Drowning Ulysses: Saving Levi from Agamben's Remnant

By Planinc, Zdravko | Shofar, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Drowning Ulysses: Saving Levi from Agamben's Remnant


Planinc, Zdravko, Shofar


ABSTRACT

This article is a critique of the reading of Primo Levi's If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved given in Giorgio Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz. It examines Agamben's interpretation of the "gray zone" as the "territory" in which "the oppressed becomes oppressor and the executioner in turn appears as victim," and it questions Agamben's claim to have discovered "Levi's Paradox." The article develops a critique of Agamben's project by reading Levi's If This is a Man against Remnants of Auschwitz. It attempts, first, to set the record straight; but more, it attempts to articulate Levi's understanding of "the ethical and political significance" of the Shoah by discussing the philosophical importance of the literary aspects of If This is a Man overlooked or misrepresented by Agamben.

Primo Levi's tombstone bears only his name and the number (174517) that was tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz. He had also wanted it to bear the inscription πολλ? πλ?γχθη, an epithet for Odysseus, the "much wandering" man, taken from the first lines of Homer's Odyssey.1 The mark of the Jew and the mark of the Greek. To cite James Joyce's Ulysses, a book by one of Levi's favorite obscure authors, Levi understood himself as a "Jewgreek" or "Greekjew," a man in whom "extremes meet."2

The extremes met decisively for Levi's life in a rare and spontaneous hour's conversation at Auschwitz with Jean Samuel, the Häftling (prisoner) also called Pikolo, during which Levi's tutoring him in the basics of Italian led Levi to attempt to recall, recite, and explain parts of Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno, the "Canto of Ulysses." A chapter of that title is the heart of Levi's first book, If This is a Man (Se questo è un uomo, 1947/1958). It recounts not only the surprisingly unbounded circumstances of the event, but more so the experientially wrenching struggle through which Levi came to consider the importance of Ulysses's defiant words for an understanding of Auschwitz. In the Inferno, Dante presents Ulysses as one of the damned in the Christian Hell, the place in which all the ancient Greeks, the Jews, the Muslims, and all those Christians unworthy of salvation have their specified punishments. Dante disregards Homer's story and claims that Ulysses never returned home; instead, he set forth on the open sea, urging on his companions with the words that, when Levi recited them for Jean Samuel in Auschwitz, roused him "like a gulp of hot wine":3

you were not made to live as brutes,

but to follow virtue and knowledge

(fatti nonfoste a vivre come bruti,

ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza, 26.119-20).

"For a moment," Levi's account continues, "I forget who I am and where I am" (ITM, 113). It would be just as true to say that in that moment he best remembers who he is. The moment cannot last. The hour ends with a return to soul-destroying camp life; and the chapter itself ends with Ulysses's final words in the Canto, describing how God ended his wanderings by drowning him and his companions, the first of His eternal punishments for their too-human virtues:

And the ocean closed over our heads

(infin che I mar fu sovra noi richiuso, 26.142).

In time, once Levi had returned home, Ulysses's words-or rather, Odysseus's words, for it is Homer's Odysseus whose voice is heard despite Dante's attempts to silence him-in time, Odysseus's words also allowed Levi to understand where he had been. When he wrote his account of what he had suffered and witnessed in the camps, Levi used the imagery of Dante's account of Hell with consideration and intent. And in opposition to the Nazis' grotesquely apocalyptic separation of the damned from the saved, Levi gave voice to Odysseus's courageous refusal of Dante's apocalypse: for Levi, the Nazis' victims are not the damned; they are all, like Odysseus and his companions, the drowned.

The title Levi chose for what he thought would be his only book was The Drowned and the Saved. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Drowning Ulysses: Saving Levi from Agamben's Remnant
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.