Authoritative Testimony and Authoritarian Discourse in Primo Levi's Se Questo E Un Uomo

By Druker, Jonathan | Italian Culture, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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Authoritative Testimony and Authoritarian Discourse in Primo Levi's Se Questo E Un Uomo


Druker, Jonathan, Italian Culture


That Primo Levi intended his 1946 Auschwitz memoir, Se questo e un uomo, to be something more than an autobiography is evident in his copious (but not exclusive) reliance on a first-person plural narrative. So far, most scholars have viewed Levi's `we' and `our' as usefully inclusive pronouns that not only evoke a chorus of victims who speak through, and thus authorize, Levi's narrator, but also facilitate the reader's participation in the retelling. (1) In using the plural, they say, Levi refuses "to isolate the survivor's experience from the rest of humankind" (Bernstein 4). (2) Still other scholars notice "stylistic shortcomings" in the "haphazard shifts in person" from `I' to `we' (Sodi 275).

These observations, however, stop short of asking whether the various appearances of `we' in Levi's memoir have different, and even evolving, functions and meanings. Consider two passages from the text; the first describes the excruciating train trip from Italy to Poland. "Soffrivamo per la sete e il freddo: a tutte le fermate chiedevamo acqua a gran voce, o almeno un pugno di neve, ma raramente fummo uditi" (Se questo e un uomo 12). ["We suffered from thirst and cold; at every stop we clamored for water, or even a handful of snow, but we were rarely heard." (Survival in Auschwitz 18).] Here, the plural subject (in the past tense) speaks as a credible, authorized chorus conveying a shared experience of physical privation that engages the reader's sympathy and conscience. In recounting the details of the episode, Levi attempts to give voice to the unheard, and not yet fully dehumanized, `we' who were deported but never came back.

In roughly the middle of the memoir, the choral voice briefly but tellingly gives way to a more authoritative first-person plural whose knowledge exceeds the local boundaries defined by the camp. In contrast to the implicit humane and ethical stance conveyed by the first passage, the second one I have chosen puts forward a sweeping, yet detached, statement on the value of studying all human experience, including that gained in Auschwitz.

   Noi siamo infatti persuasi che nessuna umana esperienza sia
   vuota di senso e indegna di analisi, e che anzi valori
   fondamentali, anche se non sono sempre positivi, si possano trarre
   da questo particolare mondo di cui narriamo. (83)

   [We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without
   meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values,
   even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular
   world we are describing. (87)]

Here, the plural subject (in the present tense) is no longer situated among the victims, but is a disembodied `we' located in some indeterminate but apparently objective position outside the camp. Indeed, this `we' is stylistically awkward and oddly distanced. Why does Levi use it at all when, clearly, he alone thinks and writes these thoughts? What community is constituted by this `we' and what does it have to do with inferring general principles from the "particular world" under scrutiny here?

In answering these questions, and in raising still others, I will suggest that the construction of this detached `we' and the drive to deduce meaning from Auschwitz are two crucial elements, interdependent and unstable, in Levi's vexed attempt to understand and make others understand his experience of the Holocaust. The adequacy of inadequacy of particular narrative strategies (i.e. the `we') and conceptual frameworks (i.e. the deduction) to the task of salvaging something useful from Auschwitz demand consideration in any analysis of Holocaust representation. Indeed, the stakes could not be higher for Levi himself, who always judged his success of failure on whether he made the tragic world of Auschwitz intelligible to his readers, whether his extraordinary experience could be shown to have some bearing on ordinary life.

Fully invested in secular humanism and positivism, and trained in scientific method, Levi trusted in the ability of empirical observation and reason to make sense of the world and impart meaning.

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