botanist Lisa and the physicist Renzo, "turned pale and burst into tears" whenever he tried to talk about the death camps, wouldn't admit to reading his books and had always wanted a "normal" father.

We could blame as well the Holocaust deniers, who had made a well-publicized comeback in the mid-1980s. Or Ronald Reagan, who had recently gone to Bitburg to honor the SS dead. Or Commentary magazine, which had published, in October 1985, a shameful essay accusing Levi not only of "denatured pseudo-scientific prose" and "a tin ear for religion," but also of opportunism. Or Jean Améry, the Austrian philosopher who had likewise survived Auschwitz, also wrote about it and, before killing himself, called Levi "the forgiver." Or even Italo Calvino, who on that fateful April Saturday was already two years dead, which meant that instead of telephoning his old friend for help, Levi phoned instead the chief rabbi of Rome, who neglected to tell anybody until ten years later. What the writer said to the rabbi was: "I don't know how to go on. I can't stand this life any longer. My mother has cancer, and each time I look at her face I remember the faces of the men lying dead on the planks of the bunks in Auschwitz."

Anyway, he lost his balance. And balance was what we needed from him, along with what H. Stuart Hughes called his "equanimity" and Irving Howe his "moral poise." Against the odds and the century, we relied on his integrity and even his charm--the Pan-like exuberance Philip Roth notes in an interview in The Voice of Memory, like "some little quicksilver woodland creature empowered by the forest's most astute intelligence." Every word he ever wrote, in a prose as purely Mediterranean as the best Greek poets, opposed the fascist "world of shame," as if the bankrupt moral economy it left behind demanded all our goods and services to square the account, a humanity "commensurate" to the horror. "Commensurate" was a favorite word of his. So was "counterweight." And so was "proportion." He was troubled in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) by the idea that his testimony "could by itself gain for me the privilege of surviving.... I cannot see any proportion between the privilege and its outcome."

Elsewhere in those final essays, through which we scuttle for clues to his secession, the anthropologist, linguist and camera-eye of the Holocaust worried that "reason, art and poetry are no help in deciphering" a place where they are banned. He quoted Améry, his accuser, to agree with him: "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.... Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world." But he refused a label of "forgiver": "I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or return blows." He sought redress in law: "I know how badly these mechanisms function, but I am the way I was made." (As The Periodic Table put it: "I am not the Count of Montecristo.") And he disdained "confusions, small-change Freudianism, morbidities, or indulgences. The oppressor remains what he is, and so does the victim. They are not interchangeable. The former is to be punished and execrated (but, if possible, understood), the latter is to be pitied and helped; but both, faced by the indecency of the irrevocable act, need refuge and protection, and instinctively search for them. Not all, but most--and often for their entire lives."

And he also thought about suicide--"an act of man and not of the animal," "a mediated act, a noninstinctive, unnatural choice." While the "enslaved animals" in the Lager (camp) sometimes let themselves die, they did not choose to: "Svevo's remark in The Confessions of Zeno...has the rawness of truth: 'When one is dying, one is much too busy to think about death. All one's organism is devoted to breathing.'" Suicide, he said, "is born from a feeling of guilt that no punishment has attenuated." But in the camps "the harshness of imprisonment was perceived as punishment, and the feeling of guilt (if there is punishment, there must have been guilt) was relegated to the background, only to reemerge after the Liberation." What guilt? That "we had not done anything, or not enough.... And this is a judgment that the survivor believes he sees in the eyes of those (especially the young) who listen to his stories and judge with facile hindsight, or who perhaps feel cruelly repelled." Leading to the worst of introspections:

I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is, in fact, killed. The "saved" of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the "gray zone," the spies.... I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died.

Which brings us back, like a black boomerang, to Kafka.

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