Presentation of "Auschwitz Experiment"
On the occasion of the Turin International Book Fair, May 12, 2011 was presented "Auschwitz Experiment", the book by Massimo Bucciantini taken from the second Primo Levi Lecture and published by Einaudi in a bilingual Italian / English edition.
Auschwitz Experiment - Presentation of the Second Primo Levi Lecture
A conversation between Domenico Scarpa and Massimo Bucciantini
Good morning, thank you all for being here. Thanks above all to the students. I’m saying this now just as I said it last year. Here in the audience today we should have high school students from the [liberal-arts] Liceo Massimo d'Azeglio, who were our partners, as it were, for the first Primo Levi lecture, the one given by Robert Gordon. We also have students from some classes at Galfer [Liceo Scientifico Galileo Ferraris], who were our partners for the second lecture, the one that Massimo Bucciantini gave last November. We will get back to this because of the fact that the conjoint presence of students from a technical school and from a liberal-arts school is very significant in relation to Primo Levi’s personality.
The first question. It looks like I have to question Massimo Bucciantini, but to tell the truth, he really is the one who has questioned the texts of Primo Levi very well. And he has questioned them starting off from a paradoxical condition that every scholar should assume in him – or herself – a kind of new ignorance, an ignorance that has become fresh again in relation to what we read, what we hear, and what we see. When Massimo introduced himself, talking to the students from Galfer last November 12, he began by saying, “I have tried to read Primo Levi as if I had never read him before” and I think this is what helped make his Primo Levi lecture a success. It managed to produce this effect of a fresh ignorance – which, after all, is interpretive freshness – in us too. We too, thanks to Massimo’s lesson, have ended up rereading and reading Primo Levi as if for the first time.
Massimo, what is the most important thing, or the first thing, that we see when reading Levi for the first time, or as if for the first time?
You are starting right off with an easy question!
Yes, a little question likes this, a bagatelle!
The first thing that I wanted to do was, above all, not to embalm Levi, because today Levi, like other Italian authors, has been embalmed. What do I mean by this? I mean to say that I did not know where I would end up. In fact, the first months were terrible because I could not manage to find any line of thinking that went anywhere at all. Nevertheless, I was sure about one thing. I was sure that Levi should be read cutting out a great deal of secondary literature – not all of it, naturally. Some of it is often tautological. It is a literature that repeats itself, that plays on some key words – witness, writer-chemist, gray zone, etc. A little – and I say this in the first two pages of this book – a little like what happened to Calvino. The key words are different, but the fate of our two greatest authors of the twentieth century, or at least two of the greatest, is that we do not know how to read them any more. Naturally, this does not mean that I have managed to. It is certainly not up to me to say if I have in some way managed to get in and break this sheer block of a “Levi” that has always been the same from 1947 to 1986. Here it is, one of the aims that I made for myself – to answer Domenico Scarpa’s question. Precisely, the aim is to weigh and distinguish Levi’s very own pages. It is no accident that I am using these two words that were so dear to Levi. In effect, I aimed to use a method that was profoundly Levian to read Primo Levi, taking away all the screens that are very often tied in with repetitive history writing, what I call “history written with hollow words.” All in all, it is an evocative history writing, certainly. However, evocation perhaps is not enough, above all, for an author who so difficult and important, not only in 1947 but also in 1986 and in 1975. And the three dates refer to his three great works: If This is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved and, in the middle – as a link between If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved – The Periodic Table.
Here it is, the first screen blocking us from seeing the works of Primo Levi, the screen that I feel you have knocked down – the screen of expertise. You too have your particular expertise. I say this because up until not many years ago Massimo Bucciantini was a historian of science who was known for having studied Galileo in depth. He was an expert in Galileo, one of the greatest. From the point of view of the history of Italian literature, Galileo was also a great writer, but he has not immediately been remembered for that or remembered mainly for that. Over the last five years Massimo Bucciantini has continued to study Galileo, Kepler and other things related to them, but has steadily been getting closer to contemporary Italian literature, a field that he had always been developing, as seen in his two latest books. The first is Italo Calvino e la scienza. Gli alfabeti del mondo [Calvino and science. The alphabets of the world], published by Donzelli in 2007, and now this Auschwitz Experiment, which discusses Primo Levi, has come out.
In both cases Bucciantini has gotten closer to literature by giving things up, by tearing things away, by knocking down the screens of his own expertise. What do I mean to say? I mean to say that the first thing that Bucciantini tells us in his book on Calvino is this: Calvino is not a scientist. Even more, he is not even a writer who keeps on putting literature and science in a reciprocal relationship. Calvino is interested in literature only. This is the thesis that Bucciantini puts forward, and he has done something with Levi that is less obvious, as it were, but even more paradoxical. In fact, it would have been natural for a historian of science to approach those works of Primo Levi where the presence of science and scientific inventions is most evident. It would have been more obvious if he had approached the stories in Storie naturali or Vizio di forma [Natural stories, Structural defect – neither published in English as anthologies] or if he had read, above all, The Periodic Table. Instead, the two bases of the study that we are presenting this morning are If This is a Man and another chief work of Levi, 40 years later, The Drowned and the Saved. This means that you had to go to look for insights, procedures, or scientific methods in places where there didn’t seem to be any. How did it go? Did it go like this?
Yes, in part, yes. The first months were really hard and back then I had two possibilities. I would either start sounding like the people who had already written about Levi or I would try to “stick with it” stubbornly, to go over and over some of his pages that I considered crucial. And when I say crucial I am referring, for example, to the chapter, “The Drowned and the Saved” in If This is a Man. To stick with these pages and not turn the page is something that means to insist so much that you say to yourself that something has to come out of it. It was something that I did not manage to see in Levi and that I consequently tried to find outside of Levi. What do I mean by this? I mean to say that if we have not managed to make any sense of some of his pages only by repeating Levi with Levi all the time, then we have to take other ways out. One of these is to try to see if those words, if those pages, have been read and, if so, ready by whom.
Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs, are enclosed within barbed wire.
[If This is a Man. The Truce (London: Abacus, 1987), p. 93]
Everybody knows these words. Here is my big surprise. I found these very words taken up by one of our greatest “heretical” scientists of the 1960s and 1970s – that is, Franco Basaglia. My book came out of this. The book did not originate as a whole. The first part of the Auschwitz Experiment is the central part. It is based on the strong bond that I discovered between Levi and Basaglia. What spurred me on in this direction is my reading of one of the best pieces of writing that ever has been written about Primo Levi, Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo’s Ciò che dobbiamo a Primo Levi [What we owe Primo Levi]. Mengaldo only wrote a few things on Levi, but all of them are excellent. In this piece written in the early 1990s, Mengaldo writes clearly that literary critics have not understood Primo Levi. There is a fundamental contrast, he says, between the public that has loved and loves Primo, on the one hand, and the literary critics, on the other, who have not understood him because he is two different from them. Mengaldo wrote:
There are few writers of our times that are read as much and with so great a consensus as Levi – and not only in Italy. He is one of those very rare authors today that readers not only admire but also love. In the face of this success with the public, there is a relative indifference of criticism, which has not at all placed him in the place he deserves to be.
And then, right after, Mengaldo names a critic and a book – Angelo Guglielmi and his Il piacere della letteratura [The pleasure of literature], an anthology published by Feltrinelli at the end of the 1970s. “A particularly disastrous book,” as Mengaldo defined it, it is an annotated anthology of Italian writers, the major writers, where there is not a single line of Levi’s or about Levi. There are, instead, some prose writers that Mengaldo considered totally irrelevant. What am I saying with this? I am saying that I found consolation and solidarity in Mengaldo in the sense that he helped me keep going on my way outside of the territorial waters of so-called literary criticism.
By now, the relationship that we at the Centro Studi Primo Levi have with these lectures is both interesting and weird. In effect, naturally, we commission these lectures. Hence we talk to a person whom we propose as a lecturer seven or eight months in advance. We try to set things up way beforehand, to give the lecturer a year’s time (or a little less than that). And then these pretty alarming telephone calls would come from Massimo, who was really worried and would say, “I don’t have anything. I don’t have anything yet. I don’t know. I’m knocking around in the dark.” We were not worried at all because we were sure about our choice.
Because you were out of your minds!
No, we weren’t out of our minds. We know that there is a lot of potential in digging deep into things because it is not that Massimo Bucciantini had found only Basaglia. That discovery was a breakthrough, the beginning of a line of thought, a starting off point from which the entire mass took on a kind of center of gravity that a thought revolved around. The Auschwitz Experiment is a book that has an appendix of documentary material, much of which appears in print for the first time. Thus it is not based only on the direct reading of Primo Levi’s texts. To be ignorant, to want to be ignorant, to want to be true researchers also means to look for things one by one without knowing where they are. It means to look for things with that amount of attention that makes it possible to find them when they are somewhere.
In the appendix of this book, which is as important as the book itself, Massimo Bucciantini has put a series of documents together that he found in very different kinds of archives. They are often letters that attest to the dialogue Primo Levi was carrying on with writers, intellectuals, and thinkers at the level of Arrigo Cajumi, Umberto Saba, and Piero Calamandrei. This was happening at a very early stage – between 1947 (the first edition of If This is a Man) and the early 1950s, 1954. It is a network of relationships that get wider and wider until 1967. In that year a “heretical scientist” like Franco Basaglia, together with his wife, Franca Ongaro Basaglia, took the first 1947 edition of If This is a Man in hand and made his own mental experiment. In Massimo’s very elegant words, this “heretical scientist” was heretical in the same and in a different way that Galileo Galilei was three centuries before.
However, let us talk about that other personality, the poet that had already read If This is a Man in 1948. Let’s talk about Umberto Saba. There was a sort of connivance between these two writers that people would take as being very distant from each other both because of their difference in generations – Saba born in 1883, Levi in 1919 – and their geographical distance – Saba from Trieste and Levi from Turin. In their dialogue we can find a bond between those two books that are like spikes pounded into the 1900s – Scorciatoie e raccontini [Short cuts and very short stories] from 1946, which has been reissued two days ago by Einaudi with a preface by Silvio Perrella, and If This is a Man in its first edition by De Silva. [See The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba (Riverdale-on-Hudson NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1993).] Umberto Saba read If This is a Man and immediately in 1948 said that this should be a text that should be distributed in schools, hence distributed here, to you that are in this room. Massimo has reconstructed this story.
Saba and Basaglia. Basaglia was born in 1924. He studied at the University of Padua and graduated fromthere, but they told him right off that there was no room for him at the university. In short, the first thing that he was told in 1959-60 was, “You have to find another job.” He had no other way to go except to win a competition for the selection of the director of a psychiatric hospital. He knew very well that there was an abysmal difference between the mentally ill patients in public hospitals and those in university clinics – a difference in social classes, types of illness, and the types of research that was to be developed. What happened to Basaglia was a little like what happened to Levi. Just as Levi felt that he was off on the outskirts of Italian literary culture, Basaglia was put on the outskirts of Italian psychiatric culture.
So, in 1961 Basaglia left the university for good and went to Gorizia. There is a letter that attests to his impression of the psychiatric hospital at Gorizia. This letter was recently published in a very good book by Valeria Babini, Liberi tutti. Manicomi e psichiatri in Italia [All out free: Psychiatric hospitals and psychiatrists in Italy (Bologna: il Mulino, 2009)] and I want to read you an excerpt: “Here it is deepest night, an island inhabited by ghosts, barricaded inside themselves, far from being remembered by people.”
It is like reading [Joseph Conrad’s] Heart of Darkness because this too is a descent into the underworld. For Basaglia, Gorizia is a place that is inhospitable and outside the world of the living. In that place he understands that the so-called mentally ill are ill because there is an institution that is taking their human dignity away. Therefore, the connection between Levi and Basaglia is important, just as that between Levi and Saba is, as Domenico has well pointed out. This is not only because Saba immediately understood that readers were encountering a writer, not a simple witness. In a letter of November 3, 1948, all of which appears in the Appendix, Saba writes at a certain point: “Now it is as if I had personally gone through the experience of Auschwitz.”
Everything depends on that adverb, “personally.” Saba read Primo Levi and had himself experienced the same experiment that Levi had described in If This is a Man. There are other issues that put Saba and Levi together. One of these is their opinion of the philosophy of their times. Domenico mentioned Scorciatoie e raccontini. Let’s read “short cut” number 19:
I have nothing to say to philosophers. And they have nothing to say to me. As they get closer they become fluid; they expand on the universal in order not to be touched at a sensitive spot. All their systems are patchwork to hide a “rupture in reality.” Poets promise less and provide more.
[The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba, p. 169]
We are in 1948. The philosophy that Saba had before him was the same philosophy that Primo Levi faced. It is idealist, spiritualist philosophy, and the same philosophy that Levi was forced to digest in secondary school but that he could not stand. “They expand,” these philosophers “on the universal,” – great! – “in order not to be touched at a [single] sensitive spot.”
They are ghosts. Their ideas are up in the air. They are not concrete in any way. And now, if we go on to Levi and read “Hydrogen,” we can easily understand that Saba and Levi were in the same environment:
I was fed up with books, which I still continued to gulp down with indiscreet voracity…. In school they loaded me with tons of notions which I diligently digested, but which did not warm the blood in my veins…. It was enervating, nauseating, to listen to lectures on the problem of being and knowing, when everything around us was a mystery pressing to be revealed.
[The Periodic Table (London: Penguin, 2000) p. 19]
Here there is the same position, the same cultural undergrowth. Was Levi an anomaly? He certainly was. The people who understood that Levi was a writer were mostly the intellectuals that were committed to building a new Italy, politicians and jurists like Piero Calamandrei, Carlo and Alessandro Galante Garrone, and Aldo Garosci. Or, they were writers, a few of them. Like Saba and Calvino. Here, Calvino is one the few writers who understood that If This is a Man was a great book. And to write in 1948 that If This is a Man was a great book was something that then was not being taken for granted.
Listen – I am talking to the students – listen to these two definitions: eccezionale condizione umana / exceptional human state and gigantesca esperienza biologica e sociale / gigantic biological and social experiment [If This is a Man; The Truce (London: Abacus, 1998), p. 93]. You can find these two definitions in the chapter, “The Drowned and the Saved” in If This is a Man. Remember that the title this chapter back in 1947 was to be the title of his last non-fiction book, the last book of Primo Levi. Eccezionale, gigantesca esperienza. Esperienza is a word from French that Levi uses and stands for experiment. In Levi’s own personal vocabulary, esperienza means concreteness and knowledge. It means something that you can touch, something that has three dimensions. It is something that is not fluid and is not philosophy, a thing you live through!
Remember what Massimo told you about Basaglia a little while ago, about that extraordinary letter of 1961 from Gorizia. There are words, these words written by Levi, that could fit exactly in that letter. They have an important scientific twist because here the exception, the adjective “gigantic,” alludes to the multiplication of numbers – so many people massed together in a place where they cannot live. So, the multiplication of numbers, the increasing of the quantity – what can these tell us about the quality of the experience? What can they tell us about the quality of life? What can they lead us to conclude about the results of an unlivable experiment like the Auschwitz experiment?
They can lead us to conclude, for example, that there is a deep passageway from If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved, but that there is also a discontinuity. At the beginning I told you that we should not embalm Levi. In order not to embalm him, we also need to see that there are features of discontinuity in his works. (This is a point that Alberto Cavaglion pointed out very well in his writings on Levi.) Let’s take one of the crucial concepts of Levi’s, both in the sociological and moral senses – the gray zone. Let’s try to re-trace the genesis of this concept that was to find its most rigorous definition in The Drowned and the Saved. I would first like to say that this is a task that still has to be done for the most part, even though there are already some traces that need to be followed and emphasized. We can find one of these traces in the autobiography of Bianca Guidetti Serra, which was published several years ago by Einaudi. If we read Bianca la rossa [Bianca the red], we run into a chapter dedicated to her friend Primo and can find a precious clue there. Namely, she was one of the first people to read a typescript of what was to become the second chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, the chapter entitled “The Gray Zone.” When did this take place? March 19, 1980. So, The Drowned and the Saved came out in 1986. In 1980, on March 19, Primo sent Bianca the typescript of what he then thought should be the first chapter of a new book. How many years had Levi been reflecting on what is one of the bedrocks of his moral philosophy and a key point for getting to know the human species? It would be important to find out if the version sent to Bianca Guidetti Serra was the definitive one. Likewise, it would be important to manage to understand, through private documentation, when the concept of the gray zone originated. Was it from the early 1970s, or even before? Was it when he began to read Hermann Langbein’s Uomini ad Auschwitz in 1972? [See the German original, Menschen in Auschwitz (Vienna: Europa, 1987) or People in Auschwitz (Chapel Hill NC: U of North Carolina Press, 2004).] This was a book that he put a passage from in his anthology, The Search for Roots. It was a book about which he wrote: “a book that… I should have liked to have written myself” [The Search for Roots (Chicago: Dee, 1997), p. 207].
All in all, Levi is saving a lot of surprises for us. I think the best thing to do is to make an analytic reading, page by page, word by word. To this end, I am convinced that one of the basic instruments that the Centro Studi Primo Levi could put in the works is the creation of a Levian lexicon – a lexicon of all the writing of Levi. I do not know if I answered your question, but I was wanting to say these things.
Look, you did good to say them. That’s very good! In fact, this is something that we are trying to do as the Centro Primo Levi. We would like to make a lexicon of Levi, to make a so-called, in technical terms, concordance. What words does Levi use? How many words? Where can we find each of them? In what contexts? Where do we find the adverb quasi [approximately]? We would have to take all the phrases, all the excerpts where there is the adverb quasi out of all of Levi’s works. Where do we find the word fortuna [fortune]? We would do the same thing with the noun fortuna as well as with all of the noteworthy and less noteworthy words that Levi used in his three thousand pages of his complete works.
Basically, last year’s Primo Levi lecture, by Robert Gordon, took the form of a lesson about the location, the frequency and the shifts in location and meaning of the word fortuna. We will do this job. We will do it. You can rest assured!
Another thing we are trying to do is to draft a chronology of the gray zone. This is fundamental. It is fundamental for understanding certain concepts that are entirely new and have had and keep on having a very broad following all over the world, also a philosophical and theoretical following. When did his ideas originate? When did they develop? How did they take shape? How did they change?
Effectively, we have to look for the key to this at the beginning of the 1970s. The key should be located somewhere around several times: the time, probably in 1970, when Levi read a book like Simon Wiesenthal’s Gli assassini sono tra noi [The Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Memoirs (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967)]; the time when Levi read Hermann Langbein’s Menschen in Auschwitz, 1972, as Massimo pointed out; and the time when he had to recognize with a certain degree of disquiet that films like Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter were coming out. The first half of the 1970s was a decisive time when Primo Levi was working out the concept gray zone.” And also this is a chronology that has to be calculated.
However, at this point, I would like to make a direct reflection on the title of this book. You have seen with what passion, and, along with that, with what calm, Massimo Bucciantini has been expressing himself. I was reflecting that a title like the Auschwitz Experiment is one of those titles that could be called, using a horrible journalistic expression, a “shock phrase.” Everything is shock because we are no longer shocked by anything. Nothing strikes us any more. Yet, there is nothing shocking in Massimo’s title. In fact, his wording, his idea, his notion that Auschwitz was an experiment is taken directly from Levi’s exact words. There is a very strong bond between experience – an experience that has been lived through – and an experiment conceived by a totalitarian regime like the Nazi one. It was an experiment that was done on millions of people in a precise place on the earth where these people were literally concentrated. What bond is there between experience and experiment? What bond is there between the shock of a phrase like the “Auschwitz experiment” and the self-definition that Levi gives us as “a normal man with a good memory?”
Levi needs to strike the imagination of his readers. He needs to do this because he wants to have readers who participate actively, who are morally active. However, in order to succeed in this, the first thing he has to do is to convince the readers (who were not where he had been) that that world, that inferno, existed and can exist once more. We know, and it is useless to insist, that his greatest anguish is that of not being believed – to return and not be believed. So, what should he do so that this does not happen? Levi, the chemist, knew that there were narrative techniques he could use to convince the readers. And transforming Auschwitz into an experiment is one of the features in his narration that he tries to put down on paper, both in If This is a Man and in The Drowned and the Saved. This is a way of saying: to strike the imagination of the readers, to supply them with the description of a “new” world in rigorous terms, and hence to put them into a condition where they could participate in the holding of an authentic experiment.
Levi keeps on appealing to his readers. He never leaves them alone. How many times do we find the words immaginate [imagine!] or considerate [consider!]. He needs to make his readers see what none of them has seen and this is the reason why he translates the experience of Auschwitz into a mental experiment. In this he has two great masters – Galileo and Einstein. There were Einstein’s elevators and twins, on the one hand, and Galileo’s gran naviglio” [large ship], on the other. I do not know if I have succeeded, but I have tried to see if there might have been a book of Galileo’s on his worktable while he was writing the chapter, “The Drowned and the Saved.” Or, he might have remembered an important passage from Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi [Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolomaic and Copernican (New York: Modern Library, 2001; 1632]. What Levi needed to do is to make his readers see Auschwitz, and the best way he could do this was to put his scientific writing to work. This is a feature that we can find both in If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. Levi called them conceptual experiments. Here, if you take up the chapter, “The Gray Zone,” Levi says at a certain point:
I would invite anyone who dares pass judgment to carry out upon himself, with sincerity, a conceptual experiment: let him imagine, if he can, that he has lived for months or years in a ghetto, tormented by chronic hunger, fatigue, promiscuity, and humiliation.
[The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 42].
What would you have done in my place? Before passing judgment, you have to put yourself in the shoes of those who had suffered such humiliation and such cruelty. Obviously, this does not mean: do not render to Dante what is Dante’s. That would be wrong! What I am saying is that there is a scientific vein running through Levi’s writings that should be rediscovered and put its rightful light. And to do this, we should see how these two traditions – the scientific and the literary – work together and blend to give life to a truthful and inimitable book like If This is a Man.
Let me give you a little example of the sloppiness and carelessness that Levi has run into in Italy and elsewhere, the example of the Times Literary Supplement, to cite an important weekly. In 1995 the TLS came out with a list of the 100 most important non-fiction books in the world published from the time of the Second World War up to then – books on economics, politics, ethics, philosophy, etc., with the exclusion of narrative fiction. 100 basic books. Which and how many Italian books were there? There were only three – Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and then Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. Where is the sloppiness? Naturally, the introductory paragraph said that the books were divided according to decades and what counted was the year the original edition was published. Where was If This is a Man put? In the 1950s, naturally! In the 1950s, certainly. Not in the 1940s, together with Orwell, but in the 1950s together with Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, together with Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques and Charles Percy Snow’s The Two Cultures.
This is really something very important. Chronology is very important. I know that as soon as students start to hear people talking about dates and places they want to run away! Let’s think about it a minute before running away because chronology is important, just as the difference of only two years is between any two of you. There are oceans between you! If the difference in age between kids that are 14 and 16 is so important, think about how important 10 or 12 years are in the history of literature. It is really extraordinary that someone knew how to work out an experience like that of Auschwitz in 1945-46-47 to such a degree, to the degree that Levi did. He did this to the point of transforming it into an experiment. In other words, an experiment is an experience that can kill you, but instead you manage to think it through and go with it. This is an extraordinary event, in 1947, at only two years’ distance from the original events.
Another reason Levi was a master of thought was that he had two combat trainers. What do I mean? I mean that there are two moral lessons in If This is a Man and in The Truce. The first lesson was taught by an ex-sergeant from the Austro-Hungarian army, Steinlauf [If This, p. 47]. He taught him that he had to wash. He had to flatten his pants under the mattress, so that they had the fold in the right place when he put them on in the morning. He had to do everything that he had to in order to serve his own dignity, even though it seemed to be useless in the lager. In this way, he would die a little less. In this way, maybe he would die later, would die quasi [approximately]. He would not die entirely. Now, let’s say it like this, with the quasi!
Meanwhile, Mordo Nahum, the Greek in The Truce, taught him that he did not need to have intelligent ideas as much as he needed to have a pair of shoes. He needed to have a pair of shoes because “there is always war” [p. 224]. Therefore there is the first one, Steinlauf, who fought the First World War thirty years before, and he teaches him about the war that took place before then. Then, there is the second one, the Greek, who, after the war, after the Second World War, the one that seemed to have ended in 1945, tells him, “Look, the war is not over!” The Greek tells Levi an extraordinary phrase, that Levi, with his sense of irony, reports to us as it was said. It is a cutting and affectionate line in French: Je n'ai pas encore compris si tu es idiot ou fainéant! That is to say, “I haven’t yet figured it out whether you are an idiot or a do-nothing!” [p. 223]. The Greek, Mordo Nahum, tells him, Primo Levi, this in the chapter in The Truce entitled, precisely, “The Greek.”
This can give us the impression that in order to study Primo Levi you have to become a little bit stupid again, a little bit lazy. You have to do this in the sense of the desocupado lector, the “idle reader” of Don Quixote, the do-nothing reader, like the one Cervantes wanted [Miguel de Cervantes, “Prologue,” Don Quixote (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 11]. In other words, you have to get rid of ideas that have been passed down and go back and read as if for the first time. However, maybe you have to be a do-nothing in order to write If This is a Man. Namely, you have to get rid of philosophy and put experience back into circulation.
Without a doubt! But, seeing that there are so many students here, maybe it is worthwhile to shift gears a minute and ask, “What is the use of reading Primo Levi today?” Is it worthwhile just for understanding the past, or can it serve us to today?
While I was coming here to Turin, I happened upon an insert of [the Turin newspaper] La Stampa. And I began to page through it. I say page through it because, by now, the inserts that the newspapers come out with are more and more like advertisements for the [supermarket] Coop. They are made up of little half-columns, where, instead of the image of the product for sale, we can find four lines about the book for sale. This is where we get lost and we do not read anything at all. There are ten lines, and then another ten lines, and you say, “OK, that’s all, game over!” Nevertheless, in the last issue of Tuttolibri [the book insert], which presented the program of the Book Fair, there was a page on Levi that many of us might have missed.
I missed it, for one!
See! That’s because the title is on the Book Fair, which has to do generically with reading and books, but then you find out that the article is dedicated entirely to Levi. And it is a very good article about him, but it is, above all, about his readers. The article is written by Andrea Bajani and, according to me, it could become a great preface for a school edition of If This is a Man. Bajani recalls a trip to Auschwitz with a class that was made January 27, 2009. In particular, he tells about a boy who was walking inside of Auschwitz holding a copy of If This is a Man in his hands. I’ll just read you three lines:
He must have been 16 or maybe younger. He was reading If This is a Man because his teacher told him to, but he read it as I had never seen anyone read a book before. He looked inside it. I saw only the cloud of his breath come out of his mouth in the middle of the breath of the others. He looked inside the pages as if he could find everything that was not there in that Polish nothing that was surrounded by barbed wire. That boy stood there and If This is a Man was able to help him understand how many times that book stood there in that nothing that stretched out ahead of him to reach the birch trees in the background.
Now, I think that an article like that serves us today, serves young people, very much!
Yes, I would say that the best thing to do is to go away with the image of that boy who is reading If This is a Man while walking inside Auschwitz, inside that place where nothing has remained because, for example, Primo Levi’s lager, Monowitz, has been demolished. There is nothing left of it. What is left is Auschwitz I. There is still the big camp that you can visit today. So, the boy was walking in the middle of that great sea, carrying this book as his compass, in order to navigate that sea. And he was navigating by looking at the stars, at Primo Levi and Galileo. If This is a Man was the Sidereus nuncius, the starry messenger, of the twentieth century. [See Galileo Galilei, Sidereus nuncius, or, Sidereal Messenger (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989; 1610).] Massimo Bucciantini has told us the story of this in his Auschwitz Experiment.
Thank you, all of you!