Calvino, Manzoni and the Gray Zone - by Carlo Ginzburg
First of all, there is a memory, an image. Primo Levi and Calvino are walking side by side at dusk in the summertime, talking animatedly (Calvino is taller), along the road that goes towards the village of Rhêmes Notre-Dame. It was at Rhêmes, a little side valley of the Aosta Valley, that the co-workers and friends of the Einaudi publishing house used to meet each summer. The discussions would go on for about a week.1For a warm remembrance of these get-togethers, see E. Ferrero, Rhêmes o della felicità (Courmayeur, 2008). That was the only time when, at least when I was there, that Primo Levi participated. It must have been 1980 or 1981. The meaning of that image imprinted in my memory became evident in retrospect when Sergio Solmi’s translation into Italian of Raymond Queneau’s Petite cosmogonie portative was published by Einaudi in 1982. Calvino wrote an afterword for it, entitled Piccola guida alla Piccola Cosmogonia [little guide to the little cosmogony], where he thanked Primo Levi, “who with his professional knowledge as a chemist and the agility of his sense of humor managed to get a handle on many of the passages that had remained inaccessible to me.”2R. Queneau, Piccola cosmogonia portatile, trans. (into Italian) S. Solmi, Afterwards “Piccola Guida alla Piccola Cosmogonia” by I. Calvino (Torino: Einaudi, 1982), p. 162. Petite cosmogonie portative (Paris: Gallimard, 1950); Calvino worked on it between 1978 and 1981: cf. the note in I. Calvino, Romanzi e racconti, I, eds. M. Barenghi & B. Falcetto (Milano: Mondadori, 1991), p. lxxxiv. For the correspondence between Levi and Calvino about Petite cosmogonie portative, see, I. Calvino, Letters, 1941-1985, ed L. Baranelli (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013), p. 532 (30 April 1985). In an enthusiastic review dedicated to the Petite cosmogonie portative, Levi referred to Calvino’s Piccola guida as “very sharp." In 1986 he evoked his recollections of the work he did on Queneau “with happiness and amusement” at Rhêmes Notre-Dame as the “happiest hour” of his friendship with Calvino, who had died the year before.4P. Levi, “Calvino, Queneau e le scienze”, in Opere, II, ed. M. Belpoliti, (Torino: Einaudi, 1997), pp. 1344-46; see G. Poli & G. Calcagno, Echi di una voce perduta (Milano: Mursia, 1992), pp. 329-31). Levi’s commented in response to arequest of Calvino in relation to his translation Queneau’s Le chant du Styrène; cf. I. Calvino, Letters (10 August 1985).
The chemist who had helped Calvino decipher Queneau’s arcane allusions to Mendeleev’s periodic table was also the author of The Periodic Table (1975), that very fine book where the table of the elements was used as a metaphor for the various and sundry way of impersonating the human condition.5“Moreover, there is an immense patrimony of metaphors that the writer can take from the chemistry of today and yesterday,” “Ex-Chemist,” Other People’s Trades (London: Abacus, 1991), p. 175. See The Periodic Table (New York:Penguin, 2000): “Sandro seemed to be made of iron, and he was bound to iron by an ancient kinship” (p. 36); “more obscurely, he felt the need to prepare himself (and to prepare me) for an iron future (p. 37). Therefore Calvino’s comment needs to be corrected when he wrote that “Argon” was the only chapter in The Periodic Table where an element is a metaphor; cf. I libri degli altri, ed. G. Tesio (Torino: Einaudi, 1991), Letter of 12 October 1974, p. 606. However, can we really detect a non-metaphoric equivalent of Mendeleev’s table in the sphere of human relationships? In his exploration of the “transversal bonds which link the world of nature to that of culture,” Primo Levi implicitly asked this kind of question and sought an answer.”6P. Levi, Trades, p. viii.
The Personal Anthology that Levi entitled The Search for Roots (1981; 2001) starts with Job.“Why start with Job?” Levi asks. He answers: “because this magnificent and harrowing story encapsulatesthe questions of all the ages, those for which man has never to this day found an answer, nor will we ever find one, but he will always search for it because he needs it in order to live, to understand himself and theworld. Job is the just man oppressed by injustice”.
Job is “man” in general. However, in this phrase, we can hear an autobiographical timbre, which becomes clear a few lines after, when Levi says that Job, the just, is “degraded to an animal for an experiment” by the wager between Satan and God. In a passage of If This is a Man that was to become famous, Levi had talked of Auschwitz as an experiment:
a gigantic biological and social experiment. Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs, are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs, and which is more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what is adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life.
As Calvino immediately noted, Job evokes Auschwitz.9“I would suggest that it was the very presence of the Book of Job as an introduction to this ‘search for roots’ that reminds us that the journey of Primo Levi passed through Auschwitz.” See. Review, La Repubblica, 11 July 1981: nowin “Afterward,” Roots, p. 222. However, several years had already passed since Primo Levi began to ask himself whether the dichotomy, embodied by Job, between the just man and injustice, had been, even at Auschwitz, always clear cut. “There are a number of signs to suggest that the time has come to explore the space that separates the victims from the executioner, and to do it with a lighter touch and a less troubled spirit than has been done, for example, in some well-known recent films,”he wrote in his preface to The Night of the Girondins, the story by Jacob Presser that he translated.10P. Levi, “Preface to Presser’s The Night of the Girondins,” Black Hole, p. 36; the reference is to L. Cavani’s film The Night Porter (1974). 10 In a1979 interview, Levi talked of a project that was to involve a “taking a stand in the face of ambiguity." In another 1979 interview, he explains that he wanted to take another look about his experience in the concentration camp: “After all the polemic about the identification between victim and oppressor, the theme of guilt, the extreme ambiguity of that place, the grey band that separated the oppressed from the oppressors” [Voice, p. 131].
This is the announcement of “The Gray Zone,” an extremely dense chapter of Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved. However, the topic (not the metaphor) was already there in his first book, If This is a Man, in the chapter entitled “The Drowned and the Saved.”12P. Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage, 1989); If This is a Man, pp. 93-106. In an earlier draft of If This is a Man, “The Drowned and the Saved” was the title of the second chapter, which then became “On the Bottom”: see P. Mesnard, Primo Levi. Le passage d’un témoin (Paris: Fayard, 2011), p. 188. After the passing of almost 40 years, the title of this chapter became the title of a book, one which closed his literary journey (and, a little bit afterwards, his life). However, the tones of the two texts are extremely different. The chapter of If This is a Man was written by a witness who is remembering; the chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, by a witness who is reflecting. The distance in time between the events is reinforced by a literary filter, The Betrothed, which was already on Levi’s mind at the time of his 1979 interview:
when Renzo Tramaglino threatens don Abbondio with a knife. Manzoni observes that the oppressor, don Rodrigo, is also responsible for the minor acts of oppression carried out by his victims. It is a theme I recognize all to well. It is a stupid mistake to see all the demons on oneside and all the saints on the other. It wasn’t like that at all.... To divide into black and whitemeans no to know human nature.13P. Levi, “A Conversation with Primo Levi,” G. Grassano (1979), in The Voice of Memory eds. Marco Belpoliti & Robert S.C. Gordon (New York: Polity, 2000), pp. 121-35, especially pp. 131-32.
Direct and indirect echoes of The Betrothed appear very often in Primo Levi’s writings andinterviews. In fact, this passage from Manzoni, which was evoked in an interview from 1979 and then quoted in “The Gray Zone,” the chapter in The Drowned and the Saved, is especially important. Levi choseManzoni as a guide for advancing towards the slippery slopes of “ambiguity,” towards a topic rooted in theexperience he went through at Auschwitz. Why Manzoni?
For the young Primo Levi, “the chemistry and the physics on which we fed... were the antidote to Fascism.” As we read in the chapter, “Iron,” in The Periodic Table:
Professor D. ... handed each of us precisely one gram of a certain powder: by the next day wehad to complete the qualitative analysis, that is, to report what metals and non-metals it contained. Report in writing, like a police report, only yes and no, because doubts and hesitations were not admissible: it was each time a choice, a deliberation, a mature and responsible undertaking, for which Fascism had not prepared us, and from which emanated a good smell, dry and clean.14P. Levi, Table, pp. 31-32 44, 39-40.
The periodic table of elements demands clear answers: “the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences [like those between sodium and potassium, which are almost the same]....
And not only the chemist’s trade,” as Primo Levi summed it up in 1975.15Table, p. 51. This passage is quoted from a different point of view by C. Cases, “L’ordine delle cose e l’ordine delle parole” (1987), in Primo Levi: un’antologia della critica, ed E. Ferrero (Torino: Einaudi, 1997), p. 7. However, Levi’s conviction that the clear answers of the world of chemistry could be extended to the human sphere was destined to break down a little bit later, corroded by his incessant reflections on the experience of Auschwitz. “The newcomers to the Lager, whether young or not” had immediately learned that there was an ambiguouszone between the oppression and the oppressed, inhabited by the privileged oppressed, who collaborated with the oppressor to greater or lesser degrees. Ambiguity is not difference. (There are no ambiguities in the periodic table of elements.) The oppressed person who oppresses is an ambiguous being, an oxymoron:“[almost certainly] the dominant stylistic device, quantitatively and qualitatively, in Levi’s works,” as PierVincenzo Mengaldo demonstrated in a brilliant way, also evoking the gray zone.16P.V. Mengaldo, “Lingua e scrittura in Levi,” pp. 233-42; for the reference to the gray zone, p. 238.
In 1976, Levi asked: “Can Cohn be judged?” (Cohn is a character in Presser’s The Night of the Girondists, the Jew who does the Nazi’s bidding by setting up the deportations to Sobibór.). “Well, the sense of the book is that Cohn can be judged.”17P. Levi, “Preface to Presser’s The Night of the Girondins,” p. 35-36. Ten years later, in The Drowned and the Saved, he reflected on the real-life people who collaborated with the Nazis and gave a different answer: “it is necessary to declare the imprudence of issuing hasty moral judgment on such human cases.” In a strategic position, he inserts a quotation from The Betrothed, which he had alluded to in an interview some years before:
Alessandro Manzoni, the nineteenth-century novelist and poet knew this quite well:“Provocateurs, oppressors, all those who in some way injure others, are guilty, not only of theevil they commit, but also of the perversion into which they lead the spirit of the offended.”The condition of the offended does not exclude culpability, which is often objectively serious, but I know of no human tribunal to which one could delegate the judgment.18Drowned, p. 44.
“I know of no human tribunal”: the person who wrote these words did not know any other kind of tribunal, but these words show how dense the mental dialogue was between Primo Levi, an atheist, and Manzoni, a Catholic convert who did recognize divine judgment as the decisive appeal. Nevertheless, in thismental dialogue there is the phrase, “on such human cases,” which should be associated with casuistry, i.e. the perspective that aims to verify concretely, through the analysis of specific cases, the abstract formulations of laws, and moral laws. This connection with casuistry in confirmed by Levi’s use of the technical expression, “cases of conscience,” in his preface to a book in which Hermann Langbein (another Auschwitz inmate) had minutely analyzed the concentration camp system “down to the grey band of the Kapos and the prisoners with privileged status.”19P. Levi, “Preface to H. Langbein’s People in Auschwitz,” Black Hole, p. 81. Levi had already referred to Langbein’s book, which had not yet been translated into Italian, in his “Preface to The Night of the Girondists” (1976). In Langbein’s chapter, “Jewish VIPs,” Langbein notes that Primo Levi himself, in If This is a Man, realized that he did not investigate the hierarchy that ruled the camp People in Auschwitz enough (Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P,2004), pp. 169 ff. Levi calls Langbein “a dear friend of mine, a person I highly respect,” cf. Risa Sodi, “An Interview with Primo Levi,” Partisan Review, LIV, 3, 364 (1987).
I started out with a very broad definition of casuistry, which I will try to specify historically. Manzoni, who had converted to an austere Catholicism inspired by Jansenism, was an enthusiastic reader of the Port Royal writers. He always had a negative bias towards casuistry.20On all this, see the still fundamental book, F. Ruffini, La vita religiosa di Alessandro Manzoni, 2 vols. (Bari: Laterza, 1931). This can be seen in A Vindication of Catholic Morality (1819), which Manzoni wrote on the prompting of Monsignor Luigi Tosi, in response to the last chapter of Sismondi’s Histoire des républiques italiennes (1818). Sismondi attributed most of the moral decadence of the Italians to the Catholic Church, and especially to the corrupting effects of casuistry. Manzoni answered this accusation by defending Catholic morality, but he did this distancinghimself from the casuists. He stated that he had read “not even one of them” and that he knew them only through “the confutation and censure directed against many of them” (first of all, certainly, by Pascal in Provinciales). Perhaps Manzoni’s flat-out statement is not entirely true, but its substantial point, which takes us back to Primo Levi and the gray zone, is another one. When people discuss casuistry, they often mix up two elements – the analysis of situations and the judgment that derives from it. Moral laxity, frequent in casuistry, above all Jesuit casuistry, is not a necessary consequence of it. Sismondi himself recognized this. In a letter to the Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing from 1833, he wrote:
Those who believe that morality consists in only several simple precepts that are quickly wiped away seem to me to be very superficial observers. On the contrary, the more we study, the more we see the field broaden. One could convince oneself of this by reading the thousands of books written on cases of conscience in the Catholic church. The secret of the confessional, the need finally to agree on an absolution and maintain priestly power – these things certainly made the casuists deviate and create, through their help, what one had termed Jesuit morality. Nevertheless, great progress has been made by them in this noble science and perhaps we owe more to them than to the Bible itself for the establishment of the system of Christian morality.23F. Ruffini, La vita religiosa, II, pp. 182-183.
Manzoni’s rigorist morality prevented him from arriving at a conclusion like this. However, in his novel, the subtle distinctions that he makes in the moral sphere, rather than mitigating the severity of the judgment, make his judgment more precise. Thus, in the passage from The Betrothed that Primo Levi quoted in relation to the “gray zone,” the perversion of the oppressed by the oppressors compounds the judgment against the oppressors. This passage is tacitly re-echoed by Levi a little bit before the conclusion of “The Gray Zone”:
an infernal order such a National Socialism exercises a frightful power of corruption, against which it is difficult to guard oneself. It degrades its victims and makes them similar to itself, because it needs both great and small complicities.24Drowned, p. 68.
The Special Squads present us with an extreme case – the Sonderkommandos who were assigned to the management of the crematoriums. “Conceiving and organizing the squads was National Socialism’s most demonic crime.” Yet, Levi cautions us: “Therefore I ask that we meditate on the story of ‘the crematorium ravens’ with pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended.”25Drowned, p. 60. Nevertheless, to abstain from judgment on the oppressed who have become accomplices in oppression is something that is very different from absolving or pardoning the oppressors. “To forgive is not my verb,” Primo Levi said in an interview. “I am not a believer, the phrase ‘I absolve thee,’ has no precise meaning for me. I don’t believe that anyone, not even a priest, has the power to bind and release others.” In another interview, in referring to a Jewish rather than Christian context, he said, “Since I’m not a believer, I don’t really know what forgiveness is. It’s a concept that’s outside my world. I don’t have the authority to bestowforgiveness. If I were a rabbi, maybe I would; even if I were a judge, perhaps.”27Sodi, Partisan Review, 362. Therefore, rejecting the false equivalence suggested by the statement, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, Primo Levi resolutely distances himself from the second term [pardonner] and opts for the first [comprendre]. “I would like to understand you to judge you,” he wrote to his German translator, addressing himself to his German readers.28P. Levi, Opere, II, p. 1129. In fact, he wanted to try to understand how Auschwitz had been possible and to understand, as he said in an interview, “in a wider sense also, because there is another level of understanding that interests me: as a chemist, I want to understand the world around me.”29Calcagno interview, Voice, p. 111. However, as we have seen, in the face of the ambiguities of Auschwitz, chemistry, with its clear classifications, is disarmed. What does emerge here is the profound debt of Primo Levi, a “Jewish Italian,” as he wished to define himself, had with Manzoni, a Catholic convert, and, more precisely, his debt to a Manzoni who was paradoxically close to casuistry.30M. Belpoliti, Primo Levi (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 1998), pp. 111-14.
How can we explain this debt, this contiguity? I think the answer should be looked for in the crossings over, which have not yet been studied adequately, between the Talmud and Christian casuistry. Primo Levi dedicated an article entitled “Ritual and Laughter” to compendium of Talmudic wisdom provided by The Set Table, the famous book by Joseph ben Ephraim Karo printed in Venice in 1565, which he read in translation. Levi first lists in an amused tone several of the ritual distinctions that Karo analyzed with extremely minute casuistic subtlety and then takes flight towards the cosmos:
Behind these curious pages I perceive an ancient taste for bold discussion, an intellectual flexibility that does not fear contradictions, indeed welcomes them as an inevitable ingredient of life; and life is rule, it is order prevailing over Chaos, but the rule has crevices, unexplored pockets of exception, license, indulgence and disorder. Trouble is in store for anyone who cancels them, perhaps they contain the germ of all our tomorrows, because the machine of the universe is subtle, subtle are the laws which rule it, and every year the rules obeyed by sub-atomic particles reveal themselves to be more and more subtle. Einstein’s words have often been quoted: “The Lord is subtle, but he is not wicked”; hence subtle must be, in His likeness, those who follow Him. One notes that among physicists and cyberneticists there are many Jews from Eastern Europe: could their esprit de finesse be a Talmudic inheritance?31P. Levi, “Ritual and Laughter,” Trades, pp. 196-200, especially pp. 199-200.
It is a cheery page, where we can notice the “agility of his [Primo Levi’s] sense of humor”, the same agility that Calvino admiringly wrote about when he remembered their work together on the Petite cosmogonie portative. Nevertheless, it is cheer that is ambiguous, illusory. Behind the praise of theexception as the “germ of all our tomorrows,” we perceive casuistry, esprit de finesse, subtlety – the instruments with which Primo Levi was to face his terrible yesterday, the ambiguities of the gray zone.
Short bio-bibliography of Carlo Ginzburg
Carlo Ginzburg is professor emeritus in History of European Cultures in the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy.
Among his publications:
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, Baltimore, 1980
The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Baltimore, 1983
The Enigma of Piero della Francesca, London, 1985 (revised edition, 2000).
Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, Baltimore, 1989
Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, New York, 1991
The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes an a Late-Twentieth-century Miscarriage of Justice, London, 1999.
History, Rhetoric, and Proof. The Menachem Stern Jerusalem Lectures, London and Hanover (NH), 1999.
Das Schwert und die Glühbirne. Eine neue Lektüre von Picassos Guernica, Frankfurt am Main, 1999.
No Island is an Island: Four Glances at English Literature in a World Perspective, New York, 2000.
Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance, New York, 2001.
Un dialogo, Milano, 2003.
Fear Reverence Terror: Reading Hobbes Today, Florence, 2008
Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, Berkeley, 2012
Le forbici di Warburg, in M.L. Catoni, C. Ginzburg, L. Giuliani, S. Settis, Tre figure: Achille, Meleagro, Cristo, Milano, 2013
Articles in Past and Present, Annales, Quaderni storici, Rivista storica italiana, Critical Inquiry, Elementa etc.
He has taught at the University of Bologna and at UCLA. His books are translated into more than twenty languages. He received the Aby Warburg Prize (1992), the Humboldt-Forschungs Prize (2007), the Balzan Prize for the History of Europe, 1400-1700 (2010).