Primo Levi’s Insights into Hell Continued:
Now I’m at home, having read another three chapters of Primo Levi’s book on Auschwitz. I’m still enthralled by his style. The French critic, Bouffon, (about whom I’ve already written in another post on style. See this link here) in the late nineteenth century has classically defined style by saying: “Le style, c’est l’homme même,” or “Style is the man himself.” This is as neat and as succinct a definition as one could possible get. Levi’s style is spare, precise, clipped and understated. The word that would normally come to mind is “beautiful,” but the use of such a word with respect to the style of a writer about Auschwitz seems somehow inappropriate. However, on second thoughts, perhaps it’s very appropriate because Levi’s soul is beautiful. It takes a great and beautiful soul to write so objectively and with such art. That such a beautiful soul can sing such pain in such beautifully haunting words is a miracle in itself, a testimony to the perennial pursuit of meaning which lies at the very heart of the human being.
If I could talk to Primo Levi I’d tell him all the above, about how moved I am in reading his words. I would also say to Primo, “I’m listening, continue with your story!” I’d say these last few words because that was every inmate’s worst nightmare – that he was telling his story to someone and that that person walked away without saying anything at all. To listen to another human being’s story is the most precious gift you can give anyone. I have long been convinced of this fact. “Primo,” I’d say, “your book speaks and sings to me!”
Images that stick in my mind from the last few chapters are as follows. First there is the ubiquitous mud of which Levi states: “At every step I feel my shoes sucked away by the greedy mud, by this omnipresent Polish mud whose monotonous horror fills our days.” (67) The latrine is another – it’s a stinking inhuman cesspool, yet, “The latrine is an oasis of peace.” (68)
Then there is the power of that great and wonderfully life-begetting star – our sun. What an image! In the hell that was Auschwitz it brought some little crumb of comfort. Listen to Levi’s words: “Today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud. It is a Polish sun, cold, white and distant, and only warms the skin… and when even I felt its lukewarmth (sic) through my clothes I understood how men can worship the sun.” (71)
Then the eternal or even infernal symbols of numbers and letters: Speaking of the great depressing ugly mass of the Buna factory we read “its roads and buildings are named like us, by numbers and letters, not by weird and sinister names.” (72) Of machines he says: “The only things alive are machines and slaves – and the former are more alive than the latter.” (72) Then the image of the Tower of Babel is very moving and resonant. How apposite and observant is his comment on the fact that they all knew the word for “bricks” in many languages – what a sad fact!
These are enough comments for one night. It’s now 1:10 A.M. and it’s time for bed. I welcome a restful night enlivened by dreams bringing many symbols from my unconscious to my conscious mind. I bid them welcome as I strive to get to know myself in this our brittle if beautiful world. Amen!
The above is a picture I took of a famous sculpture of the worker inmates at Dachau concentration camp which we visited in December 2005.