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  • __The Drowned and the Saved__ by Primo Levi
"Preface"The text opens by describing the fear, common to prisoners (especially in dreams), that nobody will listen to their stories. He claims that this fear has turned out false (though, in "Shame" and the conclusion, he complicates this claim), but that it was a real fear, in the minds of the Nazi's as well, who sought to destroy all evidence of the Shoah once they realized that victory was not certain (until then, "The victor is the master even of truth" (13)), including of the "bearers of secrets" (14) close to the front. ("Bearing" is an important term for Levi, since - as we will see - "bearing witness" is one of his self-imperatives and also because shame is something that someone bears. How should we read this term? Regarding the Gordon essay: is bearing a voluntary act?) For Levi, there are also "bearers of secrets" on the German side, those who did not spread the news of the atrocity to the rest of the world, or even to their families. He claims that "the failure to divulge the truth about the Lagers represents one of the major collective crimes of the German people" (15). There are many reasons for the silence of the Germans (see: p. 15-6). When attempting to reconstruct what has been stifled about the camps, Levi claims that it is "natural and obvious" to turn to the memories of survivors, and that these should be read "with a critical eye"(16) both because the prisoners could not, when writing, put their experience in any sort of context and because those who survived are almost all people who were priviledged in some way and so "never fathomed [the Lagers] to the bottom" (17).

So, it is not surprising that it has taken a long time for truths about the Shoah to be discussed. Here, Levi examines the last forty years in terms of remembering the Shoah. Many memories, he claims have been stylized, both by the passage of time (see also: "The Memory of the Offense") and by over-simplification. Levi claims that, "Every victim is to be mourned, and every survivor is to be helped and pitied, but not all their acts should be set forth as examples" (20, notice the imperatives). There was collaboration from the prisoners and violence against other prisoners. Thus, Levi's project is to try to approach the Shoah in an unsimplified, honest way, specifically to answer the question: "How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return...? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do so that in this world pregnant with threats at least this threat will be nullified?" (20-1, compare this to the conclusion: "It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say" (199)). While taking this approach, Levi limits himself to the National Socialist Lagers partly because he has direct experience of it and partly because it is unique due to its unexpectedness, its complexity and the number of people killed in such a short time "with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism, and cruelty" (21). Although other atrocities (Levi cites the massacre of the Native Americans) have been horrible, they were different in many ways, including that we have "tried to dispose of them by declaring that they were 'things of another time'" (21). (This quote ends the preface, posed as a rhetorical question. Why would Levi end the prefice in this way, about a different atrocity and making a negative claim about it? His last claim is also worrisome... won't we one day dispose of the Shoah by declaring that it was a "thing of another time"?)

"The Memory of the Offense"Memory is not perfect. Over time it fades, and it also grows false and inaccurate. Levi wants, in this essay, to examine one type of memory in particular, the memory of trauma, which is itself traumatic because the memory itself is painful, both for the person who was traumatized (to dull the pain) and the traumatizer (to dull the guilt). To be clear, although Levi claims that both the victim and the perpetrator avoid their memory, an important difference is that "it is right that [the perpetrator] should suffer" (24). Also, as we saw earlier, the causes of suffering are different, such that memoirs of perpetrators (not just victims) are important for Levi. These memoirs open up two questions: "Why did you do this? Were you aware that you were committing a crime?" (26).
"The Gray Zone"
"Useless Violence"
"The Intellectual in Auschwitz"
"Letters from Germans"


  • __Modernity, Culture and 'the Jew'__
"The Ethical Uncertainty of Primo Levi" by Bryan Cheyette (268-281)Cheyette argues that traditional depictions of Primo Levi's depiction of his experiences in Auschwitz as scientifically disinterested ignores ambiguities inherent in all of Levi's writings. The scientific disinterestedness that is ascribed to Levi reduces the disturbing aspect of his writing by placing it within a system (of good vs. evil, of unproblematic representation, etc.), which is - at its extreme - representative of Fascism. (Cheyette makes the distinction between the "certainties of Fascism" and uncertainty in Levi's conception of chemistry as "a mess...full of mysteries," 279 [Levi quote from Periodic Table, 60]. Think also about Arendt's "banality of evil" and Adorno's reified society as ways of getting at the same problem. In a world that is entirely certain, in which all problems are black and white [they move me up in commercial society or do not], thinking about the problems brought up by an atrocity like the Shoah becomes foreign.) The key examples for Cheyette are Levi's uncertainty about language and about memory. Levi's memories push him (involuntarily) to tell his story and to write, but he is never convinced that his language can get at what he wants to depict. He realizes (in both his early and his later writings) that he cannot "dress a man in words" (Cheyette, 275; Levi Periodic Table 48-9), cannot - in other words - perfectly represent the people who died and thus cannot represent themselves. (We should compare this with the Gordon essay, in which Gordon cites Levi as claiming that we can and have a moral imperative to communicate. These two positions are not mutually contradictory, but the Levi quote here shows that Gordon is wrong in making a simple link between Levi and the author who claims that the there is nothing that is ineffable.) On another level, Levi has an ambiguous relationship with his memory, which he at times claims is perfect (even as he claims that memory naturally slips away - Cheyette, 273; Levi __The Drowned and the Saved__, 21), while at the same time admitting that he fails to remember certain aspects of his experience (Amery's face, attractive things about Bandi - Cheyette, 274). These two uncertainties highlight, for Cheyette, an ethical uncertainty in Levi, an uncertainty about whether everything fits into the categories "good" and "evil," that these categories too allow for a certainty that Levi eschews. Cheyette claims that Levi's uncertainty is not fully skeptical - Levi still pushes to remember and to depict his experience with language, and he does not forgive those who participated in the Shoah - but that Levi is trying to point us to something other than a complete, easy system. This ambivalence between certainty and skepticism, because it centers around questions of remembering the victims and avoiding Facsist thinking, is what Cheyette calls Levi's "ethical uncertainty" (see title). It is, in the end, characterized most by "the continual negotiation between Levi's authoritative documentary realism as an eye-witness and his profound uncertainty at narrating the 'simple and incomprehensible' stories of those that he would wish to redeem through memory" (279, notice the word 'authoritative').

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