‘You were made men’: Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

In a recent post about choosing The Road as one of the texts for my Introduction to Literature class next year, I mentioned that I’m also assigning Eli Wiesel’s Night. In the comments, Dorian said that he considered Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz “the more compelling text, both formally and conceptually.” As I said to him then, I’ve known for a while that I should read Levi, and his remark  was just the instigation I needed to make it a priority.

I finished reading Survival in Auschwitz this afternoon, so it’s too soon for me to say whether I think it is better or greater than Night. It is certainly a very different book, and as I work up my notes on Night again in the fall I know I’ll be thinking a lot about the contrasts. My first impression is that it is a much less overtly literary book than NightNight is heavily symbolic, organized around motifs and vignettes and characterized (at least in the translation I’m familiar with) by striking images and words freighted with significance. Levi’s approach is more indirect, his vignettes or episodes more elusive or ambiguous. In some ways, I think Night is more artful, but also, as a result, it feels more artificial. There’s a raw quality to Levi’s book: it’s not sleek, he’s honest about things he forgets, there are awkward but heartfelt gestures towards people he remembers. The book is unified in a different way than Night  is–not emotionally or symbolically but associatively, conceptually, a section at a time. It does not conclude but ends, again awkwardly, without flourish. Though both books immerse us in the horror of Auschwitz, Levi’s account seems somehow less visceral, more appalled than angry, more inquisitive than despairing. It is not any less devastating. It is, perhaps, more morally challenging: where Wiesel deals in searing absolutes, Levi puzzles us, as he was puzzled: “We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.”

The differences between the books are not superficial, but at the same time I don’t think they are fundamental: both books are ultimately preoccupied with the loss or preservation of humanity under conditions that deliberately seek to exterminate it, conditions so psychically brutalizing that physical death seems little more than a bureaucratic afterthought. The original English title of Survival in Auschwitz was If This Is a Man, which is a direct translation of the Italian title. The current title seems apt to the book’s attention to literal survival: a lot of Levi’s attention is given to the complex economy of the camp, driven by desperation but also fueled by people’s endless ingenuity: spoons, shoes, bowls, bread–the things that mean, for just a little longer, endurance. The title has another dimension, though, more consonant with the Italian title, which is the survival of the person: memories, dreams, knowledge. For Levi, his knowledge of chemistry, which helps define him, to himself, as a man (“Yet I am he, the B. Sc. of Turin, in fact, at this particular moment it is impossible to doubt my identity with him”) also contributes to his physical survival, as his job in the laboratory protects him from a second winter of hard labor. But one of the most profound and moving sections of the book for me was section 11, “The Canto of Ulysses,” in which Levi tries to teach a fellow prisoner Italian by reciting and translating some of the Divine Comedy:

Here, listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake:

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.’

As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.

Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.

Levi’s urgency increases as their time runs out and he can’t remember the lines, can’t bridge the gaps in his memory, can’t explain, can’t hold on. The poetry is unbearable because it awakens what the camp refuses–what you too must refuse to survive the camp (“oh, Pikolo, Pikolo, say something, speak, do not let me think of my mountains which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin”). But the loss of the poetry is also unbearable, because it is the negation of the camp. It is the antidote, not to the regimented brutality, the beatings and murders, the starvation, but to what Levi calls early in the book “the demolition of a man.”