In thinking about the attacks in Paris and Beirut–among other places, we can express anger, revenge, or frustration. We can also redouble ourselves onto the weightier questions. What motivates Daesh to organize and carry out these attacks? What is their perspective? And even better: What does it mean to be human?
Primo Levi stands as an important figure: Holocaust survivor and writer who has been widely read across Italy. His works are used across disciplines to teach Jewish and Holocaust studies, and warrants a refresh as we think about the nature of evil:
Toward the end of If This Is a Man (whose very title, Se questo è un uomo, offers the conditional clause of a question that remains open), Levi befriends Jean, an Alsatian student who serves as errand boy in the Auschwitz chemical unit on which Levi toils. Hoping to teach his French-speaking friend some Italian, Levi recites from memory, and imperfectly, a passage from Dante’s Commedia, from Canto XXVI of The Inferno. Ulysses, who is, like Levi and Jean, suffering the torments of hell, explains how he roused his fellow mariners to undertake the transgressive journey that would damn them all:
“Consider well the seed that gave you birth:/ you were not made to live your lives as brutes,/ but to be followers of worth and knowledge.”
As he recites those lines, amid the misery and horror of a human abattoir, Levi himself is moved, he explains, “as if I, too, were hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” He would survive to be a follower of worth and knowledge.
He lived with the brutality of Auschwitz, with shame and inner turmoil., believing that “people have a responsibility to each other as well as to other living things”. In a Paris Review interview, Levi reflected on his writing and life, demonstrating himself as a master of the “understated”:
Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.