Having survived a year of starvation, torture and enslavement in Auschwitz in 1944-45 and written such mordant yet affirming works as Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table, Italian author Primo Levi's 1987 suicide was an affront to many. How could the world's most sophisticated survivor, a writer who gained his reputation writing a kind of unequaled dispassionate lyricism of the most intimate horrors, a writer so "profoundly civilized," as Philip Roth has written, ultimately buckle to his demons? Didn't he owe it to all he had inspired not to do so?
Even so levelheaded a critic as Cynthia Ozick was driven to characterize Levi's suicide at the time as a kind of delayed victory for evil, writing in The New Republic that his demise suggests "that hell in fact did not end when the chimneys closed down, but was simply freshening for a second run."1 And though there has been lingering debate about the given circumstances surrounding his death, it has been firmly established that Levi—born into a culturally assimilated family of Italian Jews in Turin—took his own life in April 1987 by leaping headlong into the stairwell outside the same apartment he was born in almost 70 years earlier. The fact that Levi lived in the same location for nearly his entire life—excluding the year imprisoned in Auschwitz and the months in transit from the Soviet Union following his liberation—is a telling detail not only for the bravery of Levi’s stalwart insistence on maintaining a distinct sense of place but also for its uniqueness. Unlike many survivors of the Holocaust, Levi deliberately chose to return to a daily routine that was much as it had been before the war; an industrial chemist before and after, Levi did not emigrate or start over after Auschwitz but picked up more or less where he left off, ostensibly working and living much as he had before, with the one crucial addition being the penetrating, genreless books he would release every few years.
As recent biographies2 recount in great detail, Levi suffered in his early adulthood from excruciating sexual and social inhibitions that not only kept him from expressing his romantic love for a number of women throughout his life, but also led to a self-conscious insistence on rational, dispassionate thought as paramount to compensating for his social awkwardness before the war and to bulwarking his views regarding the efforts to re-build and maintain a civil society after the war. A late interview with the American novelist Philip Roth makes clear that Levi himself was fully aware how crucial his already quite distanced disposition was to surviving Auschwitz:
“And yet what you say, that for me thinking and observing were survival factors, is true, although in my opinion sheer luck prevailed. I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritedness. I don’t know if this depended on my professional background, or an unsuspected stamina, or on a sound instinct. I never stopped recording the world and people around me, so much so that I still have an unbelievably detailed image of them. I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by a curiosity that somebody afterward did, in fact, deem nothing less than cynical: the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.”3
It is surely the same fine-tuned rationalism that allowed Levi to delimit, understand, and convey "the gray zone" as he came to call the collaborative activities undertaken by some prisoners—to varying degrees—in order to survive the brutality of the death camps, but is it not likewise the same naturalist inclination—forever in an essential way at odds with such harrowing experience—that wrestles for the rest of Levi’s years with something that must have approached constant, existential dread and doubt?
Any expressed doubt as to his formal methods was rarely if ever expressed by him as regards his prose writings, for it is the irrational—as Levi makes clear in a private letter—that actually caused him to write the occasional poem and so affords him the opinion that a poem’s full intention exists in the mere act of its completion, thereby espousing an understanding of poetry as primarily a tool of catharsis. But as a writer’s vocation poetry is something Levi described as “a mental process that I do not know very well, and have little control over. My rational side represses all the rest. The poems are the fruit of emotionality that I find difficult to analyze. As a writer, I have tried hard to be clear. What lies behind our rationality we do not know. Our own depths are unknown to us. It may be that poetry is the fruit of two left hands.”4
There is more to say on “the fruit of two left hands” at the end of these considerations but first it is important to further note that Levi himself understood just how unlikely his role as one of the great literary witnesses of the twentieth century was given the overwhelming shyness of his youth. Notorious among his friends, both at the time leading up to the horrors of deportment and later in life, as the consummate listener, Levi was seen by many in his pre-war circle as the worthiest of all confidantes but the most unlikely of protagonists, just because of his overwhelming trepidation toward social interaction. And so it became the incredible demand that he placed upon himself to communicate not his own inward experience but that of the utterly compromised external reality of others. Levi burdens himself with a subsequent role of dispassionate confessor—a role that left him perpetually asking two sides of a larger question, one side expansive, and the other perhaps impossibly singular: “What is it to be fully human?, and its corollary, Am I fully human?"5
It is due in no small part to this highly motivated, constant push toward clarity and communicability that Levi’s writing attains its greatest virtues—as with The Periodic Table, a truly confounding, astute book if there ever was one—and yet it should be recalled that this same book embraces a structural understanding of the fragment that allows for the writer to enter into and exit moments of great horror and overlooked humility with agile, departing tactics always near at hand. To put it another way, while Levi’s language always maintains a rigor and economy, it’s also indebted to the deployment of a formal acumen that is as withholding as it is piercing in much of his writing, perhaps explaining why Levi always referred to himself as chemist first, writer second.
But to return to the pressing question of “two left hands” and what their potential use might be, it is in Levi’s 1976 essay “On Obscure Writing” that a deeply conflicted sense of self flashes and ruptures around this very question. For it is here that Levi uncharacteristically turns trenchant, casting the writing of German poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) and Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914) as akin to “the animal whine” of writers indulging in “pre-suicide” and “not-wanting-to-be.”6 Is Levi writing so dismissively about these poets because their verse truly “attracts us as chasms attract us, but at the same time defrauds us of something that should have been said and was not…?” Or, is there not something else that disturbs Levi even more than the writings’ supposed chasms—namely an unwitting, traumatic identification with what is expressed in Trakl and Celan (quite differently in each poet I would add)? Surely, Levi does not wholeheartedly mean to draw the connections he implicitly makes in the essay between the hate-mongering on-the-air diatribes of the American poet Ezra Pound and the verse of Trakl and Celan? Indeed, it is worth asking to what end and directed toward whom exactly are Levi’s un-tethered remarks regarding “this darkness that grows from page to page until the last inarticulate babble consternates like the rattle of a dying man…?”7 As Levi’s argument seems to say, the fact that each of these poets committed suicide retroactively colors their writing as little more than a prelude to their final act, a failure to overcome the darkness encountered. As he writes: “The effable is preferable to the ineffable, the human word to the animal whine. It is not by chance that the two least decipherable poets writing in German, Trakl and Celan, both died as suicides, separated by two generations.”8
There is a barely quelled vehemence to Levi’s dismissal here that is no less evident for the attempt at qualification that occurs toward the end of the essay where Levi seems almost to retreat from the raw emotion of what he has written, regaining his dispassionate demeanor in stating, “I repeat, these are preferences of mine, not standards.”9 It is fair, I would argue, that if it weren’t for his estimable reputation, Levi’s fervid opinion as expressed on this topic would have been open to a more directly antagonistic response than has been previously voiced in considerations of Levi’s life and work. And while it is true that at the time of its publication, Giorgio Manganelli—an experimental novelist and prominent member of the Italian avant-garde—did actually respond with an equally distraught, overblown labeling of Levi’s essay as “rationality triumphant” and “a typical case of existential terrorism,” it should also be noted that Levi’s published letter in response a few weeks later qualifies this exchange as the one public and emotive skirmish of Levi’s entire professional life.10 This fact is a testament to Levi’s remarkable prowess as a writer and thinker, really a paragon of rigorous, always considered prose.
But to underscore again the troubling turn in Levi’s defense of clear writing, what are we to make of Levi’s rhetorical maneuver whereby “the animal whine” as borrowed from an un-cited text comes to represent Celan and Trakl, specifically, and by extrapolation presumably much of the genre of poetry? When Levi rather audaciously characterizes Celan’s entire output (the poet wrote nine books of poetry and two remarkable works of prose ars poetica) as something that “should be meditated upon and pitied rather than imitated” he may have a limited point when considering the poet’s notoriously difficult, hermetic last writings but does he not also offer a just-below-the-surface reaction that belies how deeply Celan’s earlier writing may have communicated with Levi’s own haunted feelings.
A compelling yet disturbing characterization that Levi makes earlier in his essay is worth relating again here; after invoking the complicated makeup of human expression and conceding that perfectly lucid writing does not correspond with reality, Levi commutes upon us all a foreboding sentence whereby “we are condemned to carry from crib to grave a doppelganger, a mute and faceless brother who nevertheless is co-responsible for our actions, and so for all of our pages.”11 Does Levi’s characterization of Trakl and Celan—but especially Paul Celan—not coincide all too closely with this “mute and faceless brother?” I think the slippage of identification and projection upon the figure of the afflicted, saturnine poet—effectively singled out by Levi in this essay as nothing less than his own silenced doppelganger—is all too apparent in how the essay unfolds in fits and leaps of logic made all the more striking for how out of keeping they are with Levi’s other writing.
But to end here would be to simply underscore the psychological fraying that seems to me to occur in Levi’s essay. Rather, this essay can be viewed alongside many long-held arguments leveled against poetry as less than and counter to the reasoned argument of prose and its architectural implications for a civil, good society (need I remind of Plato’s Ur-banishment). And so Levi’s essay can be read as revealing the extent to which his argument is for a conservative’s view of poetry as an ill-fated though formidable adversary that is hopelessly conjoined with sentiment and so “the language of the heart” which is “capricious, contaminated, and as unstable as fashion, of which it is indeed a part…” as he writes.12 And while this reading of Levi’s essay is perfectly plausible (and makes up Manganelli’s view) I argue for the former, namely that there is a deep identification felt in this essay for the other, the unlamented. While Levi has remembered fastidiously, courageously and without parallel—after all, he is the witness par excellence of the defining historical event of the last century—it is communication with his foresworn doppelganger and the mute and faceless brother(s) that surfaces in this essay, a desire for communion with his previous, not yet hardened self (indeed the self that he entered Auschwitz as) and the very real people he left behind that comes flowing from the gaps opened up in this brief, otherwise tangential essay on the merits of clear, rational language. And so I think it is necessary to consider in closing at least one example of what Levi has rather unfortunately demarcated as the “contaminated” but magnetic ‘two left-handedness’ to be found in verse by the likes of Georg Trakl and Paul Celan.
The poem that follows by Paul Celan offers what is clearly an elegy for the departed, and, as it is addressed to “you” throughout, one can surmise that on one level it is voiced to a familiar, intimate departed. And, furthermore, while it is known from recitations and comments made by the poet himself that it is in part a poem written to and for his mother—who along with his father was killed in a Nazi work camp in the far east after being deported from Bukovina, Romania in 194213—it is important to note within the context of this consideration that such information is not stated here and likewise in very few of Celan’s other poems. In other words, the poem withholds the specificity of its address and does so with what is a double intention that lies close to the heart of poetry. But first, the poem:
Count the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you awake,
count me in:
I looked for your eye when you opened it, no one was looking at you,
I spun that secret thread
on which the dew you were thinking
slid down to the jugs
guarded by words that to no one’s heart found their way.
Only there did you wholly enter the name that is yours,
sure-footed stepped into yourself,
freely the hammers swung in the bell frame of your silence,
the listened for reached you,
what is dead put its arm round you also
and the three of you walked through the evening.
Make me bitter.
Count me among the almonds.
––translation Michael Hamburger14
I will avoid any attempt at overbearing exegesis but merely point out a few tentative and subjective observations. Beginning with a note of incantatory repetition so essential to both Jewish and Christian theological oratory (as can be found in the Bible and the Talmud), Celan invokes a complicated heritage that arises here and in many of his poems. As befits the polyglot, culturally multiple nature of his upbringing and social milieu, Celan’s is a dispersed sensibility that is constantly tacking back and forth even as it undertakes—as in this poem—the most intimate of remembrances. But of what is this poem a remembrance? Unlike the admirable clarity of Levi’s chronicle, the poem’s crisis is not to be stated directly for the record, but does this therefore mean that the reader cannot enter into Celan’s poem and is left in darkness with nothing more than ineffable mumbling as a companion.
Not at all, rather the reader falls line by line to an encounter with the nearly forgotten glance of the dead (“your eye when you opened it, no one was looking”), with the almost fading words and thoughts of the departed (“that to no one’s heart found their way”), and is charged with the impossibility of enacting a remembering that stands once undertaken in wait to be repeated now and again in the future. The poet (and so the willing reader) then more fully encounters the departed in the second section of the poem as the hard-fought presence of Celan’s peculiar form of remembrance begins its next stage; the departed moves away, enters “their name” but thereby moves still further away, where the hammers now swing freely into a forever-separateness, where “the listened for” reaches its destination but in so being heard is taken with the departed’s turn away, and here and only then is death allowed a greater presence and embraces the departed. An intense and demanding enacting. But the rejoinder at the end is equally important, for this is not a moment of simple acceptance, of bidding farewell. For what “kept you awake” is returned to, the taste of remembrance and loss is split into two and shared by the departing and the teller: “Make me bitter. Count me among the almonds.” Or so this willing reader reads. And really the more important point for consideration here is the insistence that this act of remembrance exist between poet and reader with the poem and its peculiar specificity the bridge between.
On one last point I have to defer to Paul Celan’s favorite writer, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and his essay “Conversation on Dante” which is perhaps the greatest of many great defenses of poetry (indeed, Celan translated much of Mandelstam into German and identified to a perhaps overwrought degree with his thoughts on Mandelstam). And though it should be noted that Mandelstam, not unlike Celan’s parents, died in a detention camp (in Mandelstam’s case it was one of Stalin’s death camps), and yes written in the 1920s Mandelstam’s words still bear such outmoded to us terms as ‘genius’ and ‘providential,’ note also the certainty of Mandelstam’s words, the clarity with which he differentiates his position, and the utter seriousness with which he defends poetry’s address, out beyond but also in full view and even under the eye of the watchtowers of such arbiters as do exist and need to be resisted:
Fear of a concrete addressee, of an audience of “our age,” of a “friend in this generation,” has doggedly pursued poets of all ages. And the greater the poet’s genius, the more acutely he has suffered this fear. Hence, the notorious hostility between the artist and society. What may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless. The difference between prose and poetry may be defined as follows. The prose writer always addresses himself to a concrete audience, to the dynamic representatives of his age. Even when making prophecies, he bears his future contemporaries in mind. His subject matter brims over into the present, in keeping with the physical law of unequal levels. Consequently the prose writer is compelled to a “higher” than, to be “superior” to, society. Since instruction is the central nerve of prose, the prose writer requires a pedestal. Poetry is another matter. The poet is bound only to his providential addressee. He is not compelled to tower over his age, to appear superior to society. Indeed, Francois Villon stood below the median moral and intellectual level of the fifteenth century.15
1 The New Republic, March 21, 1988
2 Among the three biographies to come out in the early 2000s on Levi, are The Double Bond, by Carol Angier, FSG, 2002 and Primo Levi: A Life, Ian Thomson, Henry Holt, 2003
3 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (Afterward), Touchstone (1996 edition), p. 180
4 Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist (Overlook Press, 1996), p.320
5 As formulated in a Levi letter quoted in The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi, Carole Angier, (FSG, 2002), p.14
6 Primo Levi, “On Obscure Writing,” Other People’s Trades (Summit Books, 1989), p.172-173
7 Ibid. p.173
8 Ibid. p.173
9 Primo Levi, “On Obscure Writing,” Other People’s Trades (Summit Books, 1989), p.175
10 Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist (Overlook Press, 1996), p.323
11 Primo Levi, “On Obscure Writing,” Other People’s Trades (Summit Books, 1989), p.170
12 Ibid. p.171
13 John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale University Press 1995), p. 46
14 The Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger (Persea Books, 1995), p.77
15 Osip Mandelstam, “On the Addressee,” Osip Mandelstam: Critical Prose and Letters (Ardis Publishers, 1990), p. 398