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.
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