Monday, November 9, 2009

The Canto of Ulysses

When I hear people talk about virtual reality I sometimes cast my mind back to a Friday night in the winter of 1997 and a train trip from Vicenza to Milan. I was alone in the carriage, reading Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, and by the time we arrived at destination I must have been nearly in a trance because when I raised my eyes from the book it truly felt like I had been brought back from somewhere else. Not from Levi's prison camp, let me be clear - there is no representation that could approximate that experience, and it would be obscene of me to claim otherwise - but from a place other than that train carriage at that time, somewhere in between; a place of sadness and consternation, of suffocating moral pain. Nothing before or since, including my earlier readings of the book, has had quite the same effect, or has transported me as far.

Levi died a likely self-inflicted death on April 11th, 1987. The biographical notes appended to the 1989 Einaudi edition of If This Is a Man abstain from making that determination, stating tersely that he 'died in his home in Turin'. The mere hypothesis of such an epitaph must have seemed so desperately far-fetched to him when he began scribbling the first passages of his account on clandestine bits of paper during his imprisonment at the satellite Auschwitz camp of Monowitz. No sooner did he write those notes that he had to destroy them, for their confiscation would have meant an accusation of espionage and certain death: 'I write what I would not dare tell anyone' (p. 146). And in those words written, then destroyed, but still committed to memory one can find the kernel of the moral imperative that helped sustain him: you must remember, bear witness and make others remember that which they have not experienced.

I say that it was a form of sustenance but in the end, Levi is careful to tell us, his survival was due to a series of fortuitous events, the last of which was his falling ill with scarlet fever on the eve of the forced evacuation of Monowitz and the death march that killed so many of his remaining fellow prisoners. Earlier, he had been chosen due to his professional background to work in a kommando attached to a chemical laboratory of the Buna factory served by the Camp, and the relatively less brutal conditions were also instrumental in enabling him to survive during the final winter of the war.

It is in the early days of this assignment that takes place the chapter in the book known as The Canto of Ulysses, in which Levi is chosen by Jean, the kommando's pikolo (the kapo's assistant), to accompany him to fetch the daily ration of soup. Carrying the pot was tiring but the task involved first of all an unencumbered walk to the kitchens that could be made to last up to an hour and thus constituted a rare and precious moment of rest. During the walk Jean, already fluent in German and French, expresses his desire to learn Italian some day, to which Primo responds - for there might not be another day - with a crash course based on a recitation from memory of the twenty-sixth canto of Dante's Inferno.

…The canto of Ulysses. Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. but we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand – today I feel capable of so much. […] Jean pays great attention and I begin, slowly and accurately:

'Then of that age-old fire the loftier horn

Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame

Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;

And, like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame
Language, the tip of it flickering to and fro

Threw out a voice and answered: "When I came…"'
(p. 118)

The following three pages must rate amongst the highest in any literature, and are very dear to me. They are pages filled with surprise and wonder at finding the words of a dead poet so relevant, the plight and punishment of Ulysses so pertinent to his present situation, that fate ‘that pleased Another’ so close to his and theirs. Even more significantly, for a few moments Levi succeeds, in conversation with another, in rescuing culture from the shipwreck of history and in filling that space with memory and meaning, which had been designed to destroy them. The second half of the chapter takes you there, on that walk, its rhythms matching Levi’s growing anxiety to reach the end of the canto and its essential revelations before he and Jean make it to the kitchen. (Or is it in fact the kitchen that draws inexorably closer to them?)
I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late. Tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today… (p. 121)

But there is no more time for explanations or interpretations, no time except to hurry and get to that last line just in time to reach the soup queue and the ‘sordid, ragged crowd’ of carriers from the other kommandos, in perfect unison with Ulysses and his crew as they plunge under the waves one last time: ‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’ Auschwitz has burst into the conversation, and demands to have the final word.

William Blake, Ulysses and Diomedes in Hell

It is heart-rending to speculate on the circumstances of Levi’s death, on whether that same sea closed up over his head four decades later, claiming him as another victim (as Ferdinando Camon and Elie Wiesel put it), another one of the drowned. His dear friend Natalia Ginzburg phrased it most pithily of all: 'L’ha ucciso il ricordo', it was remembering that killed him, perhaps the same duty to memory that helped to sustain him in his daily struggle at Monowitz. Others suggested at the time that it had been just the opposite, that it was the work of the deniers and the threat it posed to the fundamental integrity of that memory. I suspect Levi himself might counter that it doesn’t matter, in the end, that survival had never been a question of moral fibre, and that his own death wouldn’t count as a defeat. Surely having absolved the obligation to write - that ‘atrocious privilege’ - and the manner in which he did it, afforded him the right to make one final choice, as a free man, neither prisoner nor victim.

Either way, of the pain that he carried very few of us can speak. But where does that leave our obligation, our duty to memory? Besides the many ways of unbecoming, besides the national amnesties and the sanitised corporate histories, besides the vile work of the deniers - that justly commands our condemnation - I worry about the small gestures, the minute revisions, the seemingly insignificant omissions which yet mean that our rememberance is being diluted, that we are gradually blurring its contours and washing out the atrocities, the complicities, the ambiguities. It can happen so subtly, just by losing an accent, leaving out a scene. Or a few lines of poetry.

My friend Giacomo Lichtner reminded me last week of the epilogue of Francesco Rosi’s 1997 film adaptation of The Truce (La tregua), the book that documents Levi’s arduous nine-month journey back to Italy after the liberation of Monowitz. Here Levi, played by John Turturro, returns to his apartment in Turin and sits down facing the camera to recite the titular poem of his earlier memoir, reproduced here in Stuart Woolf’s translation (I've uploaded the film segment here, and you can listen to the poem in Italian here):

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,

Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Except in the film the poem is truncated, leaving out that curse and blunting the sheer force of that challenge to us: remember this, or else your families will crumble and your society will cease to exist. It is a singular indignity, for a man who had once staked his whole being on his capacity to get to the end of somebody else’s poetry, and would have given his lunch, his daily sustenance, in exchange for some of the missing lines he had forgotten. And all this for what? To end a film perhaps half a minute sooner, and on a less uncomfortable note.

Primo Levi. If This Is a Man and The Truce, tr. by Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1987.