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Interview with Primo Levi: Excerpts from Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, Marlboro,Vt : Marlboro Press, 1989
By Admins (from 25/04/2013 @ 04:02:17, in it - Scienze e Societa, read 1575 times)

Why write? (pp. 41-44)

CAMON: Somewhere you've said that your purpose in writing was "for inner liberation." But let's analyze this statement a little more closely. Why have you written? In order to denounce? Thereby to demand justice? To arrive at an understanding of an enigma, a mystery, "the mystery of Germany," the "madness of Germany"? Writing as an appeal to others for help in the solution? Writing as consolation? Out of all this, what was that "inner liberation" you were trying to achieve through writing supposed to be?

LEVI: Your question has to do only with Survival in Auschwitz. I wrote because I felt the need to write. If you ask me to go further and find out what produced this need, I can't answer. I've had the feeling that for me the act of writing was equivalent to lying down on Freud's couch. I felt such an overpowering need to talk about it that I talked out loud. Back then, in tile concentration camp, I often had a dream: I dreamed that I'd returned, come home to my family, told them about it, and nobody listened. The person standing in front of me doesn't stay to hear, lie turns around and goes away. I told this dream to my friends in the concentration camp, and they said, "It happens to us too."

And later I found it mentioned, in the very same way, by other survivors who have written about their experiences. So we're dealing with a typical situation.

CAMON: So was it your collective unconscious that felt that experience to be incredible, at the very moment you were all living it'

LEVI: Yes. But this dream of talking about it was certainly comparable to the dream of Tantalus, which was of "eating-almost," of being able to ring the food to one's mouth but not succeeding in biting into it. It's the dream of a primary need, the need to cat and drink. So was the need to talk about it. Already at the time it was a basic need. Later I chose to write it as the equivalent of talking about it.

CAMON: Talking about it more extensively, in me and space, to more people and over a longer period of time, to be believed finally by every one, since in the dream even your family didn't believe you?

LEVI: Yes. The nightmare of the dream, however, was still inside me. While I was writing Survival in Auschwitz I wasn't sure it would be published. I wanted to make four or five copies, and give them to my fiancée and friends. My writing was therefore a way of telling them about it. The intention to "leave an eyewitness account" came later, the primary need was to write for purposes of liberation.

CAMON: To write, that is, for therapeutic purposes.

LEVI: Yes, therapeutic.

CAMON: And in that sense did it work?

LEVI: Yes, writing relieved me.


8. The works (pp.59-64)

CAMON: Your literary works and those on scientific subjects (Storie naturali, Vizio di forma) are so different from the works on the "concentration-camp condition" as to raise a question about their author: what's surprising is that these "divertissements" (as you've called Storie naturali) are written by the same author as the books on the concentration camp. But I'd go even further and say that since Storie naturali was written simultaneously with The Reawakening, it would therefore indicate a kind of split in their author, a dual operation of his mind.

This is shown, in my opinion, by the different name used by the author: Damiano Malabaila. It may be that the pseudonym was suggested by fear and modesty, but at a deeper level it may well have been suggested by his awareness of being not one author but two-of being, so to speak, divided.

LEVI: That's a question that you can answer better than I. I mean I can't answer. I don't even know of any test or mental experiment that one could do to verify it. Before they arrested me I'd already written a short story, of which I still have a copy, but I've been careful not to publish it. It was a mediocre arabesque, with a little of everything in it.

CAMON: Maybe without the experience of the concentration camp, you would have been a writer all the same (I'm convinced of it-there's no way you wouldn't have been a writer, but an ironical, fantastic, allegorical, esoteric, scientific, naturalist writer.

LEVI: Actually in that first story there's a lot of the natural world, rocks and plants. Yes, perhaps that's what I would have written about; I was fascinated by that world. But for me the experience of the concentration camp has been fundamental. Naturally I wouldn't do it all over again, but still, along with the horror of that experience, which I still feel now, I can't deny that it's also had positive results. It seems to me that that was where I learned to know the facts about people. There's a friend of mine, Lidia Rolfi, who was in Ravensbruck, she was a schoolteacher, and she says that Ravensbruck was her university. It was the only concentration camp strictly for women. I'd been to the university, but I too must say that my real university was Auschwitz. I have the feeling of having been enriched by it, so much so that it took me only a few months to write Survival in Auschwitz and I remember writing it without ever faltering. When it was published by Einaudi in 1958, I inserted one chapter, the one about Initiation, which isn't in the De Silva edition of 1947, and I added quite a lot, but I didn't change, delete, or correct anything.

CAMON: There are sufferings that make us better people and sufferings that make us worse. Probably those experienced in a state of powerlessness make us better.

LEVI: I don't think I became a better person. I understood a few things, but that didn't make me good.

CAMON: How many prisoners were there, on the average, every day in Auschwitz'

LEVI: There wasn't just one Auschwitz camp; there were thirty-nine of them. There was the town of Auschwitz, and in it was a concentration camp, and that was Auschwitz properly speaking, or the capital of the system. Down below, two kilometers away, was Birkenau, or Auschwitz Two: here they had the gas chamber; it was a huge concentration camp, divided into some four to six adjoining camps. Farther up was the factory, and near the factory was Monowitz, or Auschwitz Three: that's where I was. This camp belonged to the factory, it had been financed by it. In addition, all around, there were thirty to thirty-five small camps (mines, arms factories, farms, etc.). The most distant camp was Brno, in Moravia: it was about a hundred kilometers away, as the crow flies, and was under the administration of Auschwitz. In my camp there were about ten thousand of us; in central Auschwitz fifteen or twenty thousand; in Birkenau many more, seventy to eighty thousand; plus another twenty thousand scattered about in these little camps, which were all frightful places, mines, where you worked amid cold and hunger; they were punishment camps. But Auschwitz One was the administrative center for all of them, and Birkenau was the extermination camp. The Auschwitz system was the fruit of experience gathered in all the other camps, both for extermination and forced labor. There's a book about it, in fact the diary of the Auschwitz commandant, who when he was captured was asked to tell his story, and he did.'

CAMON: You're not a depressed man, and not even anxious.

LEVI: Is that a feeling you get from my books or from my presence?

CAMON: From your presence. You have an ironical and tolerant attitude, and you often smile. I have the feeling that by nature you're someone who loves life, who loved it before, and who loves it afterwards. Between the before and the after there's been a violent and total trauma, but it's over.

LEVI: In general, you're right. Since the concentration camp, however, I've had a few attacks of depression. I'm not sure if they go back to that experience, because they come with different labels, from one to the next. It may seem strange to you, but I went through one just recently, a stupid fit of depression, for very little reason: I had a small operation on my foot, and this made me think that I'd suddenly got old. It took two months for the wound to heal. That's why I asked you if the feeling came from my presence or my books.

CAMON: I said from your presence, but it's not that your books contradict it. In your scientific and naturalist works one is aware of a fantastic, allegorical writer, with a language full of life, and a display of metaphor.

LEVI: While I wasn't at all interested in the problem of language when I wrote Survival in Auschwitz, it gradually began to interest me the more I went on writing, until it became uppermost in The Monkey's Wrench, which is an experimental book. And also in this recent book, If Not Now, When?, in which I've been faced with linguistic problems, because it was a mattter of having people speak in Italian-of translating into Italian-dialogue that was supposed to be in Polish or Russian or Yiddish. I don't know either Polish or Russian, and my Yiddish is poor, and so I had to study up on it, which I did. I studied Yiddish for eight months, so as to be able to give to these characters an Italian speech that would sound plausible as a translation, I don't know if the average Italian reader is aware of these things.

CAMON: After the first books, the ones on the concentration camp, one feels this interest in words, in language, and even a taste for experiment. That's why it seems strange to me that you didn't become a literary writer, but went on applying yourself to chemistry and being a chemist.

LEVI: But I was always interested in chemistry, and in school I was lazy and bored, and poor in Italian. As a student I didn't understand the importance of Italian literature; I understood it later.

9. Chemistry and the man (p. 65-68)

CAMON: But what is it in chemistry that interests you?

LEVI: I'm interested in the contact with matter, in understanding the world around me; I'm interested in the chemistry of the human body, biochemistry. In short, science: but the science of particles doesn't say much to me, while I'm thrilled by the discovery of genetic mechanisms, the way the individual is coded, the minuscule chain whose alphabet is made up of molecules. There's a bridge between linguists and geneticists. These new concepts of "pregnancy," of "redundance," of "ambiguity," apply very well to the language of genetics, and genetic failures are due to the lack of redundancy, for which it takes only the slightest error and the reading is broken. But the reasons that brought me to chemistry were different at that time, because chemistry was then a different science, I chose to get interested in chemistry when I was a boy-I was fourteen or fifteen-because I was thrilled by the parallel between the formula written on paper and what takes place in the test tube. Already then it seemed to me something magical, and chemistry seemed to me the main key to open the secrets of heaven and earth, and having read at the time that a spectroscope allows you to know the chemical composition of a star, it seemed to me one of man's greatest powers.

CAMON: So, chemistry and literature; concentration-camp writer, and scientific and naturalist writer. The fact that the literary writing came after the concentration- camp books suggests that the Auschwitz trauma had receded almost to the point of disappearing and that it wasn't simply negative. How about at the private, personal, family level'

LEVI: No, as I said, Auschwitz was not simply negative for me, it taught me a lot. Among other things, before Auschwitz I was a man with no woman, afterwards I met the one who was to become my wife. I very much needed someone to listen to me, and she listened more than others. That's why, in sickness and in health, I'm bound to her for life. Before that I was full of complexes, I don't know why. Maybe because I was a Jew. As a Jew, I'd been made fun of by my schoolmates: not beaten up, or insulted, but made fun of, yes.

After my return from Auschwitz, I had a great need to talk, I looked Lip my old friends and talked their cars off, and I remember their saying to me, "How strange! You haven't changed a bit." I think I'd undergone a process of maturing, having had the luck to survive. Because it's not a question of strength, but of luck: you can't beat a concentration camp with your own strengths. I'd been lucky: for having been a chemist, for having met a bricklayer who gave me something to eat, for having overcome the language difficulty. This I can claim to have done; I never got sick-I got sick only once, at the end, and this too was lucky, because I missed the evacuation of the camp. The others, the healthy ones, all died because they were transferred to Buchenwald and Mauthausen in the middle of winter. I had an argument ... are you a believer?

CAMON: Why do you ask?

LEVI: I had an argument with a believer, a friend of mine from Padua, your city, by the way.

CAMON: You're not a believer?

LEVI: No, I never have been. I'd like to be, but I don't succeed.

CAMON: Then in what sense are you Jewish?

LEVI: A simple matter of culture. If it hadn't been for the racial laws and the concentration camp, I'd probably no longer be a Jew, except for my last name. instead, this dual experience, the racial laws and the concentration camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I'm a few, they've sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.

CAMON: With whom did you have that argument?

LEVI: If you remember The Periodic Table, he's the one mentioned as "the assistant" in the "Potassium" story. He's a believer but not a Catholic; he came to see me after my release to tell me I was clearly one of the elect, since I'd been chosen to survive in order for me to write Survival in Auschwitz. And this, I must confess, seemed to me a blasphemy, that God should grant privileges, saving one person and condemning someone else. I must say that for me the experience of Auschwitz has been such as to sweep away any remnant of religious education I may have had.

CAMON: Meaning that Auschwitz is proof of the nonexistence of God?

LEVI: There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God. [On the typescript, he added in pencil:] I don't find a solution to this dilemma. I keep looking, but I don't find it.


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