The Anti-linguistic Nature of the Lager in the Language of Primo Levi's
Se questo un uomo.

Fabio Girelli-Carasi
Middlebury College

Lo pianto stesso l pianger non lascia,

e 'l duol che truova in sugli occhi rintoppo,

si volge in entro a far crescer l'ambascia

Dante, Inferno, XXXIII

The problems raised by the literature of the Holocaust belong to an order of concerns outside the traditional realm addressed by literary criticism. Aesthetic questions of form and style, and accessory questions about the creative process and the interrelation/interplay between the author and the text are overshadowed by the implications--cultural, moral and philosophical--inherent in the historical and personal circumstances that constitute the narrative material, at the core of which lies the attempt to provide a faithful account of some fragments of the gigantic machinery devoted to the destruction of European Jewry. Implicit in the term Holocaust is a phenomenon whose enormity has defied all attempts at comprehension and definition, causing the surrender of our power of categorization and rational understanding. This is significantly expressed through words that acknowledge such a failure. The Holocaust therefore is unspeakable, incredible, inhuman, unimaginable.

All these terms, introduced by a privative prefix, share the quality of a disclaimer, a definition in negative, a not-being that expresses the failure of language to render the nature of an event which has no precedent, and is analogous to none in the history of humankind: a definition that, while choosing not to say, denounces this very act, protects the event from being placed within a discourse of human experience and imagination that excluded the possibility of the event itself.

A number of quotations illustrate the effort to create an emotional response reasonably proportioned to the magnitude of the event. Some of these are intensely dramatic and strive honestly, albeit unsuccessfully, for a universal meaning, such as George Steiner's statement that "L 'univers concentrationnaire (Rousset) has no true counterpart in the secular mode. Its analogue is Hell" (Steiner, 1971:53). Or Elie Wiesel's thought that "at Auschwitz, not only man died, but the idea of man" (Wiesel, 1969:190). Some, less confident about the perverse power of language, the ultimate liar, look for a solution within the language, turning it against itself, as in the answer that Alfred Kazin gave when asked if there was a meaning in the extermination of European Jewry. "I hope not," he responded (Wiesel, 1961:12), thus denouncing language's attempt to contain "something the human mind and spirit had never confronted before, and whose essential quality the language of fact is inadequate to convey" (Langer, 3).

Language is utter falsity when it attempts to account for a reality that escapes the premises and the conventions upon which the language of reality as we know it is based. In the case of the Holocaust, it would be necessary for language to go beyond its representational power in order to generate the reality it seeks to acknowledge, as occurs in psychoanalytical therapy, where the language becomes reality itself. Given the mistrust surrounding language, it follows that the composite form of language in one of its codified versions--literature--also comes under attack.

Much of the current debate on the Holocaust focuses on the appropriateness of the various efforts to render its reality through the written word. When language assigns a word to an entity, it performs the task of knowing such an entity and thus satisfies the conditions of its own existence. Then the impossibility to adopt affirmative definitions for the Holocaust reveals our inability to know the ontological nature of the event through language. In fact a definition that strove to name this event would necessarily impose upon it semantic markers derived through operations of analogy and comparison. This, in turn, would confine the event within phenomenological and metaphysical boundaries reflecting a previous form of knowledge that excluded the possibility of the event itself. Language, in fact, as in the case of psychoanalysis, ultimately changes reality. Thus, language is an unsuitable instrument for the pursuit of the philosophical truth of the Holocaust.

It was Theodor Adorno who first framed the argument against the literature of the Holocaust with the famous statement that poetry after the Holocaust would be a barbaric act (Adorno, 1967: 34). This frightening proposition attacks the fundamental notion that poetry is knowledge and meaning and not simply a credible linguistic model for the representation of phenomena. The responses to Adorno's caveat have been numerous, at least as numerous as the attempts themselves to recount the events of the Holocaust in a literary form. Of course, the traditional argument in favor of such literature revolves around the need to remember and to inform the world about the events that took place, against the inertial tendency to remove from historical consciousness the unpleasant knowledge of those deeply anguishing events. However, confronted with the seemingly insurmountable problems of representing the reality of the Holocaust, the conclusion to find refuge in silence has often been proposed as the only adequate response. Silence thus has been seen as a viable alternative or, paradoxically, the only mode of expression of the undefinable, for "[i]n weak or grandiose moods, we may be tempted to think that silence is the best of all responses to the unendurable" (Denby, 27). While the ethical questions surrounding literature and the Holocaust are still very much alive and unresolved, as always happens when theory tries to establish the legitimacy of praxis, we confront the fact that a literature of Holocaust already exists. We thus have no choice but to turn our attention to the praxis, to the literature that has the Holocaust as its reason and object. The focus of current scholarship is on the accounts of the survivors, and how the memories of their experiences can be copied into words, language and literature. What devices, strategies, techniques are available to render their message understandable, comprehensible, to convey the sense of an internal order without making sense of it, in fear that this may give a meaning to the event itself? Furthermore, there is the additional problem, peculiar to the Jewish vision of the universe, that "the creation comes before the word and transcends it … [and that] to be a Jew is to know that words strive after the reality but can never adequately capture the human situation" (Ezrahi, ix).

The general coordinates of research point towards the adoption of discourse analysis as the instrument most apt for the formulation of viable hypotheses. Major studies conducted in this area have come close to theorizing that the failure of language in relation to the Holocaust must be ascribed not to inherent faults of language, or languages, but rather to the fact that the Holocaust was beyond the reach of such an instrument of knowledge, inasmuch as the event was transported outside the linguistic realm by the very logic that made it possible. I would take this rationale even further, and I would argue that language fails to contain the theoretical and practical reality of the Final Solution, for this was--conceptually and ontologically--antilinguistic, originally born from language but devoted to its destruction. In this sense it may not be too distant from the Biblical representation of the nature of evil, born of God. and later turned against it.

The Final Solution envisioned the destruction of European Jewry through the destruction of its language and of its discourse. In order to destroy the Jews, the Nazis first had to destroy the language of the Jews, then the language in the Jews. However, in doing so, the language used for the attack also destroyed itself in the process. The consequences of "Nazi-Deutsch" suffered by German were observed by Viktor KIemperer and also denounced in a famous essay by George

Steiner, "The Hollow Miracle," where he affirms that "the thing that has gone dead is the German language. . . Something immensely destructive has happened to it. It makes noises. It even communicates, but it creates no sense of communion" (Steiner, 1967:96).

The language of destruction materialized a reductionist logic which provided the philosophical support to the event. In synthesizing the logic of the final solution, whose mechanism he analyzed in The Destruction of European Jews, Raul HiIberg, in an interview with Claude Lanzmann, now part of the documentary Shoah, discussed how the linguistic path towards extermination paralleled the suppression of the very language in which it was conceived. From "You shall not live among us as Jews" to "You shall not live among us" to the final solution of "You shall not live." The premises we have briefly outlined lead us to confront another paradox about the language and the Holocaust, of an even higher order: language, unsuited to the pursuit of the philosophical truth of the Holocaust, promotes itself as the instrument to unmask and disclose the anti-linguistic nature of the death camps. Such an operation of unmasking, I believe, lies at the core of Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, that David Weinberg called "[b]y far the most compelling account of life in a Nazi concentration camp" (81). In this text, Levi intuitively acknowledged the centrality of the linguistic issue in both the conception and the literary representation of the Lager. He then approached his memories of the Lager with an internal compass that led him through the modalities and functions of language in the Lager, to show how they were the primary targets in the project of human demolition.

Levi stated that he began to write without the format goal of producing a book. Rather, through writing he sought to purify himself and to heal his spiritual wounds. Literature became his therapy and through literature he sought to give shape to the emotional and phenomenological notions of his experience. In the process he was faced with the moral imperative to render justice to the victims of the Holocaust by letting the world know what extreme of aberrations the human species had committed in the Lager (BS, 12-13). In his book, he created a narrative of the Holocaust that does not trivialize the event, reproduces it without making it acceptable, and interprets it without giving it a meaning. This results from the combination of several concomitant factors, interacting in the creative process, that generated a moral tension which satisfied the expectations of tragedy, anguish and despair, while at the same time tapping into a source of unending humanitarian passion, produced by the tragedy itself. It could be called the account of a human being's ability to preserve his humanity intact in the face of the de-humanization and degradation endured.

Levi consciously accepted a role in Holocaust discourse as one of its framers by retrospectively announcing the function of his work. Two important texts discharge the task of placing Survival in Auschwitz within the discourse of the Holocaust: the introduction and the poem "Shem" that appears at the beginning of the text proper. In the introduction, he stated: " This book of mine adds nothing to what is already known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of the death camps. . . It should be able, rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind" (SA, 5). From this passage it is clear that Levi is thinking of his book as a contribution to the foundation of a discourse that goes beyond the representation of that evil reality, and that extends to issues of understanding of the internal dynamics involved in the making of the event, and how this was perpetrated. He also reveals how he had carefully comprehended the importance, in this context, of the deceiving harmlessness, yet potentially devastating power of reductionist logic:

  • Many people--many nations--find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that "every stranger is an enemy." For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection... and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. (SA, 5)
  • In the same essay Levi also faces one the most complex areas of the literary experience, the dimension of Otherness, a sphere of concern that, in Holocaust literature, adds external pressure to the issues being addressed. The terms in which Levi frames his discourse are bound to complicate further the entire web of hypotheses and proposed solutions.

  • The need to tell our story to "the rest", to make "the rest" participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs. The book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation (SA, 5-6).
  • The "need," as Levi calls it, to achieve internal liberation through involving others provides an important insight into the nature of representation through signs. For in Levi, as in the case of several other survivor-authors, we witness a regression towards the primitive and mythical use of art as a response to a need never before felt nor satisfied.

    Levi's awareness of the context within which his text would he read surfaces to cover another aspect of its range of belonging. At the end of the introduction we find the following statement: "It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented" (SA, 6), which expresses one of the most profound anguishes of survivors in general, and in particular of the literary witnesses of the Holocaust: that of not being believed. This belongs to the general premise of the discourse on the Holocaust that knows it must struggle to gain recognition and credibility, because of the unbearable burden it places on the conscience of all human beings. By insisting on his truthfulness Levi performs two important operations: first, he reaffirms that the purpose of writing about the Holocaust is to make the "others" aware of a reality that existed, or otherwise put, "to bear witness." The second, and more subtle operation, is to confirm to himself the validity of his intuition, matured during captivity, about the absolute alterity of the reality of the camps. This consciousness appears in the text itself, nowhere as clearly as in an episode in which he describes a dream.

  • This is my sister and some unidentifiable friends and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling… I also speak diffusely of our hunger and of the lice-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people, and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there… My dream stands in front of me, still warm, and although awake I am still full of its anguish: and then I remember that it is not a haphazard dream, but that I have dreamed it not once but many times since I arrived here... and I remember that I have recounted it to Alberto and that he confided to me, to my amazement, that it is also his dream and the dream of many others, perhaps of everyone. (SA, 53-54)
  • While the introduction is the act of the retrospective reader/writer who in the meantime may have had access to other texts and understood his position vis--vis the formulation of a new discourse, the opening poem consciously establishes a connection with the fundamentals of Jewish discourse in its historical formulation. This occurs through the mediation of the prayer, paraphrased, that follows the Shem, the most basic linguistic formulation of Jewish identity:

    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. (SA, 8).

  • The conversion of the most sacred Jewish prayer into a curse may appear to belong to the realm of blasphemy. In fact, as we identify one of its intertexts, we realize that Survival in Auschwitz refuses to bend its reality to fit the models that control its actualization in the act of reading. In the opening poem, Levi applies to the Shem the same treatment reserved in the novel to Dante's Inferno and the Bible, that are made to defer to the absolute reality of evil turned matter. In contrast to the Pirandellian aesthetics that comprehends reality through the artistic process, for Levi art, culture and tradition, represented by their highest achievements, are invested with an entirely new meaning at the point of their integration into the reality that they envisioned in the abstract. Reality thus changes literature as the literature of reality imposes itself on the literature of the imagination and the prophetic vision.

    The awareness of the double role of language: to recount events, and to provide an insight into the nature of those events, permeates the entire text. At the beginning the process that brings the deportees down "on the bottom" (SA, 18) leaves substantial traces at the lexical level. In the first chapter, "The Journey," the attempts to apply known cognitive models to the alter reality are described in their primitive articulation. The same words reappear incessantly: to understand, to comprehend, to conjecture, to imagine, to fathom. They all tend toward one goal, like lines of forces converging onto a target: to learn. But to learn, what? To learn that the reality is alter and alien, that "Hier ist Kein Warum," here there is no Why, as a guard brutally shouts back to Levi's naive question. His comment follows: "The explanation is repugnant but simple: in this place everything is forbidden, not for hidden reasons, but because the camp has been created for that purpose. If one wants to live one must learn this quickly and well" (SA, 25).

    The reality-testing function of language, based on a recognizable cognitive grid, is challenged. "There is no Why," the axiom of the new consciousness crystallizes in apodictic reality: "Ne pas chercher comprendre," a prisoner engraves on the bottom of his tin plate (SA, 94); "they had only been in the Lager for a week and had not yet learnt that one did not ask questions" is Levi's comment about two new prisoners who bombarded him with questions about the announced evacuation of the camp (SA, 139). On another page we read: "Our wisdom lay in 'not trying to understand'. . . not asking others or ourselves any questions" (SA, 106). And again, to add one last example: "And we have learnt . . . to reply 'Jawohl,' never to ask questions, always to pretend to understand" (SA, 28).

    From the very first pages, Levi's attention is drawn to the linguistic phenomena associated with the experience of the victims, silence being one of the most apparent. After the departure from the Italian camp of Fossoli, "we passed the Brenner. . . and everybody stood up, but no one said a word" (SA, 13). Upon entering German-speaking territory, silence, from shock-reaction becomes resignation: "During the halts, no one tried anymore to communicate with the outside world" (SA, 14). At the arrival on the platform of Auschwitz silence becomes an exorcism against the reification of imminent danger: "In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper" (SA, 15). Then the deportees see the silhouettes of prisoners approaching them, silent as ghosts, and silence changes its valence: "We looked at each other without a word. It was all incomprehensible and mad, but one thing we had understood. Tomorrow we would be like them" (SA, 16).

    The successful suppression of the cognitive functions in language and the anxiety implicit in conjecturing the future collide with the absolute unpredictability, the fruit of a perfectly working logic, of the new reality, which presents itself as outside the reach of familiar procedures of hypothesis formation. The establishment of such an alien reality is the result of the subversion operated by the oppressors onto their own language. This subversion in turn forces the victims' language into a defensive position, ranging from silence to passive acquiescence. The descent into silence comes as the consequence of the premises contained in the language of the persecutors: "Wieviel Stck" (how many pieces) (SA, 12) the guards in charge of Levi's transport ask one another. Reduced to the level of things, silence falls upon the deportees while they enter a world that belongs to the sphere of a corrupt language.

    One episode is fundamental to illustrate Levi's intuition of the contrast between the discourses of German and Italian, and how it had been possible for one, but not for the other, to lead to the Lager. It is, incidentally, the episode of Levi's book most often misquoted and used to enlist it with the works of Bruno Bettelheim and Viktor Frankl on the side of the argument that spiritual survival was possible even in the face of Auschwitz. In this episode the Austrian soldier Steinlauf washes himself bare-breasted, and encourages Levi to do the same:

  • It grieves me now that I have forgotten his plain, outspoken words. .. because it means that I have to translate his uncertain Italian and his quiet manner of speaking of a good soldier into my language of an incredulous man. But this was the sense... that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not became beasts... one must want to survive... to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization... We still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last---the power to refuse consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water... not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety… not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die...... These [were] strange words to my unaccustomed ear, understood and accepted only in part, and softened by an easier, more flexible and blander doctrine, which for centuries has found its dwelling place on the other side of the Alps; according to which, among other things, nothing is of greater vanity than to force oneself to swallow a moral system elaborated by others, under another sky. No, the wisdom and virtue of Steinlauf, certainly good for him, is not enough for me. In the face of this complicated world my ideas of damnation are confused: is it really necessary to elaborate a system and put it into practice? Or would it not be better to acknowledge one's lack of a system? (SA,36)
  • If a distance is ever expressed in this text between the two discourses, that of the Italian language and that of the German language (it should be noted that Steinlauf is Austrian) it finds its most dramatic staging in this claim of inferiority, in this confusion, in these doubts. I wonder whether it would be too extreme a hypothesis to suggest that these very doubts, in Levi's mind, prevented Italian from partaking in the Holocaust.

    Levi's attention to the destiny of language may not be purely coincidental, but rather the consequence of the state of quasi-total functional deafness and mutism he experienced in the German and Yiddish-speaking world of the Lager. The inability to relate to the content of the words, to belong to the discourse of the Lager, may in fact have contributed to his enhanced ability to function as an observer of the linguistic reality in its unfolding. Furthermore, because he was reduced to silence, I would venture to say that his language, Italian, was preserved uncorrupted throughout the ordeal of the Lager, and that he found it still uncontaminated inside himself, his family and nation, when he began to write. The language outside the Lager, before and alter the event, had not been changed by it. Italian is ignorant of the Holocaust. One of the consequences of this can be seen in the fact that the work of Levi has not found its proper place in Italian literature because it has not been perceived as belonging to Italian discourse, and of course Italian has no knowledge of Jewish discourse.

    The innocent status of Italian vis--vis Jewish discourse as contemplated in German, in Yiddish, and probably even in French (I am thinking of the precedent of the Dreyfus Affair) enabled Levi to adopt the full range of its expressive, representational and cognitive powers in relative freedom, for the language had not been indicted by, nor in any way implicated in the destruction of Italian Jews, let alone European Jewry. As Levi himself later claimed: "I must make clear that neither in [Survival in Auschwitz] nor in any subsequent books, did I ever face problems of language…

    The consciousness of being a Jew outside the Jewish cultural and linguistic experience surfaces in the text, under the guise of a brief exchange with another prisoner: "Then he says: 'Ich Schlome. Du?' I tell him my name, and he asks me: 'Where your mother?' 'In Italy.' Schlome is amazed 'A Jew in Italy?' 'Yes' I explain as best I can 'hidden, no one knows, run away, does not speak, no one sees her"' (SA, 26). Even as a collective entity, Italian Jews are not within the conscious representation of the Jewish discourse of the Lager:

  • Everyone knows that the 174000s are the Italian Jews, the well-known Italian Jews who arrived two months ago, all lawyers, all with degrees, who were more than a hundred and are now only forty; the ones who do not know how to work, and let their bread be stolen, and are slapped from the morning to the evening. The Germans call them "zwei Linke Hnde" (two left hands), and even the Polish Jews despise them as they do not speak Yiddish. (SA, 43)
  • The status of Italian as "good discourse" is apparent in Levi's attitude. His native language has maintained its integrity and is immune from mystification, a condition that turns it into a term of reference, a positive value that works as a reminder or a restorable condition. Soon after passing the Brenner Pass in the direction of Auschwitz, Levi thus describes his thoughts: "The thought of the return journey stuck in my heart, and I cruelly pictured to myself the inhuman joy of that and other journeys, with doors open, no one wanting to flee, and the first Italian names..." (SA, 13). In the lager, upon seeing an Italian box-car, Levi cannot stop himself from day-dreaming of an impossible return: "Oh, to climb into a corner until, at a certain moment, the train would stop and I would feel the warm air and the smell of hay and I would get out into the sun… And a woman would pass, and she would ask me 'Who are you?' in Italian, and I would tell her my story in Italian, and she would understand, and she would give me food and shelter" (SA, 38-39).

    Endowed with an instrument of knowledge that escaped destruction, Survival in Auschwitz reflects the spoliation of the value of language focusing both on the quantity and the quality of language destroyed. We have already mentioned some episodes in which silence, coming from inside, envelops the victims. When the first attempts are made to reestablish communication among the prisoners, silence is imposed with force from outside. While waiting for their first shower, Levi narrates:

  • We walk up and down without sense, and we talk, everybody talks to everybody else, we make a great noise. The door opens, and a German enters: it is the officer of before. He speaks briefly, the interpreter translates. "The officer says you must be quiet, because this is not a rabbinical school." One sees the words which are not his, the bad words, twist his mouth as they come out, as if he was spitting out a foul taste… The German goes and we remain silent, although we are a little ashamed of our silence. (SA, 20)
  • Mirroring the prohibition to speak, is the inability to be heard, the disdainful disregard of the oppressors who completely ignore the physical existence of human beings as expressed through words: "The interpreter asks the German, and the German smokes and looks him through and through as if he were transparent, as if no one had spoken" (SA, 19.) A similar episode is repeated while Levi is in the Ka-Be, the infirmary: "I tried to ask him if he knew when they would let us enter. He turned to the nurse… they talked and laughed together without replying, as if I was not there" (SA, 43).

    From the suppression of mere words, Levi turns to the process through which language is deprived of its value and its force. Dressed in prisoners' clothes, with their heads shaven, wearing wooden clogs, reality surfaces in all its horrendous aspects, and is converted immediately into an observation on the state of language:

  • Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom... Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name. (SA, 22)
  • The result of this operation is translated into a sign from which language has been expelled. It is Null Achtzehn, the prisoner with no name, known only by the last three digits of his number "as if everyone was aware that only man is worthy of a name, and that Null Achtzehn is no longer a man" (SA, 37). The un-name that identifies the prisoner is introduced by the Zero sign, a linguistic notation whose meaning assumes a powerful symbolic value. Through the device of the un-name, Levi takes the reader through multiple levels of significance of the narration, an operation repeated later on a larger scale that encompasses all the physical components of the Lager, including the mass of the prisoners:

  • This huge entanglement of iron, concrete, mud and smoke is the negation of beauty. Its roads and buildings are named like us, by numbers or letters, or by weird and sinister names... We are the slaves of the slaves, whom all can give orders to, and our name is the number which we carry tattooed on our arm and sewn on our jacket. (SA, 65)
  • As we observed in this case, among Levi's narrative strategies is the repetition of a theme or image, first introduced on a small scale, then expanded to global proportions. This characteristic operation is also conducted on the language represented. From the sphere of mere functionality-expressed in several of the examples above-the text moves on to different categories where it is revealed how the suppression of the linguistic material had as a consequence the erosion of entire categories of thoughts and emotions. At the first stage the consequence is the blurring of the semantic coordinates. The need to assign new values to common words, and the absolute new semantic reality created by the Lager, surface even in the most basic of experiential categories: "We say 'hunger,' we say 'tiredness,' 'fear' and 'pain,' we say 'winter' and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes" (SA, 112-113). At the same time lexical items indicating moral categories, whose boundaries of significance have been erased, deprive words such as "'good' and 'evil,' 'just' and 'unjust"' of the "ordinary moral world" (SA, 78) from which they derive value.

    Given the premise of semantic corruption, we observe the larger phenomenon of perversion of purpose suffered by language. The most significant example is contained in the story of Kuhn, a prisoner who escaped a random selection of inmates to be sent to death:

  • I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen. Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more?…Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again. If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer. (SA, 118)
  • One of the most sacred expressions of the human experience, the mystical dialogue with the divinity, has thus been turned into blasphemy against humans. The subversion of language has reached its goal: language persists in its own realm, but having lost the sense of its discourse, is transformed into its very opposite.

    The substitution of discourses leads to the inversion of the valence of language, a phenomenon that reaches its extreme consequences at the literary level of language representation, the third and final step in the process of language suppression. For Levi two texts were endowed with the vastness of perspective necessary to encompass an entire aesthetic and ethical value system: Dante's Divine Comedy, and more precisely the Inferno, and the Bible. The literary imagination that gave form to the works of Dante and the hagiographers, assimilated into the writer's cognitive model, collided with the reality of the lager, and forced him into two mutually exclusive dimensions. The sequence proceeds as follows: an instance of reality is referred to an archetypal textual image. When attempts to comprehend reality in those terms fail, the opposite process takes place: reality imposes itself on literature, and the imaginary reality is modified. This can be seen in the episode describing the transfer by truck from the train station to the lager. The guard who escorts the prisoners becomes the dantesque character of Charon, "and instead of shouting threats of damnation at us, he asks us courteously, one by one, in German and in pidgin language, if we have any money or watches to give him, seeing that they will not be useful to us anymore" (SA, l6-17.)

    The most systematic treatment of such a concept of literature modified by external reality is to be found in the chapter entitled "Ulysses' canto." In it, a fellow prisoner asks Levi to teach him Italian, and Levi almost automatically begins to recite the XXVI canto of the Inferno, one of the highest expressions of the human conflict between obedience to divine law and the freedom to pursue knowledge:

  • "Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance

    Your mettle was not made; you were made men

    To follow after knowledge and excellence."

    As if I also was hearing for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am (SA, 103).

  • As Levi recites more verses to his fellow prisoner, he experiences an epiphany:

  • 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....

    We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. "Kraut und Rben? Kraut und Rben." The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: "choux et navets. Kaposzta s rpak."

    "And over our heads the hollow seas closed up." (SA, 104- 105)

  • While the first verses quoted by Levi are still an instrument of knowledge, the final quote testifies to the subversion of Dante's text and its resignation before the annihilation of language perpetrated in the Lager. In the process between the two points, Levi's voice almost becomes an incoherent mumbling of disconnected fragments, reflecting the mind-numbing effect of the epiphany about the essence of the Lager. The voice of the ultimate desperate attempt of knowledge is cancelled by the sordid and squalid banality of the words that announce the soup, just as Dante's poetry is muted by the Final Solution.

    A similar destiny is reserved for the Biblical episodes. For a text oriented to the nature of language and its vicissitudes, the apologue of the Tower of Babel presented the most compelling reference. The theme, at first introduced almost casually, is, at a later point, reexamined in a larger context with broader significance. At the onset of the experience, Babel is little less than a folktale reminiscence: "The confusion of languages is a fundamental component of the manner of living here: one is surrounded by a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before" (SA, 33). Expanding on the recently described linguistic promiscuity, Levi continues: "Within five minutes begins the distribution of bread-Brot-Broit-chleb-pain-lechem-kenyr" (SA, 34).

    The Tower of Babel returns as the symbol of the Final Solution itself. The Lager where Levi was imprisoned had its own Tower of Babel, a distillation tower that was being built by slave labor:

  • Its bricks were called Zieget, briques, tegula, cegli, kamenny, mattoni, tglak, and they were cemented by hate; hate and discord, like the Tower of Babel, and it is this that we call it: Babelturm, Bobelturm; and in it we hate the insane dream of grandeur of our masters, their contempt for God and men, for us men. And today just as in the old fable, we all feel, and the Germans themselves feel, that a curse--not transcendent and divine, but inherent and historical--hangs over the insolent building based on the confusion of languages and erected in defiance of heaven like a stone oath. (SA, 66)
  • Where God had dispersed the multitudes in a confusion of languages, the Nazis brought them together as the final insult and the final challenge coram deo, committing a sin that goes above and beyond what was contemplated in the Bible itself. The literary reminiscence, the "transcendental and divine curse," is substituted by the reality of the event, the "immanent and historical curse" that will cause the destruction of the Lager itself.

    The multiplicity of levels of the language represented in Survival in Auschwitz reflects different degrees of awareness of what language endured through the attempt to obliterate it, and with it to cancel all traces of European Jewry. The language proper of Survival in Auschwitz, conversely, has the enormously difficult task of witnessing, by its own existence, the restoration of its primary function of seeking knowledge. In this dimension, language from instrument of reflection on the language represented, also becomes the instrument of a reflection on itself. We perceived this inner-core level more clearly when Levi separates in the text the linguistic reality he creates from his own reality of writer; when he pauses to reflect upon the language he has adopted and indicts it with being unable to sustain the imaginary reality it creates.

    In one specific episode we observe the illustration of the process from two perspectives: first, from the temporal dimension of the writer to that of the narrator; second, from the temporal dimension of the narrator to that of a previous narratee. Significantly the reality of the writer and that of the ultimate narratee coincide inasmuch as they belong to the normal reality outside the Lager. The episode recalled is the chemistry exam, the job interview Levi underwent before being selected for work in the camp's chemistry laboratory. Here is how he posits the reality of the writer against that of the Lager: "And now I also know that I can save myself if I become a Specialist, and that I will become a Specialist if I pass a chemistry examination. Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened" (SA, 94.) The text registers a sudden leap of consciousness at the very moment when the writer becomes aware of the reality he has created, and the text, like a seismograph, records the jolt. Immediately afterwards, the same realization is portrayed extending from the reality of the Lager to the world that preexisted it:

    • I took my degree at Turin in 1941, summa cum laude--and while I say it, I have the definite sensation of not being believed, of not even believing it myself…Yet I am he, the B. Sc. of Turin, in fact, at this particular moment it is impossible to doubt my identity with him… This sense of lucid elation... is the fever of examination, my fever of my examinations. (SA, 97)

    The symmetry of this construction is configured in the telescoping of consciousness along coordinates of the same cognitive mode: the contrast between the now and then. The reality of the Lager makes the previous reality incredible and by confessing his disbelief, Levi recognized the accomplishment of the Lager's goal.

    In the dimension that Levi declares to be "on this side of the barbed wire" (SA, 78), the Lager, the double operation of making the previous reality, and its own reality, unbelievable, captures the essence of what Lanzmann called "the abyss. . . between the conditions that permitted the extermination, and the extermination itself-the fact of the extermination" (Howe, 28). Levi's language captures the very essence of this double negation, that places the Final Solution, in the words of Hannah Arendt "outside of life and death" (Arendt, 3:142), and outside of the discourse of language, where it can only be inferred by the void it left, the death it caused, the silence it imposed upon itself. The Lager thus is nothing else than its entropic manifestation, resulting, in the language of Levi, in the suppression of the notion, the definition and the memory of itself: "We will not return… No one must leave here and so carry to the world, together with the sign impressed on his skin, the evil tidings of what man's presumption made of man in Auschwitz" (SA, 49).