Toni Morrison on Primo Levi’s defiant humanism
The Complete Works of Primo Levi is far more than a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate and re-examine historical and contemporary plagues of systematic necrology; it becomes a brilliant deconstruction of malign forces. The triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing. For a number of reasons, his works are singular amid the wealth of Holocaust literature.
First is his language – infused as it is with references to and intimate knowledge of ancient and modern sources of philosophy, poetry and the figurative uses of scientific knowledge. Virgil,Homer, Eliot, Dante and Rilke play useful roles in his efforts to understand the life he lived in the concentration camp, as does his deep knowledge of science. Everything Levi knows he puts to use. Ungraspable as the necrotic impulse is, the necessity to “tell”, to describe the “monotonous horror of the mud”, is vital as he speaks for and of the millions who died. Language is the gold he mines to counter the hopelessness of meaningful communication between prisoners and guards. An example of this is the exchange, recounted in If This Is a Man, between himself and a guard when he breaks off an icicle to soothe his thirst. The guard snatches it from his hand. When Levi asks why, the guard answers: “There is no why here.” While the oppressors rely on sarcasm laced with cruelty, the prisoners employ looks and glances to gain clarity and meaning. Although photographs of troughs of corpses stun viewers, it is language that seals and reclaims the singularity of human existence.
Everywhere in the language of this collection is the deliberate and sustained glorification of the human. Long after his 11 months in what he calls the Lager (Auschwitz III), as a survivor, Levi understands evil as not only banal but unworthy of our insight – even of our intelligence, for it reveals nothing interesting or compelling about itself. It has merely its scale to solicit our attention and an alien stench to repel us.
For this articulate survivor, individual identity is supreme; efforts to drown identity are futile. He refuses to place cruel and witless slaughter on a pedestal of fascination or to locate in it any serious meaning. His primary focus is ethics.
His disdain for necrology is legend. Dwelling on memories – his and others’ – of survival rather than of the monstrous detritus of suffering, he is compelled by how suffering is borne whatever its consequence. Time and time again we are moved by his narratives of how men refuse erasure.
Melancholy and sorrow reside more in his poetry than in his prose. There, we find insects, accusatory ghosts and the sadness of place. In two of his poems, “Song of the Crow I” and “Songof the Crow II”, desolation is an inner reality monitored by a malevolent companion.
In the first, memory and sorrow are fixed and eternal.
I’ve come from very far away
To bring bad news.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To find your window,
To find your ear,
To bring you the sad news
To take the joy from your sleep,
To spoil your bread and wine,
To sit in your heart each evening.
The second “Song of the Crow” is even more redolent of despair.
What is the number of your days? I’ve counted them:
Few and brief, and each one heavy with cares;
With anguish about the inevitable night,
When nothing saves you from yourself;
With fear of the dawn that follows,
With waiting for me, who wait for you,
With me who (hopeless, hopeless to escape!)
Will chase you to the ends of the earth,
Riding your horse,
Darkening the bridge of your ship
With my little black shadow,
Sitting at the table where you sit,
Certain guest at every haven,
Sure companion of your every rest.
Clearly exposed in Levi’s work, the violent guards, whatever their power, come across as cowards who are more dangerous than the brave. It is also clear that, on reflection, defiant humanism must share its sphere with the Crow.
Toni Morrisson, The Guardian