Did Primo Levi’s Suicide Undermine the Message of His Books?

Sept. 24 2015

So asks Adam Kirsch, reflecting on a new and complete English-language edition of the renowned Holocaust memoirist’s works. He writes:

[F]rom his first book to his last, Primo Levi’s subject was not death but survival, not the triumph of evil but the defiance of evil. He was a man who lived through Auschwitz and emerged a humanist. This made him, for many readers—and especially many American Jews, who shared with this Italian Jew an assimilated and irreligious upbringing—one of the heroic spirits of the 20th century. Like George Orwell or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi’s name stood for the survival of humane values in the face of overwhelming violence. This made his eventual suicide a particularly dark and dispiriting act, as though he were saying that even he could not find a way to live in a world where Auschwitz was possible. Indeed, in his work, Levi had taken pains to distance himself from the idea of suicide as a response to the Holocaust. . . .

But Levi was far too honest and perspicuous to claim that skilled hands and a ready brain were, in themselves, able to overcome evil, or to get anyone through [Auschwitz]. Rather, Levi’s survival depended on a whole series of factors that were out of his or anyone’s control. . . . [H]e lived for such a concatenation of unreasonable reasons as to amount to chance. And no human ethic is more powerful than chance.

There are, then, two ways of reading Levi’s life and work. It can be the hopeful story of a man who survives the worst imaginable torture and manages to find meaning, purpose, and happiness in life. Or else, it can be a story of a man who accidentally escapes death and is so haunted by the moral nullity of survival that, decades later, he takes his own life out of guilt or despair. So much is at stake in our analysis of Levi’s death that it comes as a strange kind of relief to hear that, in the view of some observers . . . his fatal fall was not suicide at all, but an accident.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Arts & Culture, Auschwitz, Holocaust, Humanism, Literature, Primo Levi, sui

In the Aftermath of a Deadly Attack, President Sisi Should Visit Israel

On June 3, an Egyptian policeman crossed the border into Israel and killed three soldiers. Jonathan Schanzer and Natalie Ecanow urge President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respond by visiting the Jewish state as a show of goodwill:

Such a dramatic gesture is not without precedent: in 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the “Isle of Peace,” a parcel of farmland previously under Israeli jurisdiction that Jordan leased back to Israel as part of the Oslo peace process. In a remarkable display of humanity, King Hussein of Jordan, who had only three years earlier signed a peace agreement with Israel, traveled to the Jewish state to mourn with the families of the seven girls who died in the massacre.

That massacre unfolded as a diplomatic cold front descended on Jerusalem and Amman. . . . Yet a week later, Hussein flipped the script. “I feel as if I have lost a child of my own,” Hussein lamented. He told the parents of one of the victims that the tragedy “affects us all as members of one family.”

While security cooperation [between Cairo and Jerusalem] remains strong, the bilateral relationship is still rather frosty outside the military domain. True normalization between the two nations is elusive. A survey in 2021 found that only 8 percent of Egyptians support “business or sports contacts” with Israel. With a visit to Israel, Sisi can move beyond the cold pragmatism that largely defines Egyptian-Israeli relations and recast himself as a world figure ready to embrace his diplomatic partners as human beings. At a personal level, the Egyptian leader can win international acclaim for such a move rather than criticism for his country’s poor human-rights record.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: General Sisi, Israeli Security, Jordan