Years ago, Lotte Eisner, a revered figure in Germany's film history and a kind of elder stateswoman to its post-war film makers, fell gravely ill in Paris. Werner Herzog, the most spectacular of the young directors, took a knapsack and a compass and walked from Munich to see her.
It was a pilgrim's gesture to hustle fate. "I do not allow her to die," Herzog said. She recovered, in fact.
There was something of that atmosphere in a meeting last month of scholars, critics, writers and readers devoted to the late Primo Levi. Held at New York University, with speakers from Italy and the United States, the two-day symposium discussed the artistic and humane significance of an Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz to write about its implications with a serene and perilous play of blackness and light.
"It is a state of necessity that we are here," proclaimed Furio Colombo of Columbia University, one of the moderators.
Works of literature have subtexts, and so did this meeting. Prof. Colombo's remark hinted at it. Sometimes directly, but mostly through their urgency, the participants and the audience confronted Levi's apparent suicide two years ago, and all but declared that they did not allow it to happen.
It was not so much the material event that was in question. Speakers alluded to what is known: That Levi's body was discovered at the bottom of the stairwell of his apartment, that he had been depressed over the ill health of his mother and mother-in-law and his own painful recovery from a prostate operation. One or two preferred to leave the question open, arguing that a former chemist would have found some easier way to die; most seemed to accept the police suicide finding.
What was involved, rather, was an effort to evoke the man and his work, and to come to terms with the burning paradox that they present to his readers. In no great writer of this century are man and work more intimately identified. With few others, if any, does what the work stands for, its moral quality, become so inextricably a part of what it is; its artistry, in other words.
We have had great artists who prophesied the century's darkness; Kafka, for example. Levi was an artist who witnessed it. It is harder to use art as witness than as prophet. Some have argued that in the case of the Holocaust, it can't be done. Levi, perhaps uniquely, proved the contrary.
He did it--in "Survival in Auschwitz," "The Reawakening," "The Periodic Table," "If Not Now, When?" "The Monkey's Wrench," "The Drowned and the Saved"--by a continually shifting balance of light and darkness, of hope and despair. His characters declare their humanity in whatever horror they find themselves. Not through nobility, necessarily, because most of them are not noble, but through their affirmation of life.
As a former chemist--he could distinguish seven different kinds of blue, one of the participants recalled--Levi rejected sweeping statements about anything, even good and evil. Sweeping statements were Fascist, his own experience told him. Auschwitz was a sweeping statement; but everyone inside, guards and prisoners, was an individual. Truth was in the details. He saw in shades of gray, but it was not an indifferent gray. It was a gray--and this was the art--composed of particles of absolute blackness and absolute radiance in an infinite variety of proportions.
Over and over, the speakers recalled Levi's juxtaposed contrasts, and the life of his details. Luigi Ballerini, organizer of the meeting, spoke of the writer's "measure, restraint and clarity." In the camps, he quoted, "One died of shoes." Levi's Nazi boss in the Auschwitz chemical works got him some leather shoes to replace his wooden clogs.
Clogs chafed the feet, Levi wrote; the chafing became infected, and in the camps, an infected foot meant liquidation. Levi's life was saved by a man who ignored what was happening to human beings 200 yards away, but didn't want suffering in the same room. And how close that brings an Auschwitz to our lives here and now!
The poet M. L. Rosenthal recalled another of Levi's details. In the Italian camp where the Jews were held, there was no school the day before the train left for Auschwitz. The mothers stayed up late that night, washing so that the children would have clean clothes for the trip. At dawn, the barbed wire was draped with laundry drying. Has any pure scene of horror evoked the horror as vividly as this gentle touch?
Levi's radiance was his conspicuous novelty. Man would prevail. Less conspicuous was the opposite message: Man would also succumb. Darkness and despair were as much an observable phenomenon as valor and buoyancy. And much of Levi's writing reflected it. What keeps his work in glittering and precarious balance is his refusal to choose; to declare either one a winner.