Primo Redux

by jkatejohnston

23 March 2016

Dear Max,

Petey chewed up a paperback copy of The Drowned and the Saved. I picked up the scattered drooled-on pages and asked him if he was a holocaust denier. He looked guilty.

I’d been reading Conversations with Primo Levi, from the library (Pete left that one alone—good dog!) and I realized that the interviews took place around the same Levi was writing The Drowned and the Saved. So I got out The Drowned and the Saved and started reading that again. And then Pete read it while I was gone, and here we are. Luckily, I’d already typed out the long quotations from both books that I wanted to write about, or maybe just type. I like to run good writing through my fingers sometimes.

Camon [the interviewer]: You felt the language barrier very much I see.

Levi: Very much. Because I’m a talker. If you stop up my mouth, I die. And there they stopped up my mouth.

Camon: And the others, how did they feel it?

Levi: The others died. Even if they didn’t realize that that was why they were dying.

Camon: So not being able to communicate by speech was fatal?

Levi: It was physically fatal. They had the feeling they were dying of cold or hunger, and there was that too, of course, but the primary cause was the linguistic isolation. If you look at the statistics, the Jews of Central Europe, Jews who spoke German, survived in at least ten times greater proportion than we did. (Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, Marlboro Press, 47-48.)

From The Drowned and the Saved:

This “not being talked to” had rapid and devastating effects. To those who do not talk to you, or address you in screams that seem inarticulate to you, you do not dare speak. If you are fortunate enough to have next to you someone with whom you have a language in common, good for you, you’ll be able to exchange your impressions, seek counsel, let off steam, confide in him; if you don’t find anyone, your tongue dries up in a few days, and your thought with it.

Besides, on the immediate plane, you do not understand orders and prohibitions, do not decipher instructions, some futile and absurd, others fundamental. In short, you find yourself in a void, and you understand at your expense that communication generates information and that without information you cannot live. The greater part of the prisoners who did not understand German—that is, almost all the Italians—died during the first ten to fifteen days after their arrival: at first glance, from hunger, cold, fatigue, and disease; but after a more attentive examination, due to insufficient information. (Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, Vintage, 93.)

The part I want to bring out—that I find most terrible and interesting—is, “If you stop up my mouth, I die. And there they stopped up my mouth.” And “your tongue dries up in a few days, and your thought with it.” Just the terrible effect of being silenced. It makes you think about what writing meant to him. His un-silence. It saved him.

There’s another part in the Conversations that’s unlike anything I remember in Levi’s other books:

“If you’ve seen films at the cinema or on TV of Hitler’s speeches to the crowd, you’ve witnessed a tremendous spectacle. A mutual induction was formed, as between a cloud charged with electricity and the earth. It was an exchange of lightning bolts.” (16-17.)

Wow. I like the way his training as a chemist comes into that. And then the unbelievable and accurate image—an exchange of lightning bolts.

I’m still reading Chekov stories and still liking them, but also feels a bit like self improvement. Isn’t that terrible? My favorite kind of reading is the kind you can’t help. And I can’t help going back to Primo Levi.

25 March 2015

Dear Max,

I read in the paper (a real paper that Teresa brought home, delicious) about the UC Regents and their chickenshit speech code. The article was mostly about how the code equates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and of course a lot of people don’t like that, and they’re right. But everyone seems to agree that a speech code is an okay thing to have as long as the list of things that can’t be said has all the right people on it and none of the wrong ones.

Good God! I feel like I should know more about this, as a UC alum and a lawyer. I thought hate speech was protected speech. Does the First Amendment somehow not apply to the UC system? I thought schools were supposed to be places where speech was extra-protected. (Academic freedom. What a joke. It doesn’t exist.)

But as wrong-headed as the code is, it still seems more silly than dangerous. Primo Levi wrote about what it means to be truly silenced. I doubt the Regents are willing to go that far. The speech code will eventually collapse under the weight of its own absurdity, probably when the Regents try to add themselves to the long list of people you can’t say bad things about.