Primo Levi

Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi

Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What motivated you to write the book?

Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.

Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?

It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy.

“In my experience, memoir writing is at its deepest level a rescue operation, a reclamation program to preserve fragments of the personal past from death-like oblivion. It is an effort at self-possession.”

In what ways do you think writing about death helps us to approach personal writing and memoir?

In my view, it is rather the inverse. Memoir writing, and memory in general, participate in a conscious or unconscious effort to retrieve and safeguard the evanescent moment. In my experience, memoir writing is at its deepest level a rescue operation, a reclamation program to preserve fragments of the personal past from death-like oblivion. It is an effort at self-possession. A line of T.S. Eliot comes to mind: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Where does the writing of Franz Kafka fit within the tradition you are describing?

Not only is Kafka’s work prophetic of totalitarian death camps (In the Penal Colony), but his writings are permeated throughout by a keen sense of of the fragile, tenuous quality of all life. In his masterfully ironic and enigmatic corpus, the most profound irony and enigma appear in the paradoxical relation between suicidal impulses and the dark humor of a persistent appetite for life.

In what ways do you think modernist writing, such as the novels of Virginia Woolf, approaches the issue of death and mortality?

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

Behind Virginia Woolf’s modernist experimentation (decentering of fictional structure, endless flux), and the poetic prose communicating the vibrations of an exquisite sensibility, there appear steady undercurrents of feared violence related in part to the collective memory of World War I. Long before her suicide at the time of England’s darkest hour during the Second World War, the writings of Woolf resorted to belligerent images and metaphors. Death is an obsession and a fascination, especially suicide. This is obvious in Mrs. Dalloway, where Septimus, suffering from delayed shell shock, throws himself to his death, and the protagonist self-indulgently imagines his last seconds of consciousness, envying this suicide. Elegiac tones correspond to Woolf’s deliberate use of the word “elegy” to describe her fiction. Writing itself is see by her all at once as a defiance of death and as expressing the fear of imminent collective destruction. One can hear Mrs. Ramsey’s lament in To the Lighthouse: “It will end. It will end.”

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937).
Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937).

How does the Second World War shape contemporary ideas about death?

I can only speak about my own experience. My pacifist parents made me read Erich Maria Remarque, Henri Barbusse. Roland Dorgelès — books about the trench-war horrors of the Great War, the atrocious conditions under which soldiers fought and died for four full years. And then, close to my personal experience, in yet another war, devastation from the sky, the aerial bombardment of civilian populations, the destruction of entire cities (Coventry, Dresden), and finally the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima. All of this (Picasso’s Guernica was a warning) meant that civilization itself was threatened, confirming Paul Valéry’s terse remark that we have learned that even civilizations are mortal.

Could you say a little bit about the significance that language plays in the writers you discuss?

The writers I discuss have recourse to a great variety of recurrent images, metaphors, and motifs that betray their at times not so obvious meanings. Tolstoy, concerned with time running out, makes use from the outset of a posthumous perspective, insistent images of physical and moral laws, details of terminal illness, the appearance of light from below — a metaphoric texture that leads up to the epiphanic language asserting victory over death and over the vanitas of earthly ambitions. One is reminded of John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud.”

Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann

In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann resorts to mythological images of the abyss in order to evoke an individual’s forbidden passion. But in reality, mythological figures and verbal figurations, as well as metaphors of demonic powers and epidemic disease invading the decaying city point to a more generally lethal European crisis. In  Doctor Faustus the destructive course of Europe is seen as an apocalyptic pact with the Devil.

The language of Kafka, who was even more haunted by annihilating calamities, is on the surface more subdued. His rhetoric is flat, almost bureaucratically reserved — but the very flatness brings out even more sharply the weird, uncanny, and understated horrors he evokes.  A self-willed death-in-life seems to preside over his dark humor. Parodies of religious imagery suggest that the only salvation is in death. Yet Kafka’s negative absolute remains attached to the trivialities of existence.

With Virginia Woolf, the verbal images underlying the delicate complexities of interpersonal relations reveal themselves as surprisingly violent: the crushing of a dying mackerel, blood-stained tennis shoes,  a snake seen swallowing a toad, London lamp posts pointing up to the sky like “burning bayonets.” Church bells in the city seem to be tolling for the dead, while throughout To the Lighthouse the reader, spellbound by painterly effects, can almost hear the mourning knell of the sea.

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

Albert Camus’s prose is more subdued, though suffused with whiffs of lyricism. But his metaphors (the lethal plague, the murdering stranger, Sisyphus condemned for all eternity to pushing a heavy rock uphill, the repeated motif of judgment and capital punishment), while referring to the destructive forces of nature and ideologies, nonetheless proclaim attachment to life. This paradox is typically communicated  through oxymoronic structures linking love of life to despair.

The omnipresence of burial grounds and dominant images of gravestone inscriptions (real or missing) underscore Giorgio Bassani’s themes of death, loss, and memory. Ostracism leading to death camps crematoria is characteristically suggested through an indirect collective discourse that denounces public opinion as complicitous with totalitarian persecutions. (The language of J.M. Coetzee is by contrast far more aggressive, relying on a terminology of shame, repulsion cruelty — even rape and torture — to evoke a world of massacres.)

The case of Primo Levi is quite special. His willfully dispassionate, objective, quasi-scientific language to  describe the experience of Auschwitz and the stark ordinariness of atrocity stresses his passion for objectivity, his faith in clear communication, in the redemptive virtues of a discriminating discourse, as well as his insistence on what he calls the “gray zone,” which is the context of most human situations.

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.
Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.

In your chapter on Primo Levi, you begin by discussing the significance of Dante to his work. Could you say a little bit more about that?

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

The reference to Dante’s canto 26 of Inferno is crucial. Giving Italian lessons to a fellow inmate in Auschwitz, Primo Levi had recourse to memory of specific lines of the poem. This shoring up of literary fragments against oblivion in the midst of the extermination camp horrors represents a form of survival, a transcultural and transtemporal message of hope in civilization and culture. It is a distinctly humanistic message that corresponds to the lesson in human dignity that Dante’s Ulysses imparts to his men as he reminds them that human beings are not to live like animals, but are here to pursue virtue and excellence.

Your readings take account of literary, philosophical, and religious texts. In what ways do you think the act of writing itself is concerned with issues of mortality?

What illustrates the enigmatic relation between literature and mortality more powerfully than Kafka’s monstrous writing machine (In the Penal Colony) –the apparatus for torture and and death printing the sentence and letter of the law into the flesh of the condemned man? Virginia Woolf is quite explicit about the underlying connivence between literature and death. And Giorgio Bassani repeatedly affirmed that the poet, endowed with an already posthumous vision, always brings back a message from the world of the dead. A still broader metaphor is provided in One Thousand and One Nights. It is Scheherazade’s skill at spinning narratives night after night that delays her execution. Thus the relation between literature and death also marks a victory. Malraux put it most tellingly when he suggested that all art is concerned with negating our nothingness.

“Upon landing with an armored division in Normandy, I spent the first night on a bluff above Omaha Beach, stretched out on the ground, when we were strafed by a plane. By anticipation, I could already feel the bullets riddling my back, as I lay face down, with my fingers digging into the damp earth. At that  moment I made a promise to myself: if I survived, I would never complain, would always take pleasure in life, and give pleasure to others.”

How can reflecting or meditating on death help us rethink life and lived experience?

I can only respond in very personal terms. Upon landing with an armored division in Normandy, I spent the first night on a bluff above Omaha Beach, stretched out on the ground, when we were strafed by a plane. By anticipation, I could already feel the bullets riddling my back, as I lay face down, with my fingers digging into the damp earth. At that  moment I made a promise to myself: if I survived, I would never complain, would always take pleasure in life, and give pleasure to others. Did I always remember this promise? At any rate, I began to conceive of survival as a form of convalescence, that state known to every child when, even after a short illness, the simplest sensations are exquisitely pleasurable: the taste of a fruit, the caress of a breeze as one is allowed outdoors again. I choose to believe that the memory of that moment and of that promise to myself is somehow related to what turned out to be my professional satisfactions as a teacher — the joy of communicating (and communing in) the love of great literature which always is on the side of life.

Musings on Mortality is available from University of Chicago Press.


About the Author

Victor Brombert is the Henry Putnam University Professor Emeritus of Romance and Comparative Literatures at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830–1980, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and the wartime memoir Trains of Thought.

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