From Savage Elements: Epiphany in Primo Levi's Holocaust Writings

By Losey, Jay | Journal of European Studies, March 1994 | Go to article overview

From Savage Elements: Epiphany in Primo Levi's Holocaust Writings


Losey, Jay, Journal of European Studies


Primo Levi uses a version of modern epiphany originated by Rousseau and Wordsworth in the romantic period, appropriated by Browning and Pater in the Victorian, and refined by Proust, Joyce and Conrad in the modern.[1] But Levi's contribution to the epiphanic mode defies traditional notions of influence. The Holocaust marks the end of Western civilization, and Levi uses the epiphanic mode not to eulogize this civilization but to convey his response to the Holocaust: |for me the experience of the concentration camp has been fundamental.'[2] His response, according to Irving Howe, displays |moral poise: I mean a strength of remembrance that leads Levi into despair and then at least partly beyond it . . .'.[3] Levi seeks to affirm personal meaning despite, as he says in L'altrui mestiere (Other People's Trades), |a pure return to barbarism' that defines the twentieth century (:24).(+) Levi's autobiographical confession that he keeps writing about the Holocaust because he cannot help it may serve as his definition of the epiphanic mode:

Well, it has been observed by psychologists that the survivors of traumatic events are divided into two well-defined groups: those who repress their past en bloc, and those whose memory of the offence persists, as though carved in stone, prevailing over all previous or subsequent experiences. Now, not by choice but by nature, I belong to the second group. Of my two years of life outside the law [in Poland and Russia] I have not forgotten a single thing. Without any deliberate effort, memory continues to restore to me events, faces, words, sensations, as if at that time my mind had gone through a period of exalted receptivity, during which not a detail was lost.[4] Levi cites the commonplace details - |events, faces, words, sensations' - that trigger his memory. These details are all essential to Levi's epiphanic mode, which he refers to as |a period of exalted receptivity'.

The concept of Levi's experience being |carved in stone' reveals the self-professed accuracy of his memory. The crucial admission that Levi does not recall his experience by rational means but by nonrational means (|not by choice but by nature') indicates the presence of epiphany in his writing. And although a few critics have referred to the epiphanic mode in analysing concentration camp literature, no one has adequately explained its function. Terrence Des Pres refers to an incident in Eugenia Ginzburg's Journey Into the Whirlwind as being |like a Joycean epiphany, [revealing] in a moment the shattering of personal life under Stalin'.[5] Lawrence Langer cites an incident from Pierre Gascar's Season of the Dead that' . . . approaches (though it does not yet quite reach) the intensity of an epiphany' when a group of prisoners can distinguish only the yellow star of David on a corpse.[6] And Risa Sodi refers to the Ulysses epiosde in Se questo e un uomo in which Levi recites lines from the Inferno to a fellow prisoner, culminating in his |. . . momentary epiphany [that] comes crashing down around him as the cooks officially announce the day's soup'.[7] I intend to explain how Levi uses the epiphanic mode to shape nonrational material: his Lager experience.

For the epiphanist to shape non-rational material and convey experience he must rely on language. Levi acknowledges his own painstaking search for precise language: |It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter.'[8] This desire to employ precise language underscores his belief that the effort to communicate, to find a common language, creates an allegiance among the prisoners.[9] In his first work, Se questo e un uomo (translated as If This Is a Man in England and as Survival in Auschwitz in America), Levi laments his inability to recall the |plain, outspoken words' of a prisoner, Steinlauf, but recalls their meaning:

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