Testifying to His Text: Primo Levi and the Concentrationary Sublime

Article excerpt

In his Estetica, first published in 1902, Benedetto Croce offered a remarkably prescient definition of the atrocious sublime:

   Che cos'e il sublime? L'affermarsi improvviso dj una forza morale
   ultrapossente: eccone una definizione. Ma altrettanto buona e
   l'altra, la quale riconosce il sublime anche dore la forza che si
   afferma e una volonta ultrapossente bensi, ma immorale e
   distruttiva. E l'una e l'altra rimarranno poi nel vago e non
   acquisteranno determinatezza nessuna se non saranno riferite a un
   caso concreto, a un esempio, che faccia intendere che cosa si
   chiami qui "ultrapossente", e che cosa "improvviso", concetti
   quantitativi, anzi falsamente quantitativi, pei quali manca ogni
   misura, e che sono, in fondo, metafore, frasi enfatiche o logiche
   tautologie. (1)

Croce defined the sublime only to banish it from the polis of aesthetics by relegating it to the status of pseudo--aesthetic concept. As pseudo-aesthetic concept, it exists--'exists' may be more appropriate--in a penumbra of defect and delay. In the passage above, Croce claims that the sublime awaits an example capable of illuminating the terms ultrapossente and improvviso, as if: the sublime were eternally projected into the future; as if it were perpetually underway; that is, perpetually in suspense of its meaning. He makes the sublime too vast to be limited by any single referent: for him the sublime is an undecidable ("rimarr[a] ... nel vago"), no-man's-land between being and non-being that resists firm boundaries.

I intend to use the Crocean sublime as an emblem of difference and inscribe within it the Auschwitz Primo Levi elaborates in Se questo e un uomo, a place characterized by an excess that expresses itself as irony. Levi's Auschwitz is essentially ironic: always underway, always elusive, incapable of reductive mastery. This is not to deny that Se questo e un uomo is a work of testimony, but rather to assert that its testimony, like its irony, is multiple: Se questo e un uomo testifies not only to what Levi personally experienced, but also to the Crocean sublime in ways Levi could not control. Se questo e un uomo satisfies Croce's blurred criteria for sublimity by describing the arrival of the ultrapossente and the improvviso in Levi's life. It renders, by means of what I shall call 'the concentrationary sublime,' the shock evoked by an incomparable transgression of expectation and ethics, an experience of lethal otherness. 'Experience of lethal otherness' is an aporia: Se questo e un uomo describes as an unicum the totalizing enclosure that was Auschwitz. It is a world both framed and invaded by the constant threat of a horrifying and immeasurable sublimity--transformation from person into ashes-total victimization, utter erasure. (2)

Thus, the example that fulfills Croce's atrocious sublime--Auschwitz--is, according to Primo Levi, an unicum. Yet if it is indeed an unicum, then it is an example that, by definition, must both exceed and rail Croce's criteria for sublimity. That is, Levi's Auschwitz as unicum embodies the aporia of an example that can never be exemplary, because it cannot be subsumed into its exemplar. Such uniqueness is thus duplicitous: the sublime is rendered both possible and impossible by the atrocious unicum that will occupy its apex and realize it. As a consequence, the atrocious sublime remains not a fully formed and present pseudo-concept, but a pseudo-concept perpetually a venir, perpetually awaiting further unique examples that will render it present. It must remain a species of receptacle incapable of containing what is most truly exemplary of it. Levi makes the Crocean sublime the exemplary groundless.

This, I believe, is true to its manifold etymology: the sublime is that which rises to the threshold; however, the sublime also shares its etymology with the subliminal, or that which passes beneath the threshold of apprehension, in other words, that which cannot come to presence. …