[The first post in this series is here.]
Hope figures in the thinking of Primo Levi both as a direct subject of reflection and, more obliquely, as implicit in cognate themes pointing to the persistence of humane impulses in conditions of the most terrible adversity. I will give examples of each type of case.
Thus, with respect to hope, in The Drowned and the Saved Levi recalls an occasion at Auschwitz - all too rare since the main rule of survival there was that you should first take care of yourself, and this pretty well exhausted a prisoner's energies - when he tried to give courage to a fellow Italian newly arrived at the camp, by uttering some 'words of hope'. Perhaps he was thinking of this very occasion in an interview in 1985 in which he said:
You may be certain that the world is heading for destruction, but it's a good thing, a moral thing, to behave as though there's still hope. Hope is as contagious as despair: your hope, or show of hope, is a gift you can give to your neighbour, and may even help to prevent or delay the destruction of his world.
In the novel If Not Now, When? Levi has one of his characters say the same thing about hope - that it is contagious. He presented it as being but another side of 'our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future', an integral feature of the human condition. At Auschwitz, Levi observed, it was only a 'crazy residue of unavoidable hope' that kept the prisoners from killing themselves on the electrified fence at the onset of another winter.
Hope is also what a reprieve from the normal routines and oppressions of the camp permitted, transient as any such reprieve always was. Of a letter from home he received, in violation of the rules and through the help of a free Italian labourer working on the same site, Levi would later write that it 'represented a breach, a small gap in the black universe that closed tightly around us, and through that breach hope could pass'. It is indeed pertinent to the contrast between the outlooks of Levi and Améry that the former could put together a collection of pieces devoted to moments like these - the volume Moments of Reprieve, in which Levi recalled individuals who, or occasions which, in one way or another highlighted the humanity that continues to assert itself even in hellish circumstances. I subsume Levi's recounting of such episodes (in that collection and elsewhere) under the general rubric of hope. The contrast between him and Améry that I am sketching resides not only in the explicit themes of hope and resentment but also in the different tones of each writer and in the different kinds of stories they recount along the way. Améry's readers are permitted to enjoy very few moments of reprieve.
Levi for his part included in his narrative of Auschwitz occasions when some moral connection was made between himself and another: he remembers Schlome, who offered him helpful advice in his (Levi's) first days at the camp and who ended their conversation with a timid embrace; he remembers Steinlauf telling him that they must wash, even if without soap and in dirty water, as an earnest of the will to survive and tell their story; he writes of Lorenzo, the civilian worker who by bringing him extra food every day helped him to survive, and reminded him that there 'still existed a just world outside our own... a remote possibility of good'. And Levi recalls an occasion when Wolf, a Berlin pharmacist steeped in music, had somehow managed, one rest day, to get hold of a violin, and played on it, 'his myopic gaze lost somewhere beyond the barbed wire, beyond the pale Polish sky'. He writes of 'the best' who all died: Chaim, a watchmaker from Cracow, who explained to Levi the rules for survival in his first days of captivity; the Hungarian Szabo who 'help[ed] his weaker companions to pull and push'; Robert, a professor from the Sorbonne, 'who spread courage and trust all around him'.
Perhaps the most remarked upon of such episodes in Levi's work is his effort, while going with Jean to fetch the soup, to recall some lines from Dante's Canto of Ulysses, lines which include the affirmation, 'Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence.'
Levi's work is suffused with affirmations of a resolute humanism. The intention of those who ran the Nazi death camps was, he said, to demolish the prisoners as human beings before killing them physically. He, accordingly, clings against all odds to his sense of himself as a man. Later he would list among the factors which helped him survive - chief among these, good luck - his stubborn determination 'to recognize always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus to avoid that total humiliation and demoralization which led so many to spiritual shipwreck'.
And when I was face to face with death -
No I shouted from every fibre.
I hadn't finished yet;
There was still too much to do.
Because you were there before me,
With me beside you, just like today,
A man a woman under the sun.
I came back because you were there.
The above lines are from Levi's poem '11 February 1946', and I read them as asserting, teleologically, the principle of hope, of the future at work in the present, in his determination not to go under.
In harmony with these tropes, we find scattered across Levi's Auschwitz-related writings an emphasis on the centrality of human purposiveness. He declares: 'The aims of life are the best defence against death.' And: 'The conviction that life has a purpose is rooted in every fibre of man, it is a property of the human substance.' A character in If Not Now, When?, surmising about how she managed to hold out in Auschwitz, wonders if it might have been because she believed that 'life had a meaning'.
[The next post in the series is here.]