|Primo Levi, Around 1950. As a young man, post-Holocaust. Kirsch writes of Levi’s training as a chemist: “This habit of paying attention to reality, and trying to master it, Levi attributes in large part to the fact that he had a scientific education rather than a literary one.”|
Photo Credit: Mondadori Publishers; Wikipedia
In particular, Kirsch raises the issue of Levi’s suicide of almost three decades ago, which seems so out of character of a man who worked so hard to make a life after the war, who articulated humanity against the backdrop of inhumanity, and who asked the essential human question of “why?” Yes, the definition of human nature continues to haunt us, and as always these questions become more pronounced, more urgent against the backdrop of current events. (e.g., the response in Europe to the “migrant crisis” and the cries of “Christian Europe” are not at all reassuring, particularly given Christianity’s influence on and complicity in the Holocaust. A more nuanced and thoughtful response would be preferable.)
As would the viewing of people as humans, and not as an excuse for a security crisis. A crisis of conscience, perhaps. Levi was an inspiration to the many of us who saw in him the human and poetic spirit that can overcome evil, that good can and does eventually win. That life is more than survival; it is life lived. Part of this living is understanding all of humanity’s many dimensions; and, in writing about the Holocaust, in bearing witness to it, in revisiting its inhumanity, Levi paid a high personal cost. We are thankful and grateful and are his beneficiaries.
In “Primo Levi’s Unlikely Suicide Haunts His Work (September 21, 2015), Kirsch writes:
When Primo Levi died in 1987 at age 67, after falling down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin, Italy, his fellow writer and survivor Elie Wiesel delivered an epigrammatic coroner’s report: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.” The long-delayed suicide of the Holocaust survivor is a story whose outlines we know too well. Jean Amery, who survived Gestapo torture and Auschwitz, took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1978; Paul Celan, who spent the war in a slave labor camp in Romania and saw his parents murdered, drowned himself in the Seine in 1970; Jerzy Kosiński, who survived in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Poland, asphyxiated himself in a bathtub in 1991. By jumping from a third-story landing, Levi seemed to be delivering the same message: he had borne the burden of an intolerable experience as long as he could, until his strength gave out and he had to let it drop.
But there was a crucial difference between Levi and these other writers of the Holocaust—a difference that shines out from every page of his Complete Works, now published for the first time in English in a beautiful three-volume edition edited by Ann Goldstein. Amery was the author of a book called On Suicide, and Celan was a poet of agonizing incommunicability, and Kosinski’s The Painted Bird was a surreal fantasia on themes of death and torture. But from his first book to his last, Primo Levi’s subject was not death but survival, not the triumph of evil but the defiance of evil. He was a man who lived through Auschwitz and emerged a humanist. This made him, for many readers—and especially many American Jews, who shared with this Italian Jew an assimilated and irreligious upbringing—one of the heroic spirits of the 20th century. Like George Orwell or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi’s name stood for the survival of humane values in the face of overwhelming violence. This made his eventual suicide a particularly dark and dispiriting act, as though he were saying that even he could not find a way to live in a world where Auschwitz was possible.Although this would make perfect sense, the last hours of Levi's life do not present itself as an expectation of Levi, or at least of Levi the writer with the mind of a scientist, the world has come to admire. I would like to believe, as many others do, including Diego Gambetta, that Levi’s death was an accident, that he fell from the third-floor landing of the same Turin apartment in which he was born 67 years earlier. That he had no intention to end his life, that he still had much to say and do. that he could somehow find a way to keep on living the heroic life found in the myths of Ulysses. That man is not a brute.
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