August 07

Review: A Restless Anthropologist: Primo Levi’s “A Tranquil Star”

Jacob Howland

Primo Levi
A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories
Norton, 2007.

Over food and wine in a mountain hut, an anonymous narrator recounts a daring Alpine adventure into which he was drawn by his deceased friend Carlo, a man who is “not the kind you tell stories about” because “he’s all in his actions.” Having turned himself “into a character” by writing his autobiography, Antonio lives in a fantastic park amongst others who have been granted a share of immortality in literature. He gradually fades away, disappearing altogether once “the memory of him was extinct and his testimony complete.”

These images from Primo Levi’s recently published collection A Tranquil Star – like those in his major reflections on the Nazi death camps, Survival in Auschwitz (first published in 1947 and revised in 1958 under the title If This is a Man) and The Drowned and the Saved (1986) – portray a preoccupation with memory, communication, and meaning.

Levi’s literary and moral imagination was formed by the foundational narratives of the Bible and the epics of Homer, and he frequently makes use of the basic image of chaos common to both the Greeks and the Hebrews – the sea. In ordinary life, Levi writes in Survival in Auschwitz, the lot of the individual is tied to that of his neighbors, and the probability of “a shipwreck, of total inadequacy” is small. However, in the Lager – a generic name for the vast network of camps that constituted the Nazi univers concentrationnaire – “everyone is desperately and ferociously alone;” and “to sink” and finally to arrive at the bottom – death by starvation, disease, or selection – is thus “the easiest of matters.”

Levi knows from experience that in order f`or human life to be submerged in the welter and waste – the tohu vabohu or “chaos” of Genesis 1:2 – that “it is enough not to see, not to listen, not to act.” But his universe is “deserted and empty.” God is present only in spirit, and the burden of sustaining a space within which what is good and clean may grow and flourish is borne by man alone. God’s spirit is present just insofar as we think of Him, something we do because we are more than mere animals – and when we try to live up to this thought we are animated by the spirit of man. Yet when the spirit of man is absent or extinguished, as in the Lager, (or perhaps simply when one realizes that the spirit of man can be extinguished), then the thought of God – and of what must be done to hold back the “perilous water” – is crushing.

For Levi, narrative is the medium of memory. Antonio’s readers “remember” him only through his literary self-representation; hence the mountaineer remarks of Carlo, “nothing remains – nothing but, precisely, words.” Even Levi’s depiction of the activity of remembering is shaped by a primordial story about storytelling: the scene in the mountain hut, framed by references to “the gifts of the sea,” recalls the wine-warmed setting in which another stranger, a Homeric one, tells a Phaeacian audience of the harsh blows he has endured – the “bear meat,” in Levi’s words, that “taste[s] of being strong and free.” But what is ultimately remembered and communicated in the tales of A Tranquil Star is a set of reflections on the problem announced by the original title of Levi’s first book: What is man? For Levi is an anthropologist, and his primary tool is a sympathetic and literate imagination.

Levi’s own example – the “testimony” that keeps his memory alive most fully on display in his greatest work of non-fiction, Survival in Auschwitz – ultimately suggests an answer to his guiding question: man is the animal that attains humanity through the disciplined exercise of moral imagination. Imagination opens us up to the world, making us somehow both more and less than we would be without it. In the story “The Fugitive” a poem entitled “Annunciation” comes to Pasquale in a moment of shuddering inspiration. Pasquale regards the poem as “his thing, his property,” but the text sprouts tiny legs and runs away. At our best and worst, Levi proposes, we are but vessels overflowing with larger powers of beauty and violence.

In “Buffet Dinner,” Levi imagines himself into a kangaroo. “Between his front paws,” he writes delightfully, was “that triangle of white flesh that kangaroos are so proud of.” But his real subject is the strangeness of human beings: “He crouched in his corner, and to pass the time he began to observe the guests closely, trying to imagine how they would behave, men and women, if they were being chased by a dog.” The kangaroo recognizes that these people belong to a species of weak jumpers, “but you can never tell, maybe they were good at other things.” What sorts of things? “Knall” and “Gladiators” depict a world of novel weapons and blood sports, and “One Night” a disturbing vision of fathomless rage, suggesting that we are especially given to violence. “Censorship in Bitinia” and “Bureau of Vital Statistics” claim that we have a penchant for bureaucratic dehumanization; “The Sorcerers” and “The Molecule’s Defiance” that we are defective gods who risk being mastered by our own technological creations.

These are platitudes of twentieth-century literature, but Levi spices them with a vision of humanity as something precious and perhaps even sacred, a vision he expresses with humor reminiscent, at its best, of Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog.” “Censorship in Bitinia” describes a brutal totalitarian society in which it is discovered that working as a censor can lead to “serious psychological anomalies and perversions” – in short, “brain damage.” The solution is to give this job to chickens. The joke is that while chickens can’t really be censors, neither can human beings insofar as they are human, which is to say that biology alone does not make us who we are, or who we claim to be.

The star of the title story of A Tranquil Star seems tranquil only when viewed from many light-years away. In fact, it pulsates with “illness” and finally explodes. Memory, Aharon Appelfeld writes in The Story of a Life, is “overflowing and changing,” “a reservoir that doesn’t empty.” The sheer abundance (to say nothing of the moral imperative) of memory does not allow Levi to keep “civilian” life separate from the Lager. The univers concentrationnaire flows from the universe plain and simple, just as the former spills back into everyday life through the floodgates of recollection. For Levi, the tohu vabohu presses on all sides, and if being human involves reflectively opening oneself up to the wide world, then we all suffer in proportion to our humanity.



Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates' Philosophic Trial.