Primo Levi: Speaking From the Flames

by Rina Dudai

May 4, 2002


This paper argues that two opposite forces --the urge to cry out and the drive to rational construction -- act simultaneously to convert traumatic experience into a poetic text. I discuss Primo Levi's mode of coping with the Holocaust experience and establish which of the forces is dominant. Levi's main efforts were invested in constructing a rational, aloof representation of his traumatic experiences. I discuss what he avoided touching on and examine the consequences of his mode of coping with the trauma. In Levi's work, the scream is hardly heard, and he uses a series of poetic devices to enforce logic and order. Whether we hear him scream or whisper, his text never displays the poetic balance which could have enabled him to work through the trauma, rather than acting it out.


    The intensity of the traumatic experience of the Holocaust left humankind with the difficulty of describing, representing, and, even more so, of understanding it. This difficulty evokes profound questions: How can one comprehend the impossible that became reality? Can one process such an experiences? Can it be represented in language in general, and in poetic language in particular?

    My working hypothesis is that two opposite forces act simultaneously to convert traumatic experience into a poetic text. This literary form gets its strength from the struggle between the urge to cry out from the burning core of the traumatic experience on the one hand, and the drive to rationally construct the core of the trauma as a symbolic representation molded in language, thus keeping it at a safe distance. The relative power of these forces will determine the degree of ensuing balance and restraint.

    I assume that restraint in a text that expresses the post-Holocaust traumatic experience is not merely a rhetorical or aesthetic device. Rather, it is a textual representation of control mechanisms that operate on the expression of anxiety. The restraint is realized in a system of homeostatic checks and balances in the text that render it possible for the traumatic experience to be contained.

    The poetic text is the space in which traumatic experience can be revived to a degree that permits its processing. It relocates the trauma in a protected arena, and permits expression of the worse-of-all, yet contains it without being engulfed and overwhelmed by it. In a poetic text the experience is assumed to retain some of the uncontrolled and terrible essence of the trauma, yet create an aesthetic, manageable distance from it. Similarly to rites and ceremonies, and to psychotherapy, literary work can expose the most terrifying events, yet observe them in relative safety. As in the myth of Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa: whoever stares at the monster is petrified, but whoever uses a mirror survives.

    In a recent study (Dudai, 2000), I pursued this thesis by analyzing works by three Jewish authors: Appelfeld, Ka. Tzetnik and Primo Levi. In this essay, I will briefly discuss only Primo Levi's mode of coping with the Holocaust traumatic experience, as it appears in his work, and establish which of the aforementioned forces is dominant. My plan is first to show how Levi's main efforts were invested in constructing a rational, aloof representation of his traumatic experiences in his memoir-like writing, then, to elaborate on what he avoided touching on in his work, and finally to examine what the consequences of his mode of coping with the trauma were.

    Levi chose to present emotionally intense material in a discourse that is restrained, clear and crisp, as he himself said in a documentary film: "I adopted a condensed style of writing in which there is no place for superfluity ... there is no need to emphasize the horror, the horror exists in whatever I write" (Karel William, Channel France 3). Here he points out two trends which are central in his writing: nothing is either missing or in excess.

    Levi saw Auschwitz through the eyes of a scientist. As a scientist he identified Auschwitz as a sort of a terrible laboratory in which humankind is examined under extreme stress. In If This Is A Man? he said: "… the Lager was, in a way, a kind of a gigantic biological and social experiment" (Levi, 1958/1988 p. 93).

    Levi's scientific language is also evident in his precise and minimal style. What characterizes a large part of the book is referential language, which is based on quantification of reality. In the description of the most critical act of selection he wrote: "Within three to four minutes the entire hut of his two hundred people is 'done', and within a few hours the entire Lager with all his twelve thousand inhabitants" (Ibid. p. 134). The taxonomy, the quantifications and the mapping as tools of representing this terrifying world are part of the scientific language which subserved Levi in his encounter with the traumatic experience and its restoration.

    Aside from scientific language, Levi also used poetic language. Metaphoric analogical structures, biblical and mythological allusions are only part of the poetic lexicon that Levi used to describe the indescribable. However, even these rich cultural and poetic resources are recruited to Levi's main effort: to force structure and logic onto the chaotic and the irrational. I will now illustrate this through his use of mythical language.

    In If This Is A Man? there are quite a few allusions to the Bible and the Greek mythology. From the bible one can find the serpent, the tower of Babel and the story of Exodus. From Greek mythology Levi referred to the Tantalus myth, the story of Odysseus who faced the Sphinx, and the myth of Sisyphus, which is evoked in relation to hard labor. Of all the myths that are interwoven in the story, Levi had chosen to particularly develop the myth of the descent to Hell.

    The main literary source in If This Is A Man? is "Inferno" from Dante's Divine Comedy (Dante, 1314/1996). Auschwitz was for Levi a reality situated in space and time, but once he crossed to the "other side", the mythological language starts emerging and takes over as a hypotext, which enables to structure and conceptualize this impossible reality, which is described in the hypertext.

    The decent to Hell is perceived in human culture as a rite of passage in which multiple processes take place in forming and molding the hero's self identity. Van Gennep (1960/1977) speaks of three phases of these processes. The first stage is separation from childhood and transformation into adulthood. The second stage is exit to the liminal region, marked in space by means of a forest, a desert or hell. These sites stand for non-normative, unknown spaces, from which "otherness" is perceived (like Odysseus in Hell). The third stage is the return from Hell into civilization. This reunification phase is marked by a new insight into reality. This process is occasionally perceived as rebirth, as an acquisition of a new identity, sometimes even marked by accepting a new name (as in Jacob's dream).

    I would add an additional phase, which is unique to creative heroes: re-establishing culture as a response to the acute awareness of death. The hero is capable of representing his experience with death via art, like the story of Orpheus in Hell. Orpheus pays the highest cost possible, losing his beloved Eurydice, so that he can gaze at death and tell the world of the living about love and death in Hell.

    The common denominator to all myths dealing with the decent to Hell is, hence, the hero's passion to cross the border between life and death and to examine from there the limits of human existence. In spite of the fact that the voyage to Hell was violently forced on Levi, the description of Auschwitz concealed the nucleus myth about Hell. His description starts with the process of stripping himself from all signs of identity, moves to a description of the moment he touches the very authentic seed of self identity, proceeds with the existential continuous sense of guilt with which those who survived at the expense of others are tormented, and ends with the obsessive need to tell their tale and by so doing re-constitute culture. Levi tells the story of a man who crossed into the death zone, looked death in the eye, return to tell the tale, and withdrew for good. This is the Levi's Orphic gaze.

    I will refer to this stage by discussing the chapter entitled "The Canto of Ulysses" in If This Is A Man? In this chapter Levi emerges from an underground petrol tank, which he had to scrap and clean from the inside, after being called by Jean, the Piccolo, to help him bring food to those who worked in this tank. On their way, Jean asks him to teach him Italian, and Levi, chooses to declaim Canto 26 from the "Inferno", which is generally perceived in Italy as the first gleam of humanism. Levi tries to recall lines from this canto. The act of this recall turns out to be a triumph for civilization and culture over barbarism.

    Canto 26 tells of how Dante and Virgil meet Ulysses in Hell. Ulysses is telling them his tale through the flames. Ulysses tells Dante and Virgil how he dared navigate his ship beyond the permissible in his quest for adventures. Instead of returning home as in Homer's epic, Dante turns Ulysses' boat to cross the Pillars of Hercules, in search of the Purgatorial. Ulysses justifies endangering his sailors by persuading them he is doing this for the sake of gaining new knowledge of the unknown. After five months of navigation in the great ocean, Ulysses and his crew detect land, the Purgatorial. As the men rejoice, a sudden whirlwind strikes the ship and the sea closes on them. Ulysses' tale turns out to be a source of courage and strength for Levi and he uses it to re-assert his belief in the quest for knowledge. What did Levi manage to remember and recite? And what did he forget?

In recalling Dante's lines, Levi experiences an epiphany; he realizes that the quest for knowledge is now more than just a philosophical truth. It turns out to be intimate knowledge, experienced from within. This is no longer about a neutral world; it is about his entire self, and he experiences this to the point of self-oblivion. For Levi, this moment is a touch of the sublime, and he undergoes an overwhelming sense of freedom, born at the lowest moment of total enslavement.

    Rationality dominates Levi's work persistently. It is his vital source. Detailed analysis of what is cited and what is omitted from Levi's memory during recall of the canto, reveals the rational attitude that has guided the recollection.

    What does Levi recall? When we examine which lines from the Canto create the epiphany for him, we learn that he is moved by lines 118-119: "Consider your sowing: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge" (Dante, 1314/1996, p. 405). This is his rational mission in the world, a mission that enables him to keep his sanity in the Lager, a rational anchor in an irrational world. In contrast, other lines were forgotten, despite Levi's desperate attempt to call them to memory. The missing lines attracted my attention as a reader. Levi remembered neither Ulysses' affection for his son Telemachous, nor the special track, the specific sites, through which the ship passed, the description of the starry night, or the emotional outburst expressed in the words: "We rejoiced, but it quickly turned to weeping" (Ibid, 136-138 p. 404), chanted as soon as the Purgatorial mountain came into sight. The most emotional line dealing with happiness and grief has completely evaded his memory. This forgetfulness sheds light on another facet in Levi's personality. At this time Levi didn't allow himself to let go and give expression to the uncontrolled, chaotic and destructive elements in his soul. On the contrary: he was busy recruiting all the powers of his rational ego to discipline and give meaning to the state of trauma he was in. He conceived of letting go as a cry in the desert. For him, the desert was the space of the incomprehensible, the locus of the pre-linguistic cry. For Levi, weeping was an indiscriminate noise - neither a sound, nor a voice.

    Throughout his life Levi maintained a strong sense of this need to recruit power to discipline the world, and kept refusing to recognize the need for the reverse emotional movement, the movement towards expressing the intensity of his feelings regarding the abyss, chaos, trauma and death. Levi repressed not only feelings of happiness and grief, but also emotions of guilt, shame, humiliation and anger. He refused to process or indulge in feelings of hate. He explained that he had consciously adopted aloofness, the transparent sober language of the witness. This is why he wouldn't let himself "weep in the desert," as he said (Levi1985/1989).

    Nevertheless, in spite of his intentional statements and artistic choices, it would seem that repressed materials have a way of letting themselves out. I will trace a few instances in Levi's writing, where these forces become present in various manifestations.

    The first instance has to do with Levi's awareness of these forces. As he grew old, he admitted that a variety of emotions had been eating him up from within. He had to lock them up and never display them in any shape or form. About guilt he said: "It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; although unseen from the outside, it gnaws and rasps" (Levi 1986/1989, p. 82).

    I would also refer to one of the rarest places in Levi's work, where he lets go and names his pains at the beginning and the end of The Truce (Levi 1958/1988). There, he touches upon insult, shame and the awareness of death. On his way back home moving toward freedom in foreign lands, he permits himself to open up a small crack into the abyss of his personal distresses. We are not going to hear anything more about them until The Drowned and the Saved, written a year before his suicide. No wonder the book is entitled The Truce. In a timeless time, in a spaceless space he finally touches the most sensitive fundamental aspects of his existence, the very core of his trauma: " the very hour in which every threat seemed to vanish, in which a hope of a return to life ceased to be crazy, I was overcome - as if a dike had crumbled - by a new and greater pain, previously buried and relegated to the margins of my consciousness by other more immediate pains…In my year at Buna I had never faced the concrete presence, the blockade, of death… (Levi 1958/1988 pp. 190-1).

    More traces of Levi's letting go can be found in his poetry. He explained to a Swiss reader with whom he corresponded: "...writing poetry belongs to 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" (Anissimov, 1999 p. 320). In the same context Levi referred to his need to write poetry as an illness. More and more darkness and death started populating his poems. They were written out of despair, opening a window to a different world deep inside him. Some of these poems expressed violent emotions of anger and hate toward the Nazi exterminators, a fury not to be found in the rest of his work. For instance, in his poem "For Adolf Eichmann" (Levi 1984/1992 p. 24) we hear the echoes of a biblical curse giving stylized voice to Levi suppressed and repressed urge to take revenge. In his poem "Almanac" (Ibid, p. 98), he expresses his fear of the desert, his symbol for the inability to differentiate, the falling apart of language, the taking over of the irrational and the chaotic.

    On November 1986, a few months prior to his suicide, Levi published his poem "The One Hump Camel". It is in this poem that the desert bursts out, the very desert which had threatened him for so long, and onto which he tried so hard to impose boundaries in his writing. The poem speaks ironically of the camel, king of the desert, and an endless kingdom with no way out. The poem ends with a painful statement: "My kingdom is the wilderness, it has no bounds".

    A further instance of how the repressed forces of Levi's emotional chaos find a way to manifest them, occurred in 1982, when Levi's publisher offered to have him translate Kafka's The Trial. Levi accepted the offer, but the project was an unbearable burden for him and the result was far from brilliant. Levi felt uneasy and claimed that The Trial is a sick, obscure and incoherent book. Further to this he wrote: "I like and admire Kafka because he writes in a manner that is totally foreign to me. In my writing…I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear ... Kafka takes an opposite path ... Faced with Kafka, I discovered unconscious defenses in myself ... my defenses crumbled in translating him" (Anissimov, 1999 pp. 357-8). Touching the irrational, so it would seem, made Levi physically sick, whether in the context of translating Kafka, or writing poetry. This intense reaction is a kind of acting-out in relation to the emotional topic, and it testifies to a solid defense mechanism constructed against any contact with the unconscious, uncontrolled world of emotions.

    Our next instance brings this phenomenon to a higher level of intensity. The occasion of his book If This Is A Man? being translated into German shook Levi deeply. The result is manifested later in his life in the The Drowned and The Saved, his last book, where he confesses the whirl of emotions which seized him as his former book became accessible to German readers. His comment on this presents for the first time an instance of explicit violent language: "... its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed, like a gun, were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded" (Levi, 1986/ 1988 p. 168, emphasis added).

    More self-revealing than anything before is the interview Levi gave a few months prior to his death. In this interview Levi told the reporter: "… the truth is that I live a neurotic life ... In my books I have… always [presented myself] as a stable person, which I am really not. I have been through long phases of instability, no doubt tied up with my experience in the extermination camp. In the end, I stand up badly under strain, and that is something that I have never written about ..." (Anissimov 1999 pp. 400-1, emphasis added).

    Up till now, we have seen instances, where the voice of reason and control has the upper hand. But, as Levi's inner struggles intensify, his defense mechanisms get weaker and weaker. We can see this clearly in two of his works. The first one is The Periodic Table (Levi 1975/1984). In this book the life-giving element of oxygen is absent. Isn't it possible to take this act of avoidance as a symptom of a continuous mental drowning, with which his last book, The Drowned and the Saved deals? The word "sinking" in Italian (sommersi), refers to a state of drowning, and is used by Dante in his "Inferno", to speak of the dead in the fifth phase, who are drowning in their own tears. The second work is the story "The Bridge", from the book The Monkey's Wrench (Levi 1978/1986). In this story Levi describes a suspended bridge which fell apart and crashed in the storm. Personifying it he says: "It is just like when somebody dies on you and later every one says, they had already seen it before in his breathing; in the way he rolled his eyes, and that is how it happened on that occasion after the tragic crash. It is clear that if anyone dies or any construction collapses and crashes, there must be a reason. But this does not mean either that there is only one reason, nor that one can find it".

    It would seem that throughout his life Levi avoided dealing with the influence of the unconscious on the trauma he experienced, and he led a life of complete separation between the rational and the irrational; the conceptual and the pre-conceptual. In these instances we can recognize the meaningful paradox of Levi's personality. We can now understand this restless movement between two powerful forces, only one of which, the rational voice, ever went public, while the other voice - the destructive, unbalanced, irrational voice - got silenced, repressed and suppressed.

    Levi's avoidances are indeed the traces of an acting-out process. The desert had been enveloping him all along. But, as his rational defense mechanisms weakened, he was swallowed in it. It is then that the trauma claimed its unrelenting eternal hold on him, as he himself tells us in a rare moment of confession, at the end of The Truce: "A dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me… I am sitting at a table … in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet, I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat. And in fact as the dream proceeds…everything collapses and disintegrates around me… while the anguish becomes more intense and more precise. Now everything has changed to chaos; I am alone in the center of the gray and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it. I am in the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream…now this inner dream… is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word… but brief and subdued. It is the command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, 'Wstawach'" (Ibid. p. 379-380).

    Finally, Levi's literary work is an example of the writer's struggle to position him or herself between two opposite forces: giving in to pain by screaming it out loud, or controlling and disciplining it, by repressing it altogether. In Levi's work, the scream is hardly heard. He uses a series of poetic devices in an attempt to enforce logic and order to repress it. However, whether we hear him scream or whisper - his text never displays the poetic balance, which could have enabled him to work it through, rather than acting it out.

Works Cited

Anissimov, Myriam. (1999). Primo Levi, Tragedy of an Optimist. Trans. Steve Cox. Woodstock. New York: The Overlook Press.

Camon, Ferdinando. (1987/1989). Conversation With Primo Levi. Trans. John Sheply. Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press.

Dante, A. (1314/1996). Inferno. Ed. & trans. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dudai, Rina. (2000). Modes of Coping with Trauma in the Holocaust Literature: A. Appelfeld, Ka. Tzetnik, P. Levi. Ph.D. Dissertation. Hebrew University Jerusalem.

Karel William (Director). Primo Levi. Documentary movie for Channel France 3.

Levi, Primo. (1958/1988). If This Is A Man. The Truce. Trans. Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus.

-----. (1975/1984). The Periodic Table. trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books.

-----. (1978/1986). The Monkey's Wrench. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Summit Books.

-----. (1984/1992). Collected Poems. Trans. R. Feldman & B. Swann.. London: Faber and Faber.

-----. (1985/1989). On Obscure Writing in Other People's Trades. Trans. Michael Joseph Rosenthal. London.

-----. (1986/1989). The Mirror Maker. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books.

-----. (1986/1989). The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage Books.

----- & Tullio Regge. (1984/1989). Dialogo. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.

Van Gennep, Arnold (1960/1977). The Rites of Passage. Trans. Vizedom and Caffee. . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Rina Dudai "Primo Levi: Speaking From the Flames". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 27, 2002, Published: May 4, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Rina Dudai