Primo Levi’s hundredth birthday

31st July 1919 – 31st July 2019

By Gianluca Cinelli

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.

Primo Levi in the late 1930s

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.

Primo Levi after WW2

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 and limits.

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 writer.