Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Book Review: Primo Levi’s Drowned and the Saved

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Now that it is summer time, my reading schedule is in full swing—and Levi’s books were in my queue for a while.  Born in Turin, Levi trained as a chemist before joining an anti-Fascist resistance movement.  In early 1944, the Nazis captured and imprisoned Levi at Auschwitz where he witnessed the horrors of the German Lager.  Under normal circumstances, the Germans would spare political prisoners the fate of Auschwitz’s concentrationary system, instead placing them in better-fed, better-kept gaols with their fellow ‘conspirators.’  But Levi was Jewish.

After Levi survived Auschwitz and made the long journey back to Turin (ultimately settling for the rest of his life near his childhood home), he retained a deep knowledge of chemistry, but turned to the field of writing—partly as a cathartic exercise, partly because of his ‘obligation to bear witness’ to the secreted world of the Nazi concentrationary camps.

The last of Levi’s books before his unexpected suicide in 1987, The Drowned and the Saved represents his best attempt to analyze nearly every aspect of the Nazi concentrationary system.  It consists of a series of essays on, among other things: the nature of human memory (generally, and regarding Levi’s time in the Lager); ‘the grey zone’ of power dynamics inside the system; the polyglot that was the jail and the difficulties of communicating; the violence done to the German language under Nazism (for it was no longer the melodious, beautiful language of Schiller, Hegel, or Goethe); the eternal feeling of guilt that survivors experienced merely for surviving; the existence of useless violence inside the camps; whether intellectuals, more attuned to the constant shame of the system, suffered more than their less gifted colleagues; stereotypes of survivors that exist because memory of the offense, at the time of writing, was more than forty years old.

Throughout the book, Levi reiterates a shuddering truth: the salvati, or survivors, “are not the true witnesses.”  It is the sommersi, the submerged or drowned, whose lives are the ultimate testimony to the terrible truth—to wit, annihilation and the Final Solution.  Survivors “speak in their stead, by proxy,” says Levi, but he could not help but think that the best died in the gas chambers (as well as the full truth).  Nevertheless, one gathers in Levi’s writing that Auschwitz provided him maturity—both as a man and as an intellectual—and a raison d’être.  Pure intellectual curiosity drives Levi’s unrelenting questioning.  “Something one cannot understand constitutes a painful void, a puncture, a permanent stimulus that insists on being satisfied.”  Levi speaks of the tutelage of the profound Austrian philosopher Hans Mayer—so alienated from his German-speaking culture that he later changed his name to Jean Amery (a French anagram of Hans Mayer)—far more intellectually mature than Levi was upon his internment at Auschwitz.  Indeed, Levi goes so far as to say that Auschwitz was his university, in some perverse sense.

Levi’s books serve as detailed accounts of the Holocaust—sometimes too explicit—and are not for the faint-of-heart; they recount some of the deepest nightmares of the concentrationary experience, with trenchant analysis of the experience every step of the way.  In fact, the analysis, at times, is so profound that this book is deceptively long, albeit only 170 pages.  One cannot help but read 10 pages and wonder in awe at the depth of Levi’s ruminations.  Moreover, perhaps no author in recent memory sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary faster than Primo Levi (even in translation).  However, Levi’s vocabulary is never turgid or highfalutin.  He incorporates rich word usage but honors syntax and subtlety, redolent of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Levi’s work cuts to the heart of what it means to be human—what we value; the nature of political propaganda; our natural pain threshold; the culpability of bystanders to a crime; the role of suffering in moral and personal development.  Levi states that his work attempts to offer “explicit recipes for being human,” a goal he achieves through his hard-won wisdom and searing insight.


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