Man Demolishing Man

Clearly,  Levi needs to exorcise his guilt through his dire need to tell and re-tell his ‘ghastly tale’.  This urgency in fact recalls the protagonist in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, who is doomed to keep repeating the story of a terrible sea voyage that went fatally wrong after he had been goaded on to shoot an albatross to prove his macho.  The echo of Coleridge is no coincidence. Literati will also recognize that the first line of the poem manifests the use of intertextuality since it is an Italian translation of a verse in Coleridge’s poem. Its significance is emphasised by noting Levi’s need to express himself in his own language which the translators sensitively left in the original while translating it in the second line.

Levi makes use of powerful negative adjectives such as: ‘tinged with death’, ‘uneasy’ and ‘pale’.  The first stanza in The Survivor is voiced in the first person, which underlines Levi’s personal agony.  But it also provides a contrast to the third person used throughout the first half of the second stanza.  The shift in narrative voice is thus pre-empted by the agony of surviving Auschwitz for Levi cannot get himself speak in the first person all the time.

Levi’s idiosyncratic detached voice (which also infuses If This Is A Man) points to the caginess of people born in Torino and its vicinity. More significantly, it expresses a remarkable lack of self-pity despite the searing pain exacerbated by guilty survival rendering his sparse and precise diction even more poignant because it reverberates the brutalization of both perpetrator and victim of brutality. This explains why Levi would later reiterate that the ‘worst’ rather than the ‘fittest’ survived the extermination camps.

This same indirect narrative voice in The Survivor also ties in with the indistinct, unidentifiable faces of Jews who have been exterminated beyond trace. The nightmarish quality of Levi’s haunting dreams is clearly conveyed through the adjectives describing “his companion’s faces” as they resurface in the ‘uncertain hour’ – “nebulous in the mist” and “Livid in the first faint light”.  Their grey colour is the colour of death, in Levi’s mind rendered infinitely more harrowing by the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust.

The entire scene is depressing with heavy, dull words like: ‘burden’, ‘death’ and ‘uneasy’.  Worse still he is vividly seeing them as “submerged people” – submerged because they are overcome by abject starvation, humiliation, and a horrifying death.  “Submerged” also indicates the cruelty of the ultra-refined psychological warfare underlining the Auschwitz strategy, based upon brain-washing victims into believing that they are no better than sewer rats and therefore they deserve to suffer.

Levi’s haunting memories of the indescribable trauma he survived reaches a feverish pitch in the second stanza, which opens with a long rambling verse that in turn gives way to a series of short and stark verses.  Levi’s use of punctuation in fact creates the staccato rhythm of his haunted dreams that make him re-live and re-live the Auschwitz experience.  Thus the “heavy burden of their dreams” refers to both past and present suffering – am incurable suffering on the loop.

Significantly, the agonizing tone and suggestive use of punctuation indicate a mesh of past and present.  Indeed, the cinematic quality of the shift of time brings to mind cinema’s voice over and fade-in techniques which essentially strive to reflect and reenact the workings of the mind.

Levi’s shifting from past to present is important to note because it ties in and reinforces the tormented voice as well as the ghastly atmosphere of The Survivor. The passage of time also links up with the shift in narrative voice.  In fact, in the second half of the second stanza, Levi goes back to the first person because he is screaming out his own delirious plea to be left in peace.  (Note quotation marks).  But the haunting faces will not go away and his tormented cries startle us with his guilt complex:

No one died in my place.  No one.

It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,

Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.

The reference to ordinary, everyday existence is definitely worth noting because in The Survivor, the most ordinary, mundane actions drive home the intense guilt of Levi’s survival. The reader is made to feel his torture as he reaches out to an audience that in the poet’s mind cannot understand his feelings of guilt, and yet must be lashed out in an attempt to make sense of his incurably traumatised life.

Seventy-five years after the end of WW2, images of the Nazi concentration camps are as unnerving and gut-wrenching as ever. As a war poem, The Survivor does not make us ponder on the heroism and suffering of soldiers because it is a harrowing wail of victims of ethnic cleansing. This poem helps us to remember the anguished cry of Holocaust victims and survivors which should never be silenced.

What should also never be stifled or smothered is asking how and why people can be/become so vicious. Ever insightful, Levi knew that to describe the depth and scale of sheer evil as monstrous is far too superficial an understanding of man’s descent into brutality: ‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’

Perhaps the most burning question is how can the existence of evil render the existence of God possible, more so if we believe that God is goodness? That traumatic experiences lead to a paralysis and/or negation of faith is more than understandable. Perhaps there is no problem if there is no God.

Our finite and limited minds ever at the mercy of emotional sway rather than reason and revelation can never comprehend the problem of evil, a reflection that is pertinent to all of us whether we are believers or not, whether we are seeking to believe or not. But the impossibility to grasp malice does not exonerate our propensity, our collusion or our apathy towards evil.

Do we need a religion’s dogma to recognise evil for what it is?

What are we willing to do in the face of evil?


Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. A fascinating read Noemi. I am reminded of The Painted Bird, a controversial novel by Jerzy Kosinski. It is a first-hand account of a child who gets separated from his parents in WWII. His journey is both tragic and grim, it captures just a small fraction of what is possible during wartime. That being said, the greatest atrocities are often those of the children caught in the middle – those who are either exterminated or unjustly destroyed by happenstance. Those who remain are often scarred by the twisted nightmares of what they witnessed or experienced. Humanity is never without war. At some point somewhere in the world, all throughout our checkered history, one tribe is throwing rocks at another. We teach our children that this is an acceptable part of our nature, but it isn’t. It never will be…

    • Thank you, Aaron, for your time and appreciation.

      Ongoing war shows that a good part of human history is the incessant unleashing of a beast at its most bestial with little thought given to its brutalising impact especially both young and old. Worse still, it is also in times of peace that we kill the innocence of children as we have daily proof.

    • Thank you, Larry, for your time and appreciation. That people, still question or negate the Holocaust while continuing to be totally blind to the genocides taking place before our very eyes, is beyond atrocious.

  2. Dear Noemi,

    You touch here a very important and sensitive point : how can people become the personification of evil ?
    As I read in another comment, unfortunately today we have to be very vigilant because dark forces do exist in our societies, and they have a bigger impact thanks to the wide audience that social media can offer …
    It is important to remember the Holocaust and the sacrifice of so many Jews in the name of ethnic cleansing as well as rereading Primo Levi’s book “Se questo è un uomo” to understand that man can become a monster if we are not careful, if we forget to fight for what is right and just , if we forget that every person in this world , whatever the color of his skin, whatever his ethnicity, whatever his beliefs, has a right to basic human dignity .

    • Manuela thank you ever so much for your time and especially for your very pertinent comments. Being vigilant is crucial because today’s dark forces are not merely thriving through the impact of social media, but also because both political and so-called educational systems have engendered generations of uncritical minds devoid of historical knowledge.

  3. Buonasera Noemi, non potevo non attendere un tuo articolo in questa settimana dedicata alla memoria dell’Olocausto. Raccapricciante capitolo della nostra storia che i realtà riaffiora ogni giorno nella memoria di ognuno di noi. Come rimanere indifferenti e come non batterci per debellare episodi antisemiti che ancora oggi, nel 2020 si susseguono. Bisogna intervenire subito per correggere, prevenire e punire certi comportamenti.
    Nelle parole di Primo Levi leggo quell’istinto di sopravvivenza, di autotutela, di auto-giustificazione dettati dall’orrore vissuto.
    Argomento, come tu sostieni, cupo ma necessario.

    • Grazie mille Gabriella per le tue valide riflessioni. È davvero un dovere morale ricordare uno dei capitoli più oscuri della nostra storia umana poiché non vi è alcuna garanzia che non accadrà mai più.

  4. Brava Noemi, i bimbi sono il futuro, non si toccano. Mai dovrebbero subire il male generato in ogni tempo ed in tanti luoghi, di certi si parla molto di altri meno. Mai nessuno dovrebbe essere privato della libertà fisica e di espressione e sempre si dovrebbe avere qualcosa da mngiare. Condivido Primo Levi che subiva vergogna e voglia di morire per non sopravvivere e vedere morire gli altri.
    Vorrei andare a vivere su un “claud cuckoo con te! Almeno vivremmo senza pensieri che altrimenti ci danno sofferenza.

    • Graze mille Massimo specialmente per i tuoi riflessioni. E’ ancora piu’ doloroso il modo in cui stiamo uccindendo l’innocenza dei bimbi nel mondo d’oggi quando dovremmo sapere meglio. Pero’, dobbiamo anche fare un gran sforzo di non perdere speranza

  5. Noemi, grazie per questo articolo… Mi sento solo di aggiungere come l’assurda ignoranza, vuoto interiore, assenza di se stessi o quale altra diavolo di cosa sia (e lo dico con una certa rabbia e disperazione) porti anche qui in Italia, proprio in questi giorni, episodi e atteggiamenti neonazisti nei confronti di altre persone, come sento anche in altre parti di Europa… e non è solo da adesso. Movimenti che evidenziano una crescita di questo “male”, come entità, che comunque sia, trova lo spazio, oggi forse in modo anche più subdolo … e sappiamo che non è solo un fenomeno a se stante, e neanche è solo attribuibile a questo genere di persone o pseudo movimenti politici.
    Sono convinto che quello che posso fare in primis di fronte a tutto questo è quello di cercare di vivere in me stesso, e con gli altri, quello che vorrei fosse per tutti, contrastando e abolendo ciò che in me può essere causa di ciò che non desidero. La prima cosa e forse la più importante è quella di impegnarmi a vincere me stesso ogni qualvolta (e a ben guardare così soventemente) che questo “me stesso” si presenta a me come il mio reale nemico, con quello che ho a disposizione… amare e voler migliorare per Amore… Che non è in quella forma banale, sdolcinata, patetica e tutto quello che ci posso ancora aggiungere… ma è inteso come quella forza che tutti abbiamo in noi… Che ha la potenza della vita in sé, in tutte le sue sfaccettature… Così potente che se ne viviamo un’impossibile assenza, rimaniamo prigionieri di noi stessi, facendo tacere tutto intorno a noi e dentro noi.
    Grazie Noemi

  6. Noemi, I enjoyed reading your article. You made mention of the Holocaust. Here in New York anti-Semitic attacks are at unprecedented levels in terms of severity and frequency. Synagogues are being vandalized and burned. All of these events point to the possibility (G-d willing however remote) it could happen again. G-d wanted to destroy the world when he saw how evil man was. G-d still sees evil. Not all of us are evil.

    • Joel, I am so pleased and relieved with your response because the last thing I wanted was to add sulphur to old wounds. At the same time, I firmly believe that we cannot remain silent in the face of pure evil. Your news about New York saddens me deeply for it echoes a similar pattern in Europe and also with the countless of Christians who are being persecuted in Africa and Asia with total impunity. I know that it is very hard, but I do take heart from the good people I meet and hear of. Thank you once again.

  7. Noemi, I recently read a piece, the abject and willful ignorance of which made me want to scream and cry. I won’t name the author of the piece or the medium in which it appeared. But I recalled it when I read this: “The impossibility to grasp malice does not exonerate our propensity, our collusion or our apathy towards evil.”

    It is neither pessimism nor fatalism to recognize the dark aspects of human nature — craving for power; murderous cruelty; objectification, demonizing and eradication of entire cultures and populations; on and on — that fall under the rubric of evil. We serve no one by burying our heads in Utopian sands.

    If peace on earth were possible, we’d have achieved it by now. But we will ensure more peace for more people if we accept reality and use it to create barriers, impediments, and other deterrents to our inherent propensities to abuse each other.

    Yours is a beautiful, powerful, and very necessary read. Thank you.

    • I can imagine your complete disgust at the wilful ignorance expressed in the piece your read.

      I would say that in today’s world our heads are likely to be buried in Dystopian sands though I am with you that ‘If peace on earth were possible, we’d have achieved it by now.’
      Logically, the creation of ‘barriers, impediments, and other deterrents’ to prevent pure evil makes sense. Yet again, human behaviour is neither spurred by not geared towards logic. If only we could all get into our hearts and heads that discussing ways to peace is perfectly futile unless we truly believe that peace is the way. Thank you, Mark, for your time, appreciation and most of all for your comments.

  8. Very touchy and disturbing evidences of unbelievable terror, mostly done on Jews.
    It is beyond comprehension of an ordinary human mind. Written with hardly hidden emotions, grief in the first place, and sufficient distance of the author who wanted to give us facts which we all should remember. Another great article of Ms Noemi.

    • The mind indeed boggles at man’s inhumanity to fellow man. And it is even more disturbing to see no end of it.
      Thank you ever so much, Nermin, for you time and reflections.