Presentation of “Why do we believe Primo Levi?”
On the occasion of the Turin International Book Fair, May 17, 2013 was presented Why we believe in Primo Levi?, the volume by Mario Barenghi taken from the fourth Primo Levi Lecture and published by Einaudi in a bilingual Italian / English edition.
Why do we believe Primo Levi? Presentation of the 4th Primo Levi Lecture
A conversation between Mario Barenghi and Domenico Scarpa
The title of this lecture is: Why do we believe Primo Levi? The question mark in the title is not an accessory. We have come to the fourth annual appointment for the lecture organized by our Studies Center and we wanted the question that we would ask Primo Levi – i.e. his texts, his books – to be a real one and a rhetorical one. All in all, those of us at the Center, too, believe something. We believe that this book came out well because it was a book written on commission.
In fact, Mario Barenghi did not choose the title of this lecture. To a certain extent, we imposed it on him. We asked him to hold forth, to study for a year two reasons (because a person who gives the Primo Levi Lecture studies the topic he or she will speak about for a whole year).
We asked him because, first of all, Mario had already studied a topic that is apparently pedestrian but very hard to define: what is an author and what does the authority of an author come from? What enables him to speak? How does an author present her- or himself – in all nuances of this verb -- on the page with a written voice?
And then we asked or exhorted Mario Barenghi, for another reason much more related to his profession as a scholar and teacher. This also seems banal, but it not so at all, if you only try to read some books of literary criticism. Barenghi paid a great deal of close-focused attention to words. He has a great painstaking attention for words. He has a fine-honed skill in listening and distinguishing, a talent for distinguishing the written characters that make up an author’s text.
There is a first question that I’d like to ask Mario, who was able to do all this in an exemplary way in book-lecture entitled Why do we believe Primo Levi? (Every year, like this one, the book will be published by Einaudi in a bilingual Italian-English edition.) This is the first question that I want to ask. I’ll ask him to step back a bit in relation to his competence, to answer a question. I want him to answer really because there are many young people in this hall who are getting to know Primo Levi for the first time.
I’ll ask, “Was there a word, a tone in his writing, a detail, a point, an inflection that, at any point in your life when you were still quite young, was there anything that made you say, “I believe this guy here” – this guy here is Primo Levi? You know that the word this is important in Primo Levi. “I believe this guy!”
So, before I answer, I wanted to confirm that the title was proposed for me. I’d like to add that, when it was proposed, I first felt dizzy because it is a question that is very demanding, obviously. After some hesitation, I accepted and I accepted because, in effect, it was a crucial question. It is a crucial question, one that turned out to be pretty in line with my encounter with Primo Levi.
Whenever this happened, I really don’t remember. I don’t remember when I read Levi for the first time. But what I remember is a sensation of profound unease, my head going in circles, my spirits turning over, a deep impression and a deep disorientation. The reason is this, as it is for many. After all, my reading of If This is a Man was almost the first time I had approached the issue of the extermination. It was not the very first. I remember at a really young ago that I ran into a series of photographs of the concentration camp, which were ones taken by the Allies at Bergen-Belsen, as I would find out many years later. I was maybe about 12 and I was very deeply impressed.
So, the perception that I had had, the impression that I had of the Primo Levi lecture is something that was simultaneously very clear and very intricate. It was a tangle of problems, a complex tangle of problems that I had to find a way to unravel. So, I have to say that the question that I was offered (Why do we believe Primo Levi?) is a way of getting into the heart of the problem, because this author is so important or could be so important.
I can’t give any details because there are none. There is really an indistinct area at first and then an effort to get clearer and clearer. In reality, I think people invent their own way to get into any author, right? Your encounter with each writer is different. It can happen that a writer pulls you in with a side detail and that this detail is a back door to a magnificent palace. There are other writers where you have to walk in through the front gate and this was my approach with Levi. So, for me, Primo Levi is basically If This is a Man, The Truce, and The Drowned and the Saved. With this, I find the studies extraordinarily interesting that are transversal (let’s say), studies that choose different kinds of perspectives. However, my approach was this.
Look, I asked you this question because I am convinced that, even as a little kid, you were someone who split hairs into four and knew how to distinguish things in subtle ways.
You said, “I don’t remember a single detail. I don’t remember a single word that made a mark, that put things together, that emerged from this well of disorientation that you ran into in a very precocious way.” So, if there is not this thing, let’s talk about the broader event – your encounter with Primo Levi as an overall event. Let’s say you had to define in some way, that you had to say some words about his tone of voice in general, on the position that Levi takes when he starts to talk, to write, to tell stories – to say something about his voice and his posture. What would you say, like this, suddenly, on first impression?
There is a couple of adjectives, ones that I myself have not used to define his tone. These are sober and not placated.
Levi wrote his own memories of the concentration camp with great composure –memories of an extreme experience, memories of extreme experiences. From this perspective, it is useful to read other things from the accounts of the concentration camps in order to measure how far Levi’s attitude was from the average point of view. Doing so, we can find out what is the average tone is of the accounts of the camp veterans (if you can say so). These, to a great extent, are much more emotional. They are much more disordered, less organized and more personal. On the other hand, you can say everything, but you can’t say that Levi was cold and detached. I am trying to be more or less objective (right?). As it says in the famous words of Levi’s preface, If This is a Man is a book that presents itself as a document for “a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” There is much more. There is the personal element, the subjective element, and emotion. There is indignation, and how! There are moments of impressive drama, such as the memory of Emilia, the three-year-old girl in the chapter that tells the story of the departure from Fossoli. There is the end of the chapter, “October 1944,” where he writes, “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.” There is the hanging of The Last One... In other words, there are moments of high indignation and high drama. These hit you all the more because his normal way of writing is marked by severe self-control, instead. Levi really tries to understand, but trying to understand does not mean, naturally, shelving the dimension of judgment.
Levi is a writer who has a commanding control of language and has an idea of using it as economically, soberly, and word-perfectly as possible. This, I think, is extraordinarily instructive. Levi is one of the writers through which we need to learn to write, besides learning other things.
That couple of adjectives is interesting. Above the ending of the second adjective is interesting. He is not implacable. Implacable gives you an idea of fighting, of violence. Not placated, instead, gives you the impression that there is an objective situation, something that has happened and has happened once and for all, and that nobody can remedy it.
When we had one of our first meetings with the young people of the Amadli School in Orbassano, a page of Primo Levi’s emerged that remained unknown for many years. That is, it was published in its time but it did not go into the first Italian edition of his complete works (Opere), which was published 15 years ago. It will go into the next edition. It is a dialogue between Levi and Simon Wiesenthal, who asked his opinion about pardon. And what comes out clearly is a Levi who is not placated, a Levi who does not forgive, who is sober. This means, nonviolent, where nonviolent needs to be written as a single word, as was called for by the nonviolent activist-thinkers ever since the time of Aldo Capitini. A non-placated Levi is a nonviolent Levi, who, before explaining his opinion on the ethical case that Simon Wiesenthal gave him, writes this. And I would like to read this page, which is on Page 119 in Mario’s book. It is part of the Documentary Appendix:
«The events you invoke occurred in a world which was shaking upon its foundations and in an atmosphere completely impregnated with crime. Under these conditions, it is not always easy, indeed it is perhaps impossible, to assign an absolute value to right and wrong. It is in the nature of crime to create situations of moral conflict, dead ends of which bargaining or compromise are the only conditions of exit; conditions which inflict yet another wound on justice and on oneself.
When an act of violence or an offence has been committed it is forever irreparable: it is quite probable that public opinion will cry out for a sanction, a punishment, a “price” for pain; it is also possible that the price paid be useful inasmuch as it makes amends or discourages a fresh offense, but the initial offence remains and the “price” is always (even if it is just) a new offence and a new source of pain». [PL in Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower (1969. New York: Schocken, 1998), p. 191]
This is Levi’s premise. It is not his answer to Wiesenthal. It is the premise of his answer. Levi says, “Let’s look at the context first; and the context, whatever it is, tells us that, when an act of violence is committed, it is never made up for.” It ends up being an act of violence that is not placated, to be exact.
Therefore the definition sober and not placated comes from an old friend of mine. I think it is right to name him. He is a writer, a writer of mysteries, among other things, who uses a pen name, Hans Tuzzi. He writes mysteries and bibliophilic treatises. He even published a more demanding novel last year entitled Vanagloria. So, his definition of Levi goes back to a very old book of his.
Therefore that dialogue with Wiesenthal is really very interesting. I’m not going to talk about the whole thing in detail now. However, I’d like to add something. Basically, Wiesenthal asked a series of intellectuals with differing political and religious orientations to comment about an episode that had happened to him. He was a prisoner in a concentration camp when he was taken by a nurse to a hospital, taken to hospital where a young SS officer was dying, somebody who had committed a serious crime and wanted to ask a Jew to forgive him. Wiesenthal listened to his story and then went away without saying anything. Therefore he denied him forgiveness. However, his denying him forgiveness was something that was still shaking Wiesenthal profoundly after 20 years. Wiesenthal tells his story and asks a series of people about it.
Levi’s answer is really one of sharpest. The book is entitled The Sunflower. It is a very interesting book and it is very interesting to compare the various answers of philosophers, theologians, and politicians. There is also an answer from Senghor. However, Levi’s answer is very sharp for this reason. It is sharp because Levi talks, as Mimmo rightly reminds us, about the context, a terrible context. What comes out of the exceptionalness of the situation? There could have been a conclusion that placated things. Let’s put it like that. The events were, the context was, so extraordinary that whatever Wiesenthal had done was justified. He could have forgiven and he could have not forgiven.
Levi does not draw this conclusion. Levi draws another conclusion. Levi draws the conclusion that the question did not have the right to exist. In other words, that SS man did not have the right to make that request because it was a way of dumping the weight that weighed on his own conscience onto another person. This was yet another time that a Jew was being used as a tool.
So, I believe that in this episode you can see very well the type of moral rigor that Levi has when he faces issues (right?). In fact, his attitude is the attitude of a person who wants to understand, a person who wants to understand reality. He wants to understand how the human animal functions, what the reasons for your behavior are. He does this with analytical rigor. These are the operations of a chemist that are applied to the human world – i.e. to separate, distinguish and weigh, to ponder. However, this is an understanding that does not come for free. It is an understanding from which a judgment then descends. For, behaviors, all types of behavior can be explained – almost all – but they are not equivalent. They are not equivalent at all.
Right, you talked about moral sobriety, calm, the wish to study. I want to take you to an area that may be very far away from an ethical point of view – i.e. it seems to me that there is some great moral bravado in Levi. In what way? In the way that these experiments about understanding people and understanding people in context are experiments that Levi conducts on himself, to a great extent. How? He puts himself in the place of the other person. He puts himself in the place of the torturer. He puts himself in the place of the dead, of the people who drowned. In this, it seems to me, there is a profound resemblance to Dante Alighieri. It is very easy in Levi’s works. That is, it is relatively easy, if you know Levi and Dante well enough, to find textual quotations, overt or hidden. However, there is a strong psychological similarity between them, a similarity in attitude. This consists in Dante’s capacity, a capacity that Levi inherited, to reason using the logic of another person, to impersonate himself, to fall into the moral coating of another person.
I’d like you to say something about this.
I found myself…. A short time ago, I came across a maxim of a curious figure. He was a Russian theologian, philosopher, mathematician, and linguist, a little older than Mikhail Bakhtin -- Pavel Florenskij. Florenskij. I confess I do not know him. I have never read any of his books all the way. I know him only by indirect references. Once, as a theologian, he defined original sin – the root of all sins. The original sin consists in not knowing how to go outside of yourself, not knowing how to take the point of view of other people (and this is the theologian’s argument).
This is an idea that is (I think) very decisively near the vision of the world of Levi and of others. Naturally, even Manzoni thought like this. (Look.) Levi would not have expressed this idea in theological terms. He would not have used the word sin, but he perhaps would have alluded to the idea that the human being is a social animal. In other words, putting yourself into the point of view of another person is the attitude typical of a species that keeps on living, that survives thanks to its ties with its own.
(Therefore, the fact that there is a root – let’s say – an animal root is not a….) This fact corroborates the ethical solidity of this principle. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well. The fact that there is an instinct for solidarity means that this is a solid base for the construction of the morality of our behavior. On the contrary, the most reprehensive behavior for Levi is that of the egoist who does not know how to see things from the point of view of others in any way. And this, unfortunately, is the experience that he had, as is known, in the concentration camp. This was a system thought up in order to break up the bonds of solidarity. So, from this point of view, the concentration camp was really a laboratory.
Mario, let’s try to get more into this, but let’s do this enabling the people here go back home with a box – not with a box like the one in Buñuel’s film Belle de jour, one that nobody knows what’s inside. Let’s give them a box where there is a draft of an answer to the main question, “Why do we believe Primo Levi?” Let’s get past this question mark and get deeper into it.
I’ll go on about Dante. This is Vittorio Sermonti’s observation on Dante: “The deeper we get into the crater of the inferno, the more the functions of the victims and the torturers tend to mix and melt together abominably.”
Starting out from this getting deeper into Dante, starting out from what we have said, let’s try to make a box with a minimal content, a kit like one of those €10 kits that you get at IKEA.
I’ll sketch out an answer, the answer that I tried to give to this question: “Why do we believe Primo Levi?” I didn’t give the most banal answer. Namely, we believe Primo Levi because what Primo Levi tells the story of corresponds to the reality of the events. I have not given this answer. I have not given this answer because what was experienced is shapeless. It is incommunicable. In order to be communicated, the experience has to be translated into words and the translation into words is a modification. In other words, this translation gives a shape to mental, psychic, and emotional contents, and transforms them into language. From this point of view, the writings of a memoir writer are always modifications, in the sense that they give a way of being to a certain empirical experience.
The problem is how to adapt what is experienced to the needs of communication. I believe that Levi was very clearly aware of the difference there is between personal memories and collective memory. Personal memories can also become a kind of whirlpool, a vortex that you cannot get out of. Personal memories can get mixed up with dreams or obsessions. They can become obsessions. They can become neurotic deliria, naturally. Shared memory is something else, the memory that is constructed to stimulate, let’s say, the relationship among individuals.
It’s been said that you remember only what people remember all together. I think that Levi operated in this sense. He tried to distill something from direct experience, the atrocious experience of the concentration camp, (something that served for what?) something that served to build a world where such an abomination could never be repeated. We believe him for this reason, because there is some congruence, some correspondence between his intentions and his objective. Levi builds up a discourse that is expressly made for the people it is addressed to. Reading Levi’s works, we never have, we never have the impression that he is giving vent to his feelings, even in moments of emotion. There is never such blowing off steam. (And from this point of view, Levi….) There is a passage in If Not Now, When? where Mendel (I believe) says that he belongs… that the Jews have a prophetic vein, or something like this. From this point of view, Levi performs an operation, more or less, of a prophet in the Dantean sense of the word. (Right?) Dante’s Comedyis a work that aims to reveal what is… it aims to reveal something decisive for the future of humanity, right?
From this point of view…. Mimmo has called upon Dante several times…. Levi’s works are really dotted with Dantean references. There are precise references. There are terms. There are images. There are phrases. There are explicit quotations. We can find a whole sample bag of intertexuality in the relationship between Primo Levi and Dante. However, besides this, they share a common basic attitude – i.e. the awareness that they are carrying a decisive message, a decisive message that is not closed in on itself.
See, there is something that I also might have said in this text, which seems to be even more important in hindsight. Levi’s writings on the concentration camp never produce a cathartic effect. They never produce that kind of reaction where in the end you feel somehow… he may have passed through all the horrors you can imagine – not all the horrors, but some of the horrors. There is even an economy – let’s say – in the evocation of horror in Levi. In the end we don’t feel placated at all. We feel – we should feel – called on. We should feel called on because all this has to do with us too. It has to do with us as human animals too, who, put under certain circumstances and submitted to certain tensions, submitted to certain conditioning, would possibly not be able to resist. We could also become tools of perverse wills, of Satanic wills. There were few monsters during the short, tragic, and terrible history of the thousand-year Third Reich. There were really few sadistic killers. The others were zealous executors of orders. They were imitators. They were passive tools or they were (let’s say) people whose consciences were not clear enough to put up resistance. They were normal people, people we can recognize ourselves in. In a certain way, the great merit of Levi’s was that of bringing the extreme characteristics of an experience back into what we humans could assess as being possible. Therefore there was a possibility that you could try to stave off.
I was struck very much by that very correct observation. You said, “Levi never gives vent to his feelings. There is never purely any letting off of steam.” Instead, this made me think of an episode that had to do with someone with the same last name, Carlo Levi. It is an episode that one of our greatest philologists, Gianfranco Contini wrote about. When Carlo Levi left the outer regions and came back here to Turin, which was where he was from, he first stopped at Florence, where he had a lot of friends. At the home of these friends, he told stories all night long about what was to become Christ Stopped at Eboli several years later. With a smooth ellipsis, Contini wrote: “Must I confess that I harbor some nostalgia for that oral version, all lit up with poetic enthusiasm, as opposed to the discursive intelligence that inspired the printed book?”
I don’t believe that we could say this sort of thing about Levi too, despite all his bravura. We have heard and seen him in his radio interviews and his television interviews. We have seen him in his absolute precision, an absolutely restrained participation, and a modest participation. But why, I’m asking you? In what way does Primo Levi construct in writing? What more does he put into it? What is the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola?
[to the students in the audience]
If you aren’t paying attention, you don’t pay attention unless I catch you off guard with these cracks.
Therefore, the… I imagine that Contini was possibly right and I think that Mimmo Scarpa was right too to put it in those terms. Anyway, there is a basic difference in what is being talked about. Carlo Levi had it on his mind to talk about a unique experience, a discovery that had many seductive aspects in retrospect. It had many seductive aspects – i.e. the townswomen who were reputed to be witches, who schemed, who knew charms for a quantity of things and then that peasant world, archaic and pre-Christian, those hovels where there was an image of the Madonna of Stigliano with a photograph of Roosevelt. It was something adventurous and fairy-tale-like.
Instead, the things that Levi has to talk about, the contents of Levi’s stories, are repellent. They are something that pushes you away. And it is right that it pushes you away because this is natural. The story of suffering elicits suffering indirectly in the person who tells it and in the person who listens to it. So, the problem of Levi was to keep his suffering under control, to keep (let’s say it) anxiety and anguish under control. He had to keep it under control not in order to cancel it, to wipe it out, but to make it productive, so that the suffering that was gone through could and must become a positive contribution to the future of society.
So, this operation is much harder. After that, certainly, personal differences come into play because I believe that Primo Levi was introverted by nature and not particularly talkative. On the other hand, Carlo Levi was, I believe a charmeur. He was a man, who even liked – I believe – to hear himself talk and I really believe that Contini had had the chance to listen to him, he and those other few people, the daughter of Umberto Saba... Therefore what is here together is a difference in the temperament of the speaker and a difference – rather, an antithesis – in the object of the message.
But let’s try to contradict ourselves right away and talk not about but with Primo Levi as a speaker. One of the tings that come out of, a little, all of the critical literatures and his conversations was that people always or too often asked him the same questions. He was the first to complain about it! Now 26 years have gone by since his passing. Libraries have been accumulated about him, so much critical literature. We have found out many things, in certain cases even too many things, about his life and his biographical journeys.
Is there a question that you would like to ask Primo Levi today, here and now? Is there a question about some real events that are unknown, a question about elements we don’t have, about which there is no information?
What would you ask him?
So, there is a thing that I would like to find out, but I don’t know if I would have had the courage to ask Primo Levi. The question is, “When did Daniele die?” Daniele is the character in The Truce who is also remembered in The Drowned and the Saved. According to me, it is a particularly significant episode because it is a episode in which (let’s say) Levi found a faucet that was dripping. He found a faucet, managed to open it and get it to drip. It was a torrid summer. It was the time that Auschwitz was being bombed. There is a little bit of water. They were all dying of thirst. There, there might or might not me a liter. What should he do? If he tells the whole group, nobody would quench their thirst. He could keep all for himself. He decided to tell only one person, his friend, Alberto and the two quenched their thirst. But another person saw them. He was named Daniele. Months later, during the journey home, he asked Levi, “Why the two of you and not I?” [DS (New York: Vintage, 1989), pp. 80-81]
Therefore, no, I took a wrong turn…. I’d like to say one thing about Primo Levi’s interviews. The most important things in his interviews, the most interesting things are not his answers but his questions, I think. This happens particularly in his dialogue with Anna Bravo – made, I think in 1985, or in 1983 – where Levi is being interviewed as an ex-deportee within the scope of that project of collecting all the accounts of all the Turin veterans. And the thing that struck me about that interview is the high number of questions. Levi answers a question, too. Not only does he not feel that he is a depository of absolute truth, but he also takes every opportunity to find things out himself.
So, I don’t know. I don’t believe that I really would have wanted to ask Levi questions. I would have liked very much to talk to him, but unfortunately this never happened.
I wanted to add one thing about the time that passed. Levi lived long enough to measure the time that was passing. The Drowned and the Saved was written 40 years after If This is a Man. From the distance of 40 years, Levi realized that the young people that he met were different. They were different because they belonged to a different generation. Now I’ll put this is brutally demographic terms. The farther you get away from the war, the more the events of the war, all the disasters of the war, fade out of the family memories (let’s say). Until a short time ago, you could hear a grandfather talk about the war. I belong to the generation in which the parents talked about the war. And then time goes by and time goes by and the memory loses its focus. Thus, among the things that Primo Levi teaches us, there is this: adjust your way of speaking, your way of remembering to present needs and the different physiognomies of the people you are conversing with. Young people, the secondary school students from the 1980s were not the secondary students of the early 1960s.
So, Levi had a great sensitivity towards the identity of the people he was speaking with. You can catch this very well in his books. Besides, the appendix of If This is a Man is very fine, the appendix that grew out of his re-elaboration of his talks with students. We began with some praise for the students from Orbassano... So, really, where the dialogue comes alive, where the dialogue is really motivated, involved and participatory, there is where communication (let’s say) takes off, where things work much better.
Now we are at closing time and let’s finish with a verse, seeing that we have talked so much about Dante. Let’s finish with a verse of Dante dedicated to students. It is not one of the verses that Primo Levi quotes, but it is something that stands at the basis of Levi’s writing: knowing how to stop in time, an ethical-narrative model. (Mario has talked about this.) We are in the 18th canto of the Inferno, the 8th circle, the first bolgia, after seeing Thais: I think our eyes have had their fill of this.
From now on let’s get our fill by having seen… this was a dialogue, as we can paraphrase, “I think our ears have had their fill.” And seeing that our ears have had their fill, we can go back and read with our eyes.
Goodbye until the next Primo Levi Lecture. Thank you!