Unvarnished Truth: The Chemistry of Shame in Primo Levi

Article excerpt

PRIMO LEVI SPENT HIS LIFE IN THE ACTIVE REASSERTION OF the plain truth of his experience in the Lager. When readers and interpreters got it wrong, for whatever reasons, he returned to essential points, and to reaching out so as to draw readers back, again, to what in his view was central. Despite his death under questionable circumstances, his texts remain, insisting on the openness of the testimony. His final book, The Drowned and the Saved, [1] reveals the exhaustion and despair which accompanied this last attempt to set right, yet again, a reading public intent on simplification and reduction, and this time an explicitly-mentioned German reading public bent on distortion, self-justification, and outright denial of responsibility. In The Drowned and the Saved he speaks about "the gap that exists and grows wider every year between things as they were 'down there' and things as they are represented by the current imagination fed by approximative books, films, and myths. It slides fatally toward simplification and stereotype, a trend against which I would like here to erect a dike." [2] His 40 years of writing and speaking had failed to erect a protective barrier around the experience of "down there." Or rather, 40 years had been spent in refusing to seal up the testimony, recognizing that accessibility of both author and text was essential to maintaining the fidelity of witness. Levi understood that "We are at the edge of a thicket of symbolic connotations, due to which solidification is from time to time experienced as positive or negative, reassuring or deadly." [3]

Levi turns to the chemical imagery of the varnish maker to explore forms that witness may take-the instability of its liquid substance, and the anxiety about timing and hardening as it mixes with the light of day: "It seems to me just as strange that varnishes are displacing Auschwitz in the 'ground floor' of my memory: I realize this from my dreams, from which the Lager has by now disappeared and in which, with increasing frequency, I am faced with a varnish maker's problem that I cannot solve." [4]

Similarly, he admires the spider, whose own bodily substance, when extruded under the pressure of traction, becomes its web, its "irreversible solidification." [5] Following through on this chemical process, Levi notes that to harden irreversibly, but not thereby to become rigid or cut-off ("everyone has heard of rigor mortis" [6]), to pass from liquid to solid, to extrude liquid memory into solid witness-this, for Levi, is the problem of the varnish maker and the Auschwitz witness.

With his last words he was still attempting to set the record straight, to hold back a tide of revisionism and disinvolvement, to maintain the irreversible nature of what had been done and suffered. And yet Levi fought equally to keep the witness alive and open to engagement. His example in this is clear: words which lie dormant in a text offer little resistance to the active and overriding interests of forgetting. The words must be held aloft and spoken, and spoken again-which meant Levi had constantly to expose himself through public encounter.

Last words take on a special significance when offered by a man who takes his own life, as many assume is the case with Primo Levi. And the fact that his last words hearken back to his first in Survival in Auschwitz [7] suggests that those early concerns and intentions remain with us. What then did Levi ascribe as his purpose in writing that first book? He tells us it was a duty and an inner need

to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind. Many people--many nations--can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that "every stranger is an enemy." For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. …