Page 40 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Lowin
32
believes that it is possible to ascertain the source of the dichotomy.
She describes Levi as an esthete who is “more at home in Dante
and Homer than in the Bible.”This description does more than ex­
press the critic’s uneasiness with Levi’s novel. It points to a prob­
lem in Jewish writing generally and in the writing of an author like
Levi specifically. The question may be formulated in the following
manner: How are we to approach an author whose work derives
from, is inspired by, and gets its nourishment from two equally
compelling traditions, in this case the Jewish and the Italian, both
of which are at the same time particular and universal?
Survival in Auschwitz
is persuasively instructive in this matter,
and provides a case for study. One of the more important lessons
Levi learned during his Auschwitz experience was that it was both
possible and necessary to maintain one’s dignity in the face of the
Germans’ effort to humiliate and degrade their Jewish captives.
Levi’s book is an inquiry into a further question. If one is rich
enough to possess two traditions, to which one does one turn in or­
der to derive one’s values?
Levi artfully sets the scene. He has just described how he had
been treated as a human rag by one of his concentration camp tor­
mentors, who took the liberty of cleaning his hands on Primo’s
person. Robbed of his dignity, Levi is at the bottom of the pit of
despair. The scene changes brusquely, and, with no other transi­
tion, the intellectual in Levi, the former student in Italy, begins to
recall his schoolboy learning of Dante’s
Divine Comedy.
He offers
to teach a colleague about Vergil and Beatrice, about the grada­
tions of Dante’s Hell. By a process of free association, he comes
upon the peculiarly apposite canto in the “Inferno” in which Ul­
ysses urges his men not to abuse their genius by perverting it to
wiles and stratagems. Particularly appropriate is the following ter­
cet:
Consider your heritage
You were not made to live like beasts
But to seek both virtue and knowledge.
Dante. The Inferno. Canto XXVI, verses 1 1 9 - 1 2 1 .
(My translation).