Eras Journal - Taylor, R: "Primo Levi: Waving or Drowning?"
Primo Levi: Waving or Drowning? Survivor Archetypes in Representations of the Holocaust
(University of Birmingham)
"I wouldn't want to upset the
I'd like, if possible,
To cross the border silently,
With the light step of a smuggler.
The way one slips away from a party.
To stop without a screech
The lungs' obstinate piston,
And say to the dear heart,
That mediocre musician without rhythm:
'After two, six billion beats
You must be tired too, so thanks, enough.'"
The quiet death Primo Levi imagined in a 1984 poem "Unresolved Burdens" was not to be his. On 11 April 1987 the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor died after falling down the stairwell from the third floor landing of his apartment block home in Turin. Was this a violent accident or a violent suicide?
The physical finality of death suggests a line drawn under a column of figures. It argues that a conclusion has been reached. Once a person has died we can begin to examine their life, to weigh good and bad, achievement and failure, and to draw up a final balance sheet. Death from natural causes excites no speculation, although it will draw sympathy and sorrow. A mysterious death, however, excites speculation. Wherever the circumstances of a death admit more than one explanation public perception of that person will inevitably alter. Previous opinions and perceptions will shift to accommodate the confusion that ensues. The nature of the speculation will change according to the sphere of influence in which the person operated. The death of President Kennedy, for example, led to nearly forty years of speculation: some has been serious and some has been nonsensical - its reach reflects the perceived importance of the role of the President of the USA in the modern western world.
The Holocaust has, in the last fifty-five years, gradually assumed a prominent place in Western consciousness.  The reasons behind this phenomenon need not concern us here, that the phenomenon exists is sufficient for this paper. One aspect of discourse about the Holocaust which differentiates it from discourse about other historical events, is the tremendous concern with how the event will be understood by future generations. The future is ever present in discourse about the Holocaust and how it is to be historicized, remembered and represented, forms the current nexus of debate.
The figure of the survivor plays an important part in this debate. Whilst survivors themselves may not be directly involved in the creation and shaping of individual Holocaust memorials, commemorations, institutions and teaching programs, they are collectively symbolic of the event. How we perceive them is a significant factor in public understandings of the Holocaust. The American historian Peter Novick argues, for example, that it is the symbol of the survivor "as emblematic of Jewish suffering, Jewish memory and Jewish endurance - rather than the highly diverse reality of survivors, that made the greatest contribution to Holocaust commemoration." Survivors who occupy the public stage are representative of all survivors. How we perceive Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal, for example, affects our perception of all survivors. The survivor is our direct link to the Holocaust. The manner in which they speak or write about their experiences helps shape our understanding of the Holocaust - and in the case of Primo Levi the manner of their death is equally significant.
In the fast multiplying genre of Holocaust literature Primo Levi was beginning to be regarded as one of the most notable chroniclers of the concentrationary universe. During his lifetime he was regarded as one of the most rational and lucid writers on the subject of the Holocaust. What survivor testimony provides, however, is not merely a narrative of individual experiences but a particular understanding of the event itself and a powerful image of the survivor archetype.
It would be naïve to assume however, that there is only one type of survivor. What we actually have is a spectrum of survivor types, with two extremes typifying our understanding. The use of the term archetype is important for an understanding of the current debates about the nature of survival. I would argue that we have two specific archetypes of survival. An archetype in this context is a paradigm or pattern by which all survivors of the Holocaust are judged, and in which survivors participate when they construct a narrative of their experiences acceptable to their audience. Ultimately all survivors of the Holocaust locate themselves in and/or are located in one of two extreme archetypal ways. This has serious repercussions for our understanding, interpretation and representation of the Holocaust for the future. These two archetypes are the survivor who has overcome the Holocaust and the survivor who has been overcome by the Holocaust.
The first of these archetypes appears to have contained the pain meted out to them by their experiences. The focus is on survival itself as a wholly positive experience. Rarely, in this discourse, is survival only due to chance or luck, but also to survivors individual qualities and to qualities that are argued to be inherent in human beings. The message is thus a powerful and consistently optimistic one: the human spirit has triumphed and will continue to triumph. It is a message which, although developed in relation to survivors of the Holocaust, has positive implications for the future of humanity itself.
The second of these archetypes is, in its own way, equally appealing. It has the effect of further tainting the perpetrators, whose acts cannot be contained in a twelve year (1933-1945) or six year (1939-1945) period, but which continues to affect the victims until their deaths. Furthermore, if the full magnitude of the suffering meted out to the Jews is to be appreciated then that suffering must be understood as unendurable and unending. The focus of this discourse is on death, choicelessness and victimhood.
The mysterious nature of Levi's death throws into question many of the perceptions and judgments of him made during his lifetime. Examining Primo Levi's death should not, therefore, be seen as distasteful speculation into a mysterious death but as an important task, which brings up questions about what it means to be a survivor of the Holocaust and whether the task of Holocaust testimony is, in itself, potentially dangerous for survivor-writers.
The Death of Primo Levi
During the last twelve months of Levi's life a multitude of domestic, physical and psychological problems beset him. He and his wife were responsible for the care of their mothers, who were both elderly and, in various ways, physically dependent on the Levis. Most of the burden of care devolved upon Levi and his wife and it was a duty neither of them could contemplate abnegating, although it imposed considerable restrictions upon their social lives and upon Levi's ability to fulfil professional engagements. Levi told one interviewer, "my plans are not to make plans. I can only write." 
Writing, however, was also proving problematic. Primo Levi entered a cycle of depression in early 1986. He appears to have suffered several cycles of depression throughout his life, evidently not directly connected with his Auschwitz experiences, since he suffered both before and after his time in Buna-Monowitz. At this time he was prescribed anti-depressants. He had trouble concentrating and writing. However, he had begun a new novel in January 1986, which he planned to be close in style to The Periodic Table. By the autumn of 1986 he had ceased work on it, confessing to a journalist who came to interview him that he felt he had run out of things to say. He did not, however, give up writing entirely. However difficult the process he continued to make the effort. In January 1987 he wrote a New Years' poem, "Almanack", for La Stampa.  It reveals a Primo Levi who appeared pessimistic about the state of the world: "We, rebellious offspring//with great brainpower, little sense//will destroy, defile//always more feverishly.//Very soon we will extend the desert//into the Amazon forests//into the living heart of our cities//into our very hearts."  How far this pessimism was a reflection of his personal feelings of depression is difficult to gauge and the effect of one upon the other impossible to measure.
In late 1986 Levi agreed to co-operate with an authorised biography. The interviews for this project inevitably involved the recollection and discussion of much that was painful to him and that he had carefully suppressed. The act of writing is, after all, solitary, and Levi had previously been able to choose the theme, content and tone of his works. In collaborating with a biographer Levi lost the degree of editorial control he had possibly possessed. The biographer could quite legitimately question Levi on matters that before, in his own writings, he had chosen to avoid. It demanded of Levi an unusual and perhaps uncharacteristic degree of openness, which may have affected him in ways that he could not have predicted before he began the project.
Levi's physical health also gave him cause for concern. In March 1987 he underwent a prostate operation. Recovery from his operation was slow and he suffered some setbacks.  In the last months of his life his moods seem to have fluctuated and he was both despairing of and hopeful for the future. In the last days, for example, he wrote to journalist and friend Ferdinando Camon, a letter cheerful, rational and by no means valedictory. He seemed to be looking forward to Passover.
Levi's behaviour on the morning of his death seems to have been perfectly normal. However, on the 10th anniversary of Levi's death Elio Toaff, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, revealed that Levi had telephoned him on the morning of his death. During the conversation he said he couldn't stand life any longer and did not know how he was to go on. He was distressed but he did not tell the Rabbi he was about to kill himself. Levi had never spoken to or met the Rabbi. Furthermore, the timing of the call is difficult to fit in with the events of that morning. It is an odd episode, which remains unclarified and unsubstantiated.  What we can confirm is that his wife Lucia went out and Levi accepted the morning's post from the concierge at 10 o'clock. Shortly after the concierge had returned to her lodge a noise attracted her attention. She came out to investigate and found Levi's body at the foot of the stairwell, a scene his wife was not spared when she returned a few minutes later. A post-mortem revealed that he had died from the injuries sustained in his fall.
The "Tragic Accident" Theory and its Consequences
Among those who reject the suicide ruling are the scholar Risa Sodi, one of Levi's close friends, Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini, writer Ferdinando Camon and the British cardiologist David Mendel. Indeed, it is David Mendel who provides the most convincing alternative hypothesis for Levi's death. He suggests that the side effects of Levi's anti-depressants, lowering as they did, the blood pressure, may have caused him to feel faint. In reaching for the banister to steady himself he fell down the stairwell.  Rita Levi-Montalcini questioned the absence of a suicide note and Ferdinando Camon was unable to reconcile the letter he received from Levi, written a few days before his death, with suicide. 
Indeed, in many external ways Primo Levi was not an obvious candidate for a suicide related to and resulting from his experiences in the Holocaust. Research into Holocaust survivors has highlighted many post-war physical and psychological difficulties for survivors. Many survivors, for example, were either unable or unwilling to return to their homes, particularly in Eastern Europe, and few found their families intact at the end of the war. For many survivors the rebuilding process began in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language. The experience of many survivors was a feeling of rootlessness - the country they considered home had rejected them. For a writer such as Jean Améry this rejection was compounded by a further problem; their spoken and written language had become corrupted. Levi experienced none of these problems. He was able to return to his home and to his family. The Italian language had been, for him, a cultural bulwark against his camp experiences. He had not experienced the mutilation of his native tongue, which may have affected his ability to write.
For Levi's friends however, it is the manner of his death - as a method of suicide - that is hardest to accept: Risa Sodi wrote "the police report ruled it a suicide, but many of those who knew him have not accepted - indeed, vociferously rejected - that thesis … All who knew him remark on his reticence, his abhorrence of La Grande Geste ." The internal evidence against suicide was, for them, even more compelling than the external evidence; suicide was profoundly out of character for Levi.
As a chronicler of the concentrationary universe Levi had a distinctive style. When he began If This is a Man, the concept of Holocaust literature had yet to be born. He had little awareness of the industry that both the Holocaust event and Holocaust literature would become. There were no rules or criteria of style or content or tone for writing a Holocaust memoir. Levi had to find his own way.
Analysis of the link between the need to survive and the need to tell the story of the experience has revealed the two to be deeply intertwined, to the point where "survival and bearing witness become reciprocal acts." A sense of this urgency and need undoubtedly informs many accounts but Levi made a distinction between that which motivated him to write and the act of writing itself. He made a conscious decision to avoid a discussion of personal emotions and to filter out anger and bitterness: "I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim, nor the irate voice of someone who demands revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional." The narrative style of If This is a Man is austere, and the urgency which drove Levi to survive and to write was absent from the text.  That conscious decision, which informed his writing for the rest of his life, led to Levi being understood as the kind of survivor who has overcome the event.
It is possible to argue that for 40 years Levi represented himself in his texts as a man who had overcome his experiences, who had written them out both literally and metaphorically. As one reviewer points out: "The overtly entertaining tone of much of Levi's fiction of the late 1960s and 70s seemed to some extent to indicate that his texts have exorcized the Furies that pursued him." The Wrench, Storie Naturali and Vizio di Forma were fictional explorations in which the Holocaust existed as a sub-text.  The Periodic Table contained chapters of Levi's Holocaust experiences but it was not until the publication of Moments of Reprieve in Italy in 1981 that Levi returned to the Holocaust as a theme for an entire text. It was "no longer the anonymous, faceless, voiceless mass of the shipwrecked, but the few, the different, the ones in whom … I had recognized the will and capacity to react, and hence a rudiment of virtue"  that Levi had chosen to write about. It consists of a series of vignettes from the concentration camp - but Levi had written them over a period of five years between 1975 and 1980, initially for La Stampa. This perhaps accounted for the tone, which one reviewer summed up thus: "There is no bitterness here, no hint of vengeance or recrimination. Horror, you might say, is recollected in tranquillity."
The Drowned and the Saved, published in Italy in the year of his death and in English in April 1988, one year after his death, tied the text inextricably to that death. It has proved fertile ground for conjecture upon Levi's state of mind in the last two years of his life. But it must be borne in mind in mind that it was completed and handed to the publishers in January 1986, more than twelve months before his death. Precisely because it is the last major work of Levi's to be published before his death it is generally treated as his valedictory work. In fact he had begun a new novel in 1986 and he continued to write until a few days before his death. The Drowned and the Saved is not necessarily the equivalent of Levi's last will and testament, nor should it be treated as such.
If Primo Levi died in a tragic accident then The Drowned and the Saved was not his last testament, written in despair, but part of an ongoing attempt by Levi to understand the concentrationary universe. To understand Levi's death in this way does remove the need to reconcile previous readings of the texts with the manner of his death. Our readings of his texts are not brought into question by his death. Thus, we do not need to examine how the creation of a Holocaust memoir affects a survivor, nor explore the tension between writer and text, creator and created.
The Suicide Theory and its Consequences
The theorists of suicide are more numerous than the theorists of a tragic accident, and whilst they include some friends of Primo Levi, for the most part they are scholars and critics of the Holocaust. That Primo Levi's death was quickly accepted to be an act of suicide cannot be ignored. This acceptance points to a recognition of the potentially devastating affects of the Holocaust decades after the event.
Whilst it is true that in many ways Levi did not fit the profile of troubled survivor, it is equally true that he had reached a period in his life at which survivors begin to experience a different set of problems from those attendant on liberation. The kind of difficulties aging brings to the general population - reduced mobility, time for reflection, the deaths of friends and family - are intensified in the Holocaust survivor. Illness and hospitalisation can adversely affect survivors; bringing back memories of the camp experience. Levi had recently experienced a period of serious illness and hospitalisation and this, combined with depression, may have brought on suicidal thoughts.
For the theorists of suicide Primo Levi's death is evidence that the survivor is irreparably mutilated by the Holocaust. Arguably the strongest evidence for this comes from The Drowned and the Saved. It is a text that stands at a junction in Holocaust literature; neither personal testimony nor completely objective analysis by an outsider. In fact, it seems to me to be the ultimate reflection of Levi's life and work - subjective analysis by a man of science and a man of letters. It is this text which, for the first time, raised the potentially problematic relationship between style and subject matter in Levi's texts. If Primo Levi had committed suicide then horror had not, after all, been recollected in tranquillity. Clive James, in The New Yorker, wrote:
His style to the end … had the mighty imperturbability of Tacitus, who wrote the truth as though it were worth telling even if there was nobody to listen … But if Schopenhauer was right to call style the physiognomy of the soul, nevertheless the soul's face has a body and in Levi's case the body had been injured. Once again, the urge for consolation can lead us astray. We would like to think that in time any pain can be absorbed … but gratuitous violence is not like childbirth; it serves no purpose, and refuses to be forgotten.[26
Implicit in his judgement is the suggestion that we have read Levi wrongly, that our own need for a discourse of consolation has led us to ignore the effects of Auschwitz upon Levi. I would argue, however, that it is not merely our own desire for consolation which affects our reading of Levi, but that his prose style itself blinds us to the struggle undoubtedly being played out in the texts: to understand the Holocaust, to convey the experience, to explain it adequately. It is possible to equate - incorrectly - calmness and clarity and rationality with a lack of struggle, a lack of anger, the absence of confusion and despair.
Indeed, to attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust in the way that Primo Levi did as a writer may well end in suicide. For Cynthia Ozick,
what we know now - we did not know it before The Drowned and the Saved - is that at bottom Levi could not believe in himself as a vessel of clear water standing serenely apart. It was not detachment. It was dormancy, it was latency, it was potentiality … He was always conscious of how near to hand the potassium was. I grieve that he equated rage … with self-destruction. A flawed formula. It seems to me it would not have been a mistake … if all of Primo Levi's books touching on the German hell had been as vehement, and as pointed, as the last, the most remarkable. 
At the most extreme limit of this analysis is the inference that Levi was - either consciously or unconsciously - fooling himself and fooling us too. Ozick's argument rests on the contention that Levi's writing style seriously limited his ability to come to terms with his experience.
However, I would argue that what is relevant is not the way a survivor-writer chooses to handle his material, but that he chooses to handle it at all. In choosing to handle their Holocaust experience the survivor-writer embarks upon a course of action which involves a double jeopardy: firstly, dealing with the material itself is traumatic, but secondly they must deal with the difficulties of communicating their experience. Those difficulties are well documented by scholars, critics and survivors themselves.  In the case of The Drowned and the Saved these two things are compounded by the ambitious task Levi set for himself - that of understanding the concentration camp phenomenon and explaining it to his readers. Was he, as a victim, in the best position to fulfil that task? What kind of decision was it to write The Drowned and the Saved ? Was it a rational one, made consummately aware that it might have a serious effect upon him? Did he, supreme rationalist that he was, invite the demons in?
As Alvarez points out in his study of the link between suicide and the literary imagination, "For the artist himself art is not necessarily therapeutic … the act of formal expression may simply make the dredged up material more readily available to him. The result of handling it in his work may well be that he finds himself living it out. For the artist, in short, nature often imitates art. Or … when an artist holds a mirror up to nature he finds out who and what he is; but the knowledge may change him irredeemably so that he becomes that image."
Same Journey - Different Destinations?
Both sides of the debate about Primo Levi's death agree on the data available; Primo Levi the man, both privately and publicly known, his texts, the circumstances of his life and the manner of his death. Both sides acknowledge that incompatible assumptions have been made about Primo Levi, which need to be resolved. However, scholars and critics work through this conflict in two radically different ways. One approach seeks to resolve the conflict by portraying Levi as the archetypal survivor who has overcome the Holocaust experience, whilst the other seeks to show him as the archetypal victim survivor who is overcome by the event. In fact, he interwove joy and despair in his texts, embodying both types of survivor archetype.
The Truce, for example, is considered to be a relatively light-hearted book. Levi himself said, "I aimed at having fun in writing and at amusing my prospective readers. Consequently, I gave emphasis to strange, exotic, cheerful episodes." The critic Paul Bailey, in his preface to the joint edition of If This is a Man and The Truce, published in 1987, is representative of those who see the two texts in terms of darkness and light: "The tone of the narrative [of If This is a Man] is elegiac and those millions of accusing ghosts haunt its every sentence … But The Truce is almost all light … the quiet, hesitant note of hope and renewal that ends the first book is transformed into something like a trumpet blast in its pages." 
Consider, however, this quotation: "So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled … so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean of the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever, and in the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories we should tell of it."
In this passage Levi captures the double bind of survival after the Holocaust. Survival of a traumatic event is a cause for celebration; an occasion worthy of joy and thanksgiving, but the trauma undergone in the Holocaust stains and corrupts the present and the future for the survivors. I would argue that whilst The Drowned and the Saved is considered to be Levi's darkest text there are elements in the much earlier text of The Truce that are consistent with the state of mind in which Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved. I would argue that Levi always acknowledged the illusory nature of hope and the extent of his anguish, and locating this in a text like The Truce should alert us to the fact that it was intertwined with genuine moments of contentment.
His poetry also reflects this Levi. His poems, which could have alerted readers and reviewers to Levi's interweaving of joy and despair, do not seem to have been put in context with his Holocaust memoirs and so an important aspect of Levi's life and work was overlooked until after his death. This was perhaps partly as a result of Levi's own deprecation of his poetry and possibly because the complete body of his poetry was not translated into English and published until after his death. But I believe it is significant that poetry finds its way into his Holocaust texts. Consider the choice of poems that eventually preceded If This is a Man, The Truce and Moments of Reprieve: "Shemà" is the epigraph to the first, "Reveille" to the second and "The Survivor" to the third. These poems are woven of darkness, bitterness and unrelenting sorrow.
"Shemà" (10 January 1946)
"You who live secure
in your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or no." 
"Reveille" (11 January 1946)
"In the brutal nights we
used to dream
Dense violent dreams,
Dreamed with soul and body:
To return; to eat; to tell the story.
Until the dawn command
Sounded brief, low:
And the heart cracked in the breast." 
"The Survivor" (4 February 1984)
leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven't dispossessed anyone,
Haven't usurped anyone's bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It's not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes." 
The effect is unsettling and provoking. The reader anticipates that the text will follow the tone of the poem and is instead confronted with a narrative tone that is clear and rational and seemingly unemotional. As Bryan Cheyette points out in "The Ethical Uncertainty of Primo Levi," "the gulf between Levi's poetry and his prose enables the reader to question the commonly held assumption that Levi had a single, unequivocal narrative voice." I would take this point one stage further and argue that the gulf also invites the reader to question the image we have of Levi the survivor. That a poem - whose style and content lies in direct opposition to the narrative it precedes - forms part of each of Levi's memoirs of the concentrationary universe should have alerted scholars, critics and readers to the multi-dimensional self-image of the author.
Precisely the fascination of Primo Levi is that he embodies positive and negative understandings of survival. As I have attempted to show, Levi was a far more complex person than this simplistic understanding of him allows. We should, therefore, be wary of the images of Primo Levi the survivor conjured up by the accident vs. suicide debate.
The debate about Primo Levi's death has repercussions, not merely for our understanding of Levi as a writer, but for our understanding of Holocaust survivors in general. We have reached a key stage in the development of the image of survivors. Already two very specific ways of perceiving survivors has emerged, while survivors themselves are still alive. How much more urgent is the task of understanding survivors now when, soon, there will be no survivors left? It will not be possible, then, to have dialogue with survivors, only about them.
In examining the death of Primo Levi we can uncover the process by which an individual becomes an archetype. We can also discover that between the two extremes of hero/heroine and irreparably broken victim is an individual survivor. Undertaking this task is the first step in the necessary process of dismantling archetypal extremes. If we can do this then we may well be able to begin a new discourse about survivors based on reality rather than rhetoric.
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 Primo Levi, Collected Poems, 1992, Faber & Faber, London, p.81. Back
 See Peter Novick, The Holocaust and Collective Memory, 1999, Bloomsbury, Great Britain for a history and critique of this development. Back
 Peter Novick, The Holocaust and Collective Memory, p.273. Back
 Risa Sodi, "Primo Levi: A Last Talk",Present Tense, Vol.15, No.4, May/June 1988, p.45. Back
 Miriam Anissimov, Tragedy of an Optimist, The Overlook Press, New York, 1996, p.312. Back
 Miriam Anissimov, Tragedy of an Optimist, p.400. Back
 Levi contributed poems, essays and articles to this Italian newspaper for twenty-five years. Back
 Primo Levi, Collected Poems, p.98.Back
 Miriam Anissimov, Tragedy of an Optimist, p.395. Back
 Miriam Anissimov, Tragedy of an Optimist, p.400. Back
 Miriam Anissimov, Tragedy of an Optimist, p.404. Back
 See Daniel Gambetta, Primo Levi's Last Moments, University of Toronto Press, 1999, at http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR24.3/Gambetta.html for full details of the conversation and Gambetta's attempts to clarify the uncertainties in the Rabbi's account. (04.04.2001). Back
 David Mendel, "Requiem for a Quiet Man of Courage", Sunday Telegraph, 8 September 1991. Back
 Daniel Gambetta, Primo Levi's Last Moments, p.1. Back
 To Ferdinando Camon he recalled the urgency of his need to tell his story: "I told my story to anyone and everyone, at the drop of a hat ... even if they had other things to do - just like the Ancient Mariner." Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, The Marlboro Press, Vermont, 1989, pp.41-43. Back
 See for example, J. E. Young, (1990)Writing and Re-Writing the Holocaust, Bloomington, Indiana University Press and L. Langer, (1982) Versions of Survival, Albany, State University of New York Press. Back
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