Primo Levi’s work presents an extraordinarily rich and articulated case of intertextuality. Being a curious, omnivorous, and asystematic reader, Levi explored multiple fields of knowledge – literary, scientific, historical, etc. – browsing between specialized and popular books and magazines, for reasons of research or pure entertainment, often approaching foreign cultures in the original language, driven by his eclectic curiosity and an intense desire to know and understand. Already fathomed in part by Levi himself in his anthology The Search for Roots (1981), his library remains however to be discovered. This volume intends to trace the features of a critical map of the grafts, intertexts and transplants that link Levi’s work to the books of others, by comparing it with twenty-one authors, in a “polyglot and multipurpose” gallery that includes classics such as Dante, Shakespeare, Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Carroll; authors of modern literature such as Kafka, Mann, and Calvino; and scientists such as Galileo, Darwin, Heisenberg, and Lorenz.
Table of contents
Domenico Scarpa: Prefazione xi Gianluca Cinelli e Robert S. C. Gordon: Introduzione 1
Parte I – Gli strumenti umani Antonio Di Meo: Primo Levi e William Henry Bragg 19 Mario Porro: Primo Levi e Galileo Galilei 37 Patrizia Piredda: Primo Levi e Werner Heisenberg 55 Alberto Cavaglion: Primo Levi e Giuseppe Gioachino Belli 73 Enzo Ferrara: Primo Levi e Stanislaw Lem 87 Stefano Bartezzaghi: Primo Levi e Lewis Carroll 107
Parte II – La condizione umana Vittorio Montemaggi: Primo Levi e Dante 127 Valentina Geri: Primo Levi e William Shakespeare 143 Simone Ghelli: Primo Levi e Pierre Bayle 161 Martina Piperno: Primo Levi e Giacomo Leopardi 179 Damiano Benvegnù: Primo Levi e Konrad Lorenz 197 Pierpaolo Antonello: Primo Levi e Charles Darwin 215
Parte III – Comprendere e narrare il Lager Charles L. Leavitt IV: Primo Levi e Elio Vittorini 237 Uri S. Cohen: Primo Levi e Vercors 255 Sibilla Destefani: Primo Levi e Charles Baudelaire 273 Stefano Bellin: Primo Levi e Franz Kafka 287 Davide Crosara: Primo Levi e Samuel Beckett 305
Parte IV – La ricerca di sé Martina Mengoni: Primo Levi e Thomas Mann 327 Gianluca Cinelli: Primo Levi e Herman Melville 345 Mattia Cravero: Primo Levi e Ovidio 361 Marco Belpoliti: Primo Levi e Italo Calvino 381
The title of this symposium makes reference to a paper presented on the 29th of November, 1914, at the School of Paleography, Diplomatics and Archival Science of the State Archives of Milan by Giovanni Vittani, who would become the director of that institution in 1920 until 1938. Clearly, a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, this subject was of great topical interest. Vittani discussed the heavy losses suffered by archives in Italy and abroad in the course of history, due to wars, revolutions and revolts. He concluded his speech stating that the only way of minimizing the destruction of archives, apart from international laws and sanctions, would be the development of a true «public interest»: only «when
will be universally known for why they exist, that is, to everyone’s advantage, to the harm of no one, it will be inconceivable that anybody would think to endanger them on purpose». But this was wishful thinking, as the State Archives of Milan itself, in the summer of 1943, when Milan was heavily bombed, lost a large quantity of documents.
Archival preservation was always at risk during wars and rebellions, but during the age of Napoleon considerable innovations were introduced in this field, as in many others, and we are still today familiar with them. In earlier regimes, archives either were voluntarily destroyed, or became the spoils of war for practical reasons, such as using their information in order to rule new territories or, vice versa, to deprive enemies of the same information. From the beginning of the 19th century to the present day, new direct or indirect causes of danger for archives have developed. As shown in the book Archivio del mondo. Quando Napoleone confiscò la storia, by Maria Pia Donato, it was Napoleon who wanted to create a «great archives of the world» by transferring to Paris, the capital of the new Empire, documents from all of the occupied countries for the sole purpose of symbolizing the birth of a new universal history. From that time on, the historical and symbolical importance of archives has transformed them into political instruments for confirming or discrediting the legitimacy of wars and rebellions fought in the name of a national identity or an ideology. Two hundred years after Napoleon’s death, the State Archives of Milan wishes to reflect on the theme of archives during wars and rebellions, aware of the fact that Vittani’s wish is still far from coming true, and that probably it will never come true. Wars of the third Millennium, which are also fought cybernetically, definitely refute the idea that archives are «to the advantage of all» and, above all, «of harm to no one». Two centuries after the death of the man who dreamed about the creation of a great universal archives, colossal corporations have succeeded in collecting and managing an enormous bulk of data which, as the new «archives of the world», may become powerful instruments for influencing people’s thought and actions, even to the point of fostering or stirring up new wars.
Fabio Caffarena, Benedetto Luigi Compagnoni, Antonino De Francesco, Filippo De Vivo, Maria Pia Donato, Luciana Duranti, Pierluigi Feliciati, Andrea Giorgi, Marco Lanzini, Leonardo Mineo, Marco Mondini, Stefano Morosini, Stefano Moscadelli, Raffaele Pittella, Olivier Poncet, Stefano Vitali.
The symposium will be structured into 5 sessions, each one dedicated either to an historical period or to one of the themes listed below, depending on the proposals that will be submitted. Each presentation will last 20 minutes, followed by a 5-minute period for questions and answers.
The deadline for the submission of proposals is September 30th, 2020. Proposals will consist of an abstract, in English and Italian (400 words maximum), a curriculum vitae showing the speaker’s principal areas of expertise and research. Papers may be presented either in English or in Italian. For speakers who prefer to present in another language, a simultaneous translation will be provided, under the condition that the text of the paper be submitted well in advance of the event. However, an English or Italian translation of the paper will be required for publication in the Proceedings. Final papers may be presented in English or in Italian, with an indicative deadline for the submission by August 31st, 2021. The subsequent publication of the Proceedings with an international publisher is expected. E-mail for submissions: email@example.com.
1 – Archives, wars, and diplomacy
Management, transformation, and creation of archives before, during or after a war;
How archivists and their profession change during war time;
Archives of diplomacy.
2 – Secret archives and public archives
Access to records and archives;
Archives as instrument of power;
Archives as instrument for exercising civil rights.
3 – Archives and “Empire”, Archives and “Nation”, Archives and “De-colonization”
Archives as symbols of power;
Archives as identity;
Archives during crises, revolts and transitional periods.
4 – Archives as “Instruments” and Archives as “Monuments”
The retention and/or disposition of archives in order to build an historical narrative;
The construction of archives (collections of autographs, correspondence, letters, oral sources, diaries, etc.; community archives);
Dismembered, dispersed, destroyed, migrated and removed archives / archives preserved deliberately or accidentally.
5 – Archives and technology
Archives as technological products and instruments;
Reliability and authenticity of archives in the era of cyber security and artificial intelligence;
Submission deadline for Issue n. 3 (2020): “Close Encounters in War and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”
In consideration of the impact of the current health emergency on the work of many scholars and colleagues, the editors of Close Encounters in War Journal have decided to extend the deadline for the 3rd issue of the journal: we invite the submission of articles of 6000-8000 words (endnotes included, bibliographical references not included in word-count: please see submission guidelines at https://closeencountersinwar.org/instruction-for-authors-submissions/) in English by 20th June 2020 (although we can allow a certain flexibility) by e.mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Decisions will be made by mid-July 2020, and the selected articles will undergo a process of double-blind peer-review. The authors invited to publish will have to submit their fully revised articles by 1st November 2020.
Call for fiction on the theme “PTSD and Close Encounters in War”
Close Encounters in War Journal (www.closeencountersinwar.org) is a peer-reviewed journal aimed at studying war as a human experience, through interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches ranging from the Humanities to the Social Sciences. The third issue (n. 3) of the journal will be thematic and dedicated to the experience of PTSD as a consequence of war and conflict, and titled “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as Aftermath of Close Encounters in War”.
In connection with the publication of Issue n. 3, the website www.closeencountersinwar.org will host a brand new section devoted to fiction. We therefore invite authors to submit unpublished short stories (between 2500 and 5000 words) and flash-fiction (up to 500 words) on the topic of conflict-related PTSD. We accept stories in English, typed in Times 12, and double-spaced. Please submit by 31st March 2020 to email@example.com. Please send doc, rtf, or odt files only. Please bear in mind that the CEIWJ is an independent project run by volunteers and that we cannot pay for your stories. Submission is free of charge and each author can submit only one story. Copyright for short stories and flash-fiction remains with the authors. We can accept multiple submissions (but please inform us immediately in case your story is accepted for publication elsewhere). Please write your full name, email address, title of the work, and word-count on the first page of your stories. Make sure that you mention in your email whether you wish to apply for the section “short stories” or “flash-fiction” when you submit.
We will publish your stories on our website in autumn 2020. Thank you for allowing us the privilege of reading your work!
Close Encounters in War Journal is a peer-reviewed journal aimed at studying war as a human experience, through interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches ranging from the Humanities to the Social Sciences. The third issue (n. 3) of the journal will be thematic and dedicated to the experience of PTSD as a consequence of war and conflict, and titled “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as Aftermath of Close Encounters in War”.
Wars in general are cultural phenomena, among the most ancient and deeply rooted aspects of human cultural evolution: investigating their meaning, by reflecting on the ways we experience wars and conflicts as human beings is therefore essential. Conflict is deeply intertwined with language, culture, instincts, passions, behavioural patterns and with the human ability to represent concepts aesthetically. The concept of “encounter” is therefore fundamental as it involves experience, and as a consequence it implies that war can shape and develop our minds and affect our behaviour by questioning habits and values, prejudices and views of the world.
The notion of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first introduced in the early 1980s by the American Psychiatric Association in order to describe a psychiatric condition occurring to people who have been involved in traumatic events as victims or witnesses. Although PTSD is not exclusively related to war and conflict, in common imagery it is mostly connected with veterans, with particular insistence on those who served in the American and British Forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few decades. Military personnel, civilians, NGO operators, journalists, and displaced people are equally exposed to PTSD as an aftermath of being involved in war. Over the most recent years, figures have grown, demonstrating that PTSD remains a major factor of the negative impact of war on society, together with environmental destruction, human and economic loss.
The label PTSD has replaced, in the field of combat-related conditions, previous definitions that were aimed at describing the psychiatric and bodily state of distress of combatants who, despite not being physically injured, were nonetheless unable to keep serving and needed medical assistance. Although scholars have attempted to date back PTSD to ancient warfare, even Greek, the first attempt to clinically define the state was made during the Napoleonic wars. The state of shock in which soldiers were left by passing-by cannonballs was called vent du boulet, or “cannonball wind”. During the American Civil War, the state of combat-related mental distress was called “soldier’s heart” and during the Great War the label was changed into “shell shock”, although the condition was not limited to casualties of explosions. During WWII the more generic definitions of “war neurosis”, “combat fatigue”, and “operational fatigue” spread in the English-speaking psychiatry, while German and Russian doctors coined their own formulas to describe one same phenomenon shared by thousands of combatants (and civilians as well): a state of confusion and hyperarousal, amnesia, dullness, with outbursts of rage and fear, hyperkinesis and tremors that could appear immediately as well as after months from the trauma and persisted as an impairing condition.
Nowadays, combat-related PTSD is addressed by national medical institutions (military and civilian) as a major cause of social distress, suicide, violence, antisocial behaviour, depression, and addiction to substances among a relevant number of veterans, with a significant negative impact on the quality of life of families and relatives, not to mention the deterioration of life-expectancy for the veterans themselves. The main fields of study in which PTSD is addressed today are neuropsychiatry and cognitive psychology with thousands of publications, while the Arts and Humanities have so far provided a modest contribution to the understanding of the topic. Historical research has largely focused on WWI and “shell shock” and the number of scholars (especially in the US and the UK) who study PTSD in connection with the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan is growing. Sound interdisciplinary research is still wanted and a broad spectrum of disciplinary fields have not yet been covered in the framework of PTSD-studies.
Issue n. 3 of CEIWJ will aim to investigate the theme of close encounters in connection to the experience of PTSD by exploring its facets both on a micro-scale, by studying individual testimonies and experiences, and on a theoretical and critical basis throughout history. CEIWJ encourages interdisciplinary approaches and the dialogue among different scientific fields. We therefore welcome articles on conflict-related PTSD that frame the topic within the context of close encounters in war from the perspective of Aesthetics, Anthropology, Arts, Classics, Cognitive Science, Ethics, History, Linguistics, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, and other disciplines relevant for the investigation of the topic.
We invite articles which analyse the experience of PTSD from ancient to modern and contemporary periods, from the perspective of the encounter, reaching beyond the study of military tactics and strategy and focusing on the way human beings ‘encounter’ each other with and within the experience of PTSD. Contributions are invited to promote discussion and scholarly research from established scholars, early-career researchers, and from practitioners who have encountered conflict-related PTSD in the course of their activities.
The topics that can be investigated include but are not limited to:
Violence and trauma
Cultural, ethical, social, political, and psychological response to conflict-related PTSD
PTSD and colonial wars, civil wars, international conflicts
War captivity and other forms of deportation
War crimes, ethnic cleansing, gendered violence
Representations of otherness, race, and gender
Cognitive aspects of conflict-related PTSD
Testimonies, personal narratives
PTSD in the arts
Oral history and memory studies
The editors of Close Encounters in War Journal invite the submission of articles of 6000-8000 words (endnotes included, bibliographical references not included in word-count: please see submission guidelines https://closeencountersinwar.org/instruction-for-authors-submissions/) in English by 20th June 2020 (although we are willing to allow a certain flexibility) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Decisions will be made by mid-July 2020, and the selected articles will undergo a process of double-blind peer-review. The authors invited to publish will have to submit their fully revised articles by 1st November 2020.
 Helen King, Recovering Hysteria from History: Herodotus and the First Case of “Shell-Shock”, in Contemporary Approaches to the Science of Hysteria. Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives, ed. by Peter Halligan, Christopher Bass and John Marshall, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 36-48.
 Marc-Antoine Crocq and Louis Crocq, From Shell Shock and War Neurosis to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A History of Psychotraumatology, «Clinical research», 2, 1 (2000): 47-55 (p. 48).
We are delighted to announce that the second issue of the Close Encounters in War Journal has been published online. This issue marks the real start of our project and is devoted to a topic that seemed relevant to us both for its historical meaning and its topicality. In fact, the issue hosts five contributions by authors who consider the theme of close encounters, displacement and war from a great variety of angles and in different disciplines.
Displacement and forced migration represent some of the most worrying issues of the contemporary world: according to data published by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there are currently 70.8 million forced migrants globally (Figures at a Glance, 2019) and its reports also show that wars, persecutions, violence and human rights violations are among the main causes of current forced migrations. The current crisis is unprecedented and calls for a deep reflection on how to face its urgency, particularly in relation to the situation of the people involved and the humanitarian emergency. In this special issue we look at displacement and forced migration caused by war and conflict in the contemporary era, with a particular focus on the challenges met by those who experienced it.
The five articles collected in the present issue cover a number of case-studies of displacement that vary as to geographical and chronological context, methodological approach, and specific disciplinary field, as far as they range from oral history to cultural history, and cultural studies.
The author of the first contribution, Christoph Declercq, focuses on the “odd case” of Belgian refugees in the United Kingdom during WW1, a small community of displaced people who were warmly welcomed and rather well absorbed in the British daily life, but who were soon after their repatriation forgotten. As Declercq claims, “the destitute Belgians had been used as a tool of warfare and when the war was finally over, those tools were hastily discarded, and all the stories that came with them suppressed” (infra, p. 14), which was one of the reasons why this group of displaced people remained so long forgotten by historians. Actually, as the author shows, the story of this group was more complex than a simple mass movement from Belgium to UK, and the figures of the mobility are therefore analysed thoroughly in order to understand what actual perception the Britons had of this phenomenon of displacement.
In the second article, Simona Tobia presents a number of case-studies deriving from oral history interviews that cover the displacement of Jewish Europeans fleeing from Nazi Germany to the United States before and during WW2, facing very challenging experiences of adaptation and integration. The author opens her article by discussing a number of methodological issues of oral history in order to theoretically frame her work and the use she makes of her sources. Tobia’s main concern is the emotional impact that displacement has on those who experience it, which often affects their ability to remember and share effectively the most traumatic aspects of their journey. She therefore claims that any oral history of displacement must take into account not only the cultural issues related to oral narrative but also the emotional impact of being displaced in terms of identity-building and memory, because “the strategies of memory composure that the narrators in these case studies used revolve around cultural knowledge, on the one hand, and emotions and feelings, on the other” (infra, p. 44).
The author of the third article, Barbara Krasner, touches upon another rather neglected scenario of displacement, namely that of Polish citizens who were caught between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes in 1939, when Poland was invaded by the Wehrmacht from the west and by the Red Army from the east. This form of displacement concerned above all the Jewish population of the town of Ostrova, who found themselves trapped between two invaders who equally threatened their survival. Thus, “the decision to cross or not cross the border in the first three months of Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland had longer-term consequences for the Jews of Ostrova” (infra, p. 63), which reminds us that displacement is a multi-faceted phenomenon that can be very different from case to case. Displacement can turn itself into a deadly condition for those groups of people that for racial, ethnic, religious or political reasons are particularly exposed to persecution both in the place they flee from and in those they try to enter.
The fourth article by Elisheva Perelman takes us in Japan in 1945, when the country is occupied by the American troops and the encounter between the soldiers and the civilians gives birth to the need for normalizing gendered relationships between America and Japan. To cover this topic, Perelman chooses to focus on a well-known post-war product of American pop culture, i.e. the cartoon Babysan, first published in 1951 and depicting the regime of occupation in a palatable way, which means in a sexually hegemonized way. Babysan made thus an ideal ethnographic object through which the Americans could look at defeated and occupied Japan in terms of naivety and objectification. Perleman also shows that the experience of displacement can occur without being removed from one’s own place. Babysan depicts a culture that has been displaced by the very glance that the occupiers have cast on it. As a “symbol of occupation and subjugation, of racism and misogyny” (infra, p. 81), Babysan reveals much about the complex reality of displacement in war.
The fifth and last article considers a more recent scenario, i.e. the worldwide diaspora of Somali citizens in the wake of the Somali civil war. Natoschia Scruggs takes into account testimonies of Somali displaced people resident in the United States, some of whom, though, have had previous experience of displacement in Europe and other countries in Africa or the Middle East. Once again, this article shows that displacement triggers a long chain of identity-related issues in those who are involved, in particular for people coming from cultural milieus where “clan affiliation and one’s immediate family are significant sources of personal identity and security” (infra, p. 92). What emerges is that generalisation is not useful when one attempts to understand the impact of displacement on such aspects as identity-building, self-perception, or social relationships, which are largely dependent on the cultural milieu of origin.We wish to extend a warm thank you to all the people who work with us to realize this project: our Editorial Board, the many scholars who accept to act as peer reviewers, and all those who have supported our project with counsel, criticism and constructive dialogue. And above all, the contributors, who have allowed us the privilege to read and publish their excellent academic work.
International conference, Turin, 21-22 November 2019
The conference will address issues in the field of historiography, literary criticism and the wider area of interpretative practices of artistic and literary works organizing a dialogue among various disciplines and perspectives. The aim is to resume the critical and philosophical debate on the issue of form and its modern variations or developments, first articulated in the works of Georg Simmel, André Jolles, Aby Warburg, Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur, and others. This debate revolved on the dialectics of sequence and simultaneity, diachronic succession and system, in order to gain a richer understanding of the notions of transformation and structure (central to structuralism, post-structuralism) as well as literary and artistic interpretation (central to hermeneutics).
Primo Levi (Turin, 1919-1987) was a writer known to the world for his works of testimony on deportation to Auschwitz. He was born from a Jewish family and he graduated in chemistry in 1941, despite the restrictions imposed by racial laws to Jewish students. He received from chemistry a first fundamental lesson of life: that in the struggle with matter, humans get a hint of what their own limits and strengths are. Levi realised that imperfection and asymmetry are fundamental aspects of reality, which is not dominated by the Spirit (as the fascist school, marked by distinction between humanistic culture and technical culture, taught). At the same time, chemistry was for Levi a school of rigor and precision, of patience, and of rejection of approximation. It was an apprenticeship that consolidated a background of culture acquired by young Primo not only through his broad literary readings (Rabelais, Melville, Conrad and many others) but also scientific and philosophical knowledge, attained thanks to the books that his father collected. In an age of cultural provincialism, such a complex, rich and pragmatic formation moulded the mind of young Primo, opening it to curiosity and above all to the belief that there are no separate cultures (humanism vs science), but only one single culture, for knowledge is made of the blending of its diverse parts. And since the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, such a culture promised to be far more fruitful than the stagnating idealism that dominated Italian cultural environment in the 1930s. The idea of a unitary culture went back to Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. For these thinkers, science, technology, philosophy, art, ethics, mathematics, physics, biology made one single and uninterrupted horizon of knowledge.
Then, on 8th September 1943, everything changed. Fascism had already been overthrown on 25th July of the same year. Italy had lost the war and now the Germans, who had been allies until the day before, became enemies and occupiers. For Italian Jews the situation quickly collapsed because while the military and political alliance between Italy and Hitler’s Germany had protected them (albeit in segregation), now the SS could deport them along with the other Jews of Europe. Primo left Turin and, urged by a generous albeit vague will to fighting, reached the partisans in the mountains. He was captured almost immediately and to save himself from a death sentence, he declared not to be a partisan but rather a Jew.
In February, after a period of internment in a concentration camp near Fossoli, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he worked as a forced labourer in the synthetic rubber factory (run by the large industrial group IG-Farben), annexed to camp 11 Buna-Monowitz. He remained there until the liberation on 27th January 1945. After his youthful and adventurous apprenticeship under the sign of chemistry, this new experience completed his education and human training to the point that Levi declared in the 1970s that Auschwitz had been his university. Surviving in an extermination Lager was no minor feat that prompted the young man to recount his adventures as soon as he returned to Italy in 1945. However, it was not a question of narrating facts in the fashion of romantic adventures, because the matter was too serious and incredible. Levi told his story through an original lens of lucid and almost detached, scientific observation, as if Auschwitz had been a huge laboratory in which the Nazis had conducted a horrible social and biological experiment. Described as a primordial struggle for survival, captivity is told in Se questo è un uomo (1947) as a journey to self-discovery by fathoming the human capacity to reach unexpected depths of abjection. Hence the question, at the end of the journey, whether the survivor is still a human creature.
But Primo Levi was not only an Auschwitz-witness, although he dedicated to this theme numerous books after Se questo è un uomo (La tregua, Lilìt e altri racconti, and I sommersi e i salvati, as well as a number of essays and articles). In the 1960s his multifaceted interest in science and technology prompted him to reflect on the problems of modernity through a form that was underdeveloped in Italian literature of those years, i.e. science fiction. He published two volumes of short stories, Storie naturali in 1966 (under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila) and Vizio di forma in 1971, exploring many an aspect of modernity and translating into “fantabiological” contexts (the expression was forged by Italo Calvino) the discourse about the Lager. With these stories, he reflected on the risks of electing technique to absolute paradigm of organization of life and human progress, and incorporating in his writing non-literary models borrowed from science.
And above all there was
chemistry that since the end of the war had constituted the main job of Primo
Levi. Not theoretical chemistry but rather industrial chemistry that is made
with the five senses, with hands, by struggling to tame matter, yet without
forgetting the immeasurable force of nature that never yields to human will. In
1975 Levi published Il Sistema periodico, a kind of autobiography
in which he retraced the stages of his own human and cultural development by
choosing chemistry as a criterion (and metaphor) to organise the book. After
the mortifying experience of the Lager, where work was designed to murder the
forced-labourers, Levi now recounted the uplifting experience of vocational
work that makes life worthwhile and makes individuals aware of their own strengths
This book was followed in 1978
by La chiave a stella, anther work devoted to the theme of work that ironically
bridged between the “chemical” and “literary” aspects of professional
achievement. The result is a reflection on work as a fundamental experience for
human happiness, coupled with a new kind of reflection that would occupy Levi more
and more in the following years: the awareness of being now a full-time writer
(Levi retired from his chemist job at the end of the decade). The “two souls” –
the chemist and the writer – coexisted (Levi called himself a “centaur”) as the
two faces of one single, complex personality capable of creating and
manipulating reality with chemical and verbal processes. No matter if he
combined molecules or words, the effect remained the same: life is an endless exploration
of reality with the tools that we possess, the senses, the body, the mind and
knowledge that over thousands of years of cultural evolution has permitted us
to undertake the daily struggle for life.
The 1980s marked a return to
the past. As Levi increasingly wrote in newspapers about literature and reviewed
books of other writers, he was invited by his publisher to edit an anthology of
readings of special importance for his intellectual education, a kind of
autobiography through readings (La ricerca delle radici 1981).
Nonetheless, his focus remained fixed on the Lager experience. Revisionism
spread over Europe, Faurisson’s thesis received consensus and a growing number
of people were inclined to deny that Lagers, crematoriums, and even the great
Nazi massacre had ever occurred. The memory of the “unhealable offence”
faltered, partly under the blows of the negationists, and partly because of its
own physiological decadence. Years passed by, memories changed or faded,
witnesses disappeared. In the same year Levi published Lilìt e altri racconti, a collection of stories about the Lager combined
with science-fiction tales. Then, in 1983, he translated Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess, a demanding endeavour that brought Levi back to struggle with the nightmare
of deportation and senseless persecution. It was the beginning of the
depression, against which Levi fought over the last years of his life. In 1982
he published his only novel, Se non ora, quando?, a story inspired by
real facts and centred on the adventures of a group of Russian Jewish
partisans: as if to say that not all Jews passively succumbed to the massacre,
that there was also those who, although in absolute minority, fought back.
But the most important work
that fermented in those years was I sommersi e i salvati, the last essay that Levi published in 1986, one year before committing
suicide. The title had already appeared in a chapter of Se questo è un uomo, but this work was new and rather different. This book largely consisted of
memory and therefore must be defended from memory itself, because recollections
change over the years and end up replacing the original “raw” ones. In the end –
Levi claimed – the survivors of the Nazi extermination, both the perpetrators and
the victims (yet on opposite principles and with different aims), produce “prosthetic
memories” by which they can rework their past experiences in a way that makes them
bearable. The true integral witnesses of the Lager, Levi says in one of the
most controversial passages of the work, are those who died there, for they “saw
the bottom”. One year later, like other survivors such as Paul Celan or Jean
Amery, Levi committed suicide without providing any explanation.
Primo Levi was one of the most
“multifaceted” Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century. Able to explore
the literary field ranging from ancient classics to foreign literature,
including distant genres and little-known authors, Levi was able to interpret
his role as an intellectual without forgetting his work as a scientist and
technician. His scientific culture was comparable to that of Renaissance
intellectuals, for whom it was natural to integrate poetry, mathematics, music,
physics, metaphysics, etc. into one single, broad cultural horizon. Twentieth-century
Italian culture experienced rare moments of similar integration of the humanistic
and technical cultures, thanks to such intellectuals as Carlo Emilio Gadda,
Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern and a few others, who were able to cross
disciplinary boundaries and to understand the world as complexity.
What impresses Levi’s readers is
the expressive clarity, the lucidity with which he tackles serious themes
without indulging in psychologism or morbid aestheticization of graphic
details. With the scientist’s detached gaze, Levi struggled to understand what
happens when a sophisticated and deeply articulated form of life like the human
being is placed in conditions of extreme danger, suffering, or severe stress. Under
the dire circumstance of rationally programmed extermination – as that carried
out in Nazi Lagers – the magnificent and progressive fortunes of humanity
invoked by the Enlightenment are shaken to the foundations and what remains is the
Pascalian image of a hybrid creature, half angel and half beast, unable to turn
itself into the former or the latter, but dangerously tending downwards,
towards its dark side, from which it must keep away through a constant moral
and rational effort.
Levi teaches a profound lesson
in critical thinking because he, as a technician, knew the advantages and
dangers of technology. As an instrument it facilitates the life and progress of
the species, but as an ideology it produces a cruel and mechanical world, where
the ends prevaricate the means and where the human is only one of the many
tools that can be exploited to death. As to such consideration, Levi bridged
between classical and contemporary paradigms. His ideology was deeply rooted in
nineteenth-century positivist thought and his humanism traced perhaps even
further back to the great moralistic masters of the seventeenth century, to the
scientist-poets of the Renaissance. The challenges of modernity took place for
Levi on the border between humans and world, where the two terms meet and
collide: for humans too often fail to conceive themselves as part of the world,
while the world does not yield to their will of power.
Levi’s moral lesson is
invaluable because human history shows a certain tendency to repeat itself. Levi’s
analyses and diagnoses, exposed with the seriousness of the doctor who has well
considered the symptoms of his patient, remain exemplary and enlightening to
understand and recognise dangerous human behaviours: the marginalization of minorities,
manipulation, the construction of artificial myths and truths on which opinions
are based, the twisting of experience into forms of false knowledge. All these
aspects concern us as well because these are cognitive, evolutionary and
psychological mechanisms of human life, both individual and collective.
Levi’s confidence in reason,
in humanity’s ability to dwell in the light (according to a traditional
metaphor dear to the writer), which is to prefer to darkness just as clarity is
preferable to incomprehensibility, made of him the writer who, since his
youthful and romantic struggle with Matter to his deadly fight with the Gorgon,
never lost his faith in the human. And because of that – or in spite of it all –,
it never ceases to surprise how deeply Levi could grasp the humorous side of
life, even in the most horrible circumstances.
One hundred years after his
birth there is still much to understand and learn from this multifaceted
Nuto Revelli’s Il disperso di Marburg after 25 years. Marburg, July 18, 2019
(Cuneo 1919-2004) was an officer of the Italian Royal Army and fought in Russia
in 1942-1943. Following the armistice of September 8, 1943 between Italy and
the Allies, Revelli joined the anti-fascist partisan groups and fought as
commander of the 4th GL Band (later renamed “Carlo Rosselli”
Brigade) until the liberation of Italy in April 1945. The experience of war engendered
deep hatred against the Germans, which Revelli had met on the Russian front as
allies and then as enemies in the mountains of his region (Piedmont). For
decades this hatred remained unchanged and the intensity of such feeling was
captured in the first books that Revelli published in the post-war period, Mai
tardi (1946 and then republished in 1967) and La guerra dei poveri (1962).
In these books the Germans are represented as cruel beasts, enemies to hate and
In the 1980s,
while collecting oral accounts from peasants in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont,
Revelli heard from a former partisan a strange war story, the legend of a
German officer who rode off in the countryside and who was kind to the local
inhabitants and children, a peaceful and apparently “good” man. One day of 1944
this man disappeared, possibly killed in an ambush of partisans, and since then
no one knew anymore about him. This legend disturbed Revelli because it challenged
his memories of war and seemed too lenient to be true. Nevertheless, it was the
story of a missing-in-action soldier. The memory of soldiers missing in Russia
during the retreat from the Don River had tormented Revelli since the end of
the war. A missing soldier, the writer said, is the cruellest legacy of any
Thus, he decided
to engage in the search for the identity of this missing man, and after ten
years of work, oral interviews with witnesses and research in German military
archives, he succeeded. He discovered that the missing man was a 23-year-old
German officer, a student who had not joined the National Socialist Party, who was
not enthusiastic about the war and had already lost his older brother in
Russia. A young man like so many others, who had been involved into the
enormity of the war and had been overwhelmed by a cruel fate.
Fifty years after the war, Revelli thus found the way to reconcile with the hated enemy through a historical quest that in the end also turned out to be an experience of friendship, as far as he befriended the German historian Christoph Schminck-Gustavus, who remained close to Revelli. And, above all, this was a story of reconciliation with the human side of the so-called enemy. The book that tells this story, Il disperso di Marburg, was published in 1994 and for the occasion Revelli visited the German town of Marburg where Rudolf Knaut, the missing officer, was born. This year, on July 18, Marburg hosted an event dedicated to Revelli and to Il disperso di Marburg to celebrate the centenary of the writer’s birth (July 21). Gianluca Cinelli gave two lectures at the Institut für romanische Philologie at Philipps-Universität Marburg and at the Technologie- und Tagungszentrum in the presence of a large audience.