The Drowned and the Saved (I Sommersi E I Salvati)

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THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED (I sommersi e i salvati)

Memoir by Primo Levi, 1986

I sommersi e i salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saved, 1988), Primo Levi's last great work of witness, was published less than a year before his death in 1987. It incorporates within the context of new material some pieces that had been published over the previous nine years.

In this book Levi reverses the balance characteristic of his earlier works of witness, such as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening. There he had employed narrative, with himself as "author-protagonist," and had interwoven into those carefully crafted narratives considerable analysis and commentary. In The Drowned and the Saved the emphasis is on analysis and commentary; narrative is used episodically, for purposes of illustration or support of a point. An especially powerful example of this practice is the section on Chaim Rumkowski in the chapter "The Gray Zone."

The book, which is composed of eight chapters plus a substantial preface and a conclusion, seems, in its title, to allude to Dante, who refers (Inferno 20.3) to those in hell as i sommersi (the submerged, or the drowned). It is Levi's phrase for those who perished in camp. Levi uses as an epigraph to this work lines from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" that refer to a huge urgency to tell a terrible tale: "And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns." Levi is greatly concerned in this work not to fall prey to those distorting effects on memory that he observed and commented on with somber brilliance in the chapter "Vanadium" in The Periodic Table as well as in the preface and first chapter, "The Memory of the Offense," of the present book. He reports in his preface, in fact, that he checked his memory in rigorous ways and found that it remained powerful and reliable, undistorted in the passage of years by forgetfulness or by shifting deep motivations.

Levi had from his first writings crafted striking phrases for certain realities associated with the operation of the camps and the moral issues involved. His first chapter deals not only with memory but also with offense. That latter word is for him a technical term and points not only at the evil of the camps but also at the fact that in order to break the humanity of those imprisoned there practices were developed that specifically outraged their sense of what was most sacred in their identity. The tattooing of the prisoner's number on his or her arm is itself an example of this. A law in Torah forbids Israelites to be tattooed. Similarly, prayer shawls were taken away on entry into Auschwitz and made into underwear, which the prisoners were then forced to wear and befoul.

His chapter "The Gray Zone" represents a profound plea that one not generalize and suppose that all, tormentor and tormented alike, were in some sense equally victims. There are, according to Levi, those who obviously are pure victimizer or are pure victim. And even for those whom we might think to inhabit a sort of gray zone between the two poles, Levi insists that we not give over the act of judging, of making distinctions, of determining the balance of exoneration and opprobrium. Only in one case does he ask that we suspend judgment—that is for the case of those in the Special Commando, prisoners themselves who, before they knew the nature of the work they would be asked to do, were offered privileges for special labor. Only after they agreed did they find that their work was at the crematoria, putting bodies in and taking the ashes out. To refuse then would have meant immediate death. For them Levi asks that we continue to consider their case but suspend judgment. For all others he asks that we continue the act of judgment—assessing culpability according to the degree of their consent to and participation in the operation of the Final Solution.

Chapters follow on "Shame" (survivor shame), the topic also of one of his most powerful poems, "The Survivor" ("Il superstite"); on "Communication"; on "Useless Violence"; on "The Intellectual at Auschwitz"; and on "Stereotypes"; and there is one in which he refers to a number of letters he had received from Germans and in which he analyzes the response to the Holocaust indicated or implied there. These chapters are followed by a conclusion as intense, though controlled, as it is brief.

The chapter on "Communication," perhaps the central concern of Levi's great and very substantial oeuvre, argues vigorously against the contemporary tendency in literary studies to assert that all meaning is individual and subjective and that we cannot effectively communicate with one another what it is most important to know about our condition. Levi believes this idea to be an "aesthetic vice," asserting that we can know adequately the mental intent of another's utterance and suggesting that if we wish to know what real incommunicability is, we examine the case of Auschwitz. There language was used with the intent not to communicate significantly in any mode save that of unquestionable command. But, as Levi observes, not only did language in Auschwitz involve great problems of communication but also language about Auschwitz is extremely difficult, because common discourse, which derives from the world of general human experience, has no vocabulary for dealing with its singularities. Common language therefore characteristically betrays and palliates.

Seen in retrospect from the fact of his death, the frequency of mention of suicide in this book is worth attention, beginning in the early pages with the notice of the suicide of Jean Améry . So, too, in an astonishingly composed and restrained work of luminous analysis about the horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath is the outrage and disdain that brings the conclusion of the work to its close. There he notes the responsibility borne by the great majority of Germans, "who accepted from the beginning, through mental laziness, through myopic calculation, through stupidity, through national pride, the 'beautiful words' of Corporal Hitler, who followed him so long as fortune and the lack of scruples favored them, who were overthrown by his ruin, lashed with sorrows, misery, and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later through a disingenuous political game." Obtuse self-interest and a willingness to come to terms with power Levi saw as the defining fault of the Germans in the Holocaust—and not only of the Germans and not only in the case of the Holocaust.

—Ralph G. Williams