The Drowned and the Unsaved

The Drowned and the Unsaved


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.

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.

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K….
The Trial)

It’s a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew.
         (Primo Levi to Germaine Greer)

In the summer of 1982, a publisher asked Levi to translate The Trial, as Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg had been asked to translate Lord Jim and Madame Bovary. For his mother, he needed the money. While he would have preferred Joseph Conrad or Thomas Mann, he sounded at the time almost cheerful about the project:

I like and admire Kafka because he writes in a manner that is totally foreign to me. In my writings, for better or worse, knowingly or unknowingly, I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile. Kafka takes an opposite path; he pours out an endless stream of the hallucinations dredged up from levels unbelievably deep, and never filters them. The reader feels them swarming with seeds and spores: they are burning with meaning, but he is never helped to tear down or bypass the veil, so as to see things in the place where they are hidden. Kafka never touches ground, he never deigns to offer you the clue to the maze.

His tune would soon change. In a 1983 interview, this dutiful child of the Enlightenment conceded that Kafka had a gift “that went beyond everyday reason…an almost animalesque sensitivity, like snakes that know when earthquakes are coming.” But Levi also wondered “if it is a good idea to give a book like this to a fifteen-year-old…. Now this ending is so cruel, so unexpectedly cruel, that if I had a young child I would spare him. I fear it would disturb him, make him suffer, although of course it is the truth. We will die, each of us will die, more or less like that.” This is odd enough from a writer whose feelings had been hurt when his own children declined to discuss his books. But, he confessed, “the undertaking disturbed me badly. I went into a deep, deep depression.” And: “I felt assaulted by this book.” Disappearing into Joseph K., “I accused myself, as he did.”

Levi was well-known for his impatience with long-winded, solipsistic or obscurantist prose. (About Beckett: “It is the duty of every human being to communicate.” About Pound: “writing in Chinese simply showed a disrespect for the reader.” Borges he found “alien and distant,” Proust “boring” and Dostoyevsky “rebarbative” and “portentous.”) But this was different. Kafka got to him so much that he resolved never to read him again: “I feel a repulsion that is clearly of a psychoanalytic nature.”

How so? Let’s look at that strange unfinished novel, written shortly after Franz broke off his engagement to Félice, under the influence of Søren Kierkegaard and the “rebarbative” author of Crime and Punishment, with its attic offices and courts of impeachment, its brittle beards and colored badges, its “ostensible acquittals” and “indefinite postponements,” its hopelessness, sinfulness and sinister-enigmatic tropes: “It did not follow that the case was lost, by no means, at least there was no decisive evidence for such an assumption; you simply knew nothing more about the case and would never know anything more about it.”

Imagine a Primo Levi meditating on, for instance, this creepy middle passage:

One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the disposition of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery–since everything is interlocked–and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.

Or, at the end of the novel, this impasse:

Were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked? Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.

Easy enough to say that the survivor read himself into such paranoid cloud shapes, where guilt was nameless, justice faceless, space liquid, time centrifugal, God absent and Law a myth–because everybody does. We all feel something ominous and devouring about corporations and bureaucracies, about banking and religion, even about Prague, that baroque estrangement. But a sentence like this one had to seem personal: “Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.” And still more chilling: “The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be flying already through the woods.”

Moreover, Franz K.’s Joseph K. is devoured as well by sexuality–by Elsa, the cabaret waitress, who receives visitors in bed; by Leni, the lawyer’s servant, who only sleeps with men who have been accused; by Fräulein Bürstner and the usher’s wife; by the half-naked mothers nursing babies in the Lower Court, the prostitute maids and prostitute custodians, and the little girls who molest him in the painter Titorelli’s garret, behind the red door–never even mind the mother he hasn’t seen for three years. Maybe that butcher’s knife wasn’t intended, after all, for his self-interrogating heart.

Well, Kafka: He was all about failure. Everything was incomprehensible, nothing could be known, and there were no happy endings. (His three sisters all died in the camps.) Kafka told us: “Balzac carried a cane on which was carved the legend: I smash every obstacle; my legend reads: Every obstacle smashes me.” And about this Kafka, Levi, “a puritanical introvert,” was crystal clear: “I fear him, like a great machine that crashes in on you, like the prophet who tells you the day you will die.”

If there is an Auschwitz, then there cannot be a God.
         (Primo Levi)

For the most part the Levi we meet in The Voice of Memory is the man in his books: “I’m Italian, but I’m also Jewish. It’s like having a spare wheel, or an extra gear.” He is also an “amphibian, a centaur,” split in two–on the one hand, the chemist and technician; on the other, the writer who gives interviews. That he survived, unlike 647 of the 650 Italians who accompanied him to Poland, he attributes again to “sheer luck,” “sound instinct,” “unsuspected stamina,” “knowing German” and “professional background.” (Believing in God, which he didn’t, and bearing witness, as he would, were irrelevant. He had happened to be a chemist in a concentration camp that was also an I.G. Farben synthetic rubber factory.) That he should have passed through the dark of Survival in Auschwitz to the light of The Reawakening seems a miracle. That he should have married, fathered, worked in a paint shop, made radio programs, won literary prizes–“Paradoxically, my baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; it seemed to me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant”–and lectured schoolchildren in the same “calm and reasonable tone” is practically a benediction.

In the Roth interview, we see him in his study, in the room where he was born, with the flowered sofa, easy chair, word processor, color-coded notebooks, a big wire butterfly, a little wire bug and an owl. In the pages that follow, as if from Dr. Gottlieb in The Reawakening, “intelligence and cunning emanated from him like energy from radium, with the same silent and penetrating continuity.” Or so we want to believe. He repeats, rethinks, amends, clarifies. We hear again about spoons and shoes; the “healing” in his first book and the “joy” of his second. About socialism and Sophie’s Choice. About Rabelais, Dante and Ariosto. About solidarity in the camps (none) and resistance (futile). About James Joyce (whom he likes) and Bruno Bettelheim (whom he doesn’t). He describes his chemical work (“at war with the obtuse and malign inertia of matter”), his responsibilities as a writer (“All we can ask of those who create is that they should be neither servile nor false”) and what he reads in his spare time (“I prefer to stick to the tried and tested, to make a hole and then nibble away at it, perhaps for an entire lifetime, like woodworms when they find a piece of wood to their taste”).

This is who we want him to be. It argues that perhaps something of the best of us, skeptical, ironic and aware, could outlive the worst. Like a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it answers our secular-humanist need for a secular-humanist grace, a darting and undaunted intelligence capable of suggesting in 1980 that “Auschwitz may be the punishment…of barbarian Germany, of the barbarian Nazis, against Jewish civilization–that is to say, the punishment for daring, just as the shipwreck of Ulysses is the punishment of a barbarian god for human daring. I was thinking of that vein of German anti-Semitism that struck chiefly at the intellectual daring of the Jews, such as Freud, Marx, and all the innovators, in every field. It was that daring that irked a certain German philistinism much more than the fact of blood or race.”

So if, in The Reawakening, he asked us to look at a Chagall-like scene in Zhmerinka (“The walls of one of the station latrines were plastered with German banknotes, meticulously stuck there with excrement”), we also saw the Russians dancing, the Gypsy orchestra at Slutsk and the train with a piano car. And if, in The Periodic Table, he recalls “the vilification of the prayer shawl,” turned into underwear for Lager Jews, he also explains the political chemistry of Jewishness: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed…in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed…. I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard.” And if, in The Monkey’s Wrench, he had to tell us about the German engineer who went to Bombay’s Towers of Silence and informed the Parsees “how German technicians had designed a grille to be placed at the bottom of the towers: a grille of electric resistors that would burn the dead body…without flames, without smell, and without contaminating anything,” he also told us what it tastes like to drink a glacier’s melting snow: “I couldn’t explain it to you, because you know how hard it is to explain tastes and smells, except with examples, like if you say the smell of garlic or the taste of salami. But I would actually say that water tasted like sky, and, in fact, it came straight down from the sky.”

But by the time he got to The Drowned and the Saved, the year before he died, it was as if the dogs ate the hare. It tore him apart to consider the pathos, ambiguities and collaborations of the “gray zone” in the camps, the “filtered memories” of victims and the survival strategies of even the bravest: “I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others.” This calm man was suddenly furious: “We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the ‘muslims,’ the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.” He seemed almost to relish the sleazy story of Chaim Rumkowski, “king of the Jews” of Lodz, who collaborated himself all the way to the gas chamber:

Like Rumkowksi, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility…. Forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.

Of this change of heart, or perhaps a buried shadow, there are passing hints in The Voice of Memory: “My defect is lack of courage, fear for myself and for others.” And: “I’m not very balanced at all. I go through long periods of imbalance…. I find it very hard to cope with problems. This side of myself I’ve never written about”–except perhaps in his angry, oblique poems, “suffused with auras and shadows.” But: “I am incapable of analyzing myself. My work is nocturnal, often carried out unconsciously.” Was it possible, he was asked, to destroy the humanity in man? “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

In Anissimov’s biography, however, the shadows hound us from the start. She’s done all the busy work; read the report cards; buried the engineer father in 1942; tracked down the real Alberto; explained, on the one wing, Cesare Pavese, Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci and, on the other, the sinister clowns of Italian Futurism and Italian Fascism; looked at the racial laws, the Chemical Institute and the asbestos mine; gone into the beast’s belly with all the rage that Levi suppressed (the vertical stripes and brass bands, the Jewish women in the camp orchestra wearing blue hats with polka dots while they play Vienna waltzes, the children burned alive to economize on hydrogen cyanide, tobacco pouches made from tanned scrotums); the engagement to Lucia Morpurgo (“Levi was infinitely grateful to Lucia for having consented to love him–an ex-deportee, a shy and repressed young man”); the suicide of Pavese, after all his friends had left town for the summer; the cigarettes (mentholated); the literary life (smarmy); the Red Brigades (appalling); Israel (get out of Lebanon, get rid of Sharon); Saul Bellow’s famous-making praise for The Periodic Table; mother, witness, mother, witness, mother–

But all along–from a childhood fear of spiders dating back to his first glimpse of Doré’s sketch of Arachne in Canto XII of Dante’s Purgatorio, to a pubescent belief in what he was told by his Christian classmates about circumcision and castration, to his peculiar detestation of rabbits (“like certain human beings, they had nothing in their heads but food and sex”) that had somehow extended to the girls around him, none of whom he could bring himself to touch, to the tormenting “dream within a dream” that came to him even after he was married (“I am alone in the center of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home”), to the obscene absurdity of receiving a signed copy of the Spandau diaries of Albert Speer, who claimed to be reading Levi, which could account for a renewed fever of the poetry-writing he called an “illness” (“dark and morbid themes,” “violent feelings of rage,” chimneys, shadows) and another downward spiral into depression, which is where he met Joseph K.–all along, it seems, he may have been as buggy and neurotic as Kafka himself, with more reason and less crawl space.

In his last letter to Ruth Feldman, the American translator of his poetry, two months before he died, he told her that “the period he was living through was worse than Auschwitz, because he was no longer young and no longer had the ability to react, and take a grip on himself.” His last essay, published two weeks after the stairwell, was called “The Fear of Spiders”:

Their hairiness is supposed to have a sexual significance, and the repulsion we feel supposedly reveals our unconscious rejection of sex: this is how we express it and at the same time this is how we try to free ourselves of it…. The spider is the enemy-mother who envelops and encompasses, who wants to make us re-enter the womb from which we have issued, bind us tightly to take us back to the impotence of infancy, subject us again to her power….

Like a great machine that crashes in on you…

I would have reformulated Adorno’s remark like this: After Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry, except about Auschwitz.
         (Primo Levi)

It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.
         (Kafka, The Trial)

Cynthia Ozick reviewed The Drowned and the Saved as if it were a suicide note. He had at last let loose his rage. She was proud of him for finally giving in to hate. So what if it cost him his life? She only wished that all his books “had been as vehement.” And there’s the ugly rub. In order to approve of his farewell testament she needed somehow to trash everything else he’d written. Ladling on such inverted comma words and phrases as “curious peacefulness,” “famous ‘detachment,'” “so transparent, so untainted,” “pure spirit,” “vessel of clear water,” “well-mannered cicerone of hell,” “Darwin of the death camps,” and (worst of all) purveyor of “uplift,” she actually seemed to sneer.

At the time I thought Ozick’s essay impudent and maybe even ulterior. Imagine blaming a writer for his blurbs and a witness for his reasonableness. Why not come right out and complain that he was a Sephardic Jew instead of an Ashkenazi, an assimilated Italian instead of a lacerated Pole, a socialist instead of a Zionist, a nonbeliever going into the camps and a nonbeliever coming out, pro-Diaspora and anti-Eretz Israel, who didn’t even speak Yiddish?

I’m older now, and ulterior on my own time. And while it still seems that anyone unmoved to tears and scruple by a brilliant book like The Reawakening has become sadly coarsened, somehow tone-deaf, I am also aware of our desperate need to cling to whatever purchase we think we have on the sudden edge and the bloody sleeve and the fiery sign. Reading mirrors, we are horrified by what we see. We abduct and torment our heroes of consciousness as if we were Giacomettis torturing metals and ideas.

“We hate in itself our masters’ insane dream of greatness, and their contempt for God and men, and for ourselves, as men,” wrote Levi. And: “It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism was, sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them similar to itself, and this all the more when they are available, blank, and lack a political or moral armature.” Where to find such armature? To this bonfire, he can’t be said to have brought a sword: “We must be democrats first, and Jews or Italians, or anything else, second.” But that is who he was, and it would kill him. “I tell you they are just like other people,” he said of the Sonderkommandos, “only a lot more unhappy.”

He had never wanted to be a writer, or an intellectual, or a victim, or a witness. He had troubles of his own, ordinary spiders, before he met Kafka in the gray zone. And now that we know all about them, there still remains the mystery of his transcendence. For a while, only for a while, but all the more astonishing–water tasted like the sky.

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