Comprehensible Good, Incomprehensible Evil: The Life and Works of Primo Levi

The Jewish-Italian writer, poet, chemist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi was born in Turin on July 31, 1919.  His birth, life, and death would all take place in the same fourth-floor apartment, other than a brief stint in Milan and the defining year of his life in Auschwitz.

Levi grew up a reader, fed with a constant flow of books – both foreign and Italian – provided by his father.  But his first and true love was chemistry, which he studied at the University of Turin under a professor who continued to teach him despite the spread of fascist anti-Semitism.  He loved chemistry for its “clean smell,” its objectivity.  He described humanities subjects as more vulnerable to the ‘spirit’ rhetoric of the fascist regime, while chemistry and the sciences were something solid, irrefutable.  In his 1985 interview with The Paris Review, he explained that “There is no end to the discussion about what it means to be, to exist, if the soul is immortal or not. To the contrary, with the natural sciences any idea can be proved or disproved. Thus it was a relief for me to shift from indefinite discussions to something concrete, to what can be tested in the laboratory, in the test tube. You see it, you feel it.”

In the early months of 1944, Levi was captured. He was told that if he was a partisan he would be shot immediately, but if he were a Jew he would be sent to a camp.  For the sake of his survival, and a sense of pride in his heritage, he admitted his Jewishness and shortly thereafter was deported to Auschwitz. along with 649 other Jews.  He would be one of only 23 to return.  He remained in the “Lager” (the German word for prison Levi prefered) for one year, until January, 1945, when the Russians liberated his concentration camp.  Even though chemistry is often credited with saving Levi from the extreme manual labor in Auschwitz’s harsh Polish winter, he did not begin working in its lab until the last three months of his imprisonment.  Already weakened by labouring with the other prisoners in the camp, had he not been moved to the lab he likely would not have survived that final winter.  

After returning home to Turin, Levi was compelled to write about his experience; this would become the project of his lifetime.  Levi’s work is noteworthy for its optimism and “comic spirit” (as it was described in The New Yorker),  despite its subject matter.  His first memoir of Auschwitz, If This Is a Man (also entitled Survival in Auschwitz in English), covers his time in the camp.  It was later followed by The Truce, about his months-long journey home after his release.  Both these texts (also as described in The New Yorker) “contain beautiful portraits of goodness and charity, and it is not the punishers and sadists but the life-givers—the fortifiers, the endurers, the men and women who sustained Levi in his struggle to survive—who burst out of these pages.”  Later in his life he also ventured into fiction and poetry, most notably in his collection of autobiographical short stories The Periodic Table, in which each story takes metaphoric inspiration from a chemical element.

One might assume after the atrocities he endured at the hands of the Nazis, Levi would harbor hatred for the Germans; yet he had no animosity towards them.  Rather than claiming this as a virtue, he described it as a “hormonal defect” that his mind bypassed anger and hatred, and defaulted to reason and understanding.  That is not to say that he forgave the Germans for their crimes against humanity. He just believed more strongly in the rule of law.  His experience in Auschwitz – and his life’s work to memorialize it – became the defining experience of his life, and irrevocably changed his identity.  In the same Paris Review interview, he said the question he is most often asked: “If you hadn’t been an inmate, what would you have become?”  He revealed, “I am not able to reply. I am so ingrained, so intertwined with my condition of a chemist and of an Auschwitz inmate that I can’t distinguish anymore my other personality from that one.”

Levi had a very particular lens through which he viewed and experienced his confinement and the Holocaust.  That lens was his lifelong struggle with depression.  Depression can uniquely and profoundly isolate, creating a seemingly impenetrable space between the individual and the surrounding world.  But this space may have aided Levi’s keen eye for observation.  His writing is often described as being outward looking to the point of coldness, bolstered by an almost unrealistic optimism.  This led one writer from The Atlantic to hypothesize that Levi’s optimistic character in his writing was in fact just that, a character, one fabricated to conceal his depression and legitimize his writing.  But this need not be the case.  His fierce optimism may have been a tool he developed in reaction to his condition, that then became his own salvation and a gift to a world grappling with the causes and consequences of World War II.  One writer for The New Yorker, in a beautifully written and equally optimistic review of Levi’s writing, wrote that “You can feel this emphasis on moral resistance in every sentence Levi wrote: his prose is a form of keeping his boots shined and his posture proudly upright.”

On April 11, 1987, at age 67, Levi fell to his death in the stairwell of the same building as his birth.  Though some doubted the verdict, Levi’s death is widely recognized as suicide.  Some considered it a defeat, a final victory of the Nazis over the man who became the voice of the Holocaust in Italy and much of Europe.  But the same New Yorker writer preferred to understand Levi’s suicide as an intentional exit from a life swept along, pushed, pulled, and tormented by massive events beyond his control.  The article’s author wrote that “There are no howls in Primo’s writing—all emotion is controlled—but Primo gave such a howl of freedom at his death.”  At Levi’s funeral, his coffin was lowered into his grave by six men, all of whom were concentration or death camp survivors.  His burial was also attended by scores of other Holocaust survivors wearing scarves marked with the names of their camps.  Sometime after his burial, his epitaph was revised to include his Auschwitz serial number, the same number he carried on his skin for most of his life: 174517.

Today Levi continues to be a bittersweet inspiration for optimism and resilience of the human condition.  He is a reminder of the goodness in the world, not only the pain, as a man and a writer distinctly aware of both.  “Goodness, for Levi, was palpable and comprehensible, but evil was palpable and incomprehensible.”  His life and work stand as a lasting testament to this palpable and comprehensible good.  

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