Levi’s Auschwitz and Dante’s Hell
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- Portnoff, S. Soc (2009) 46: 76. doi:10.1007/s12115-008-9170-9
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On reading Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir If This is a Man, one is immediately struck by its literary quality, and especially its generous use of Dante’s Inferno, both of which point to the more general problem of Holocaust witnessing. This paper focuses on Levi’s reasons for using Dante’s poem in particular to communicate his experience. Levi’s choice of Inferno is pointed, not only because of the obvious trope of existence in Hell, but also because Levi conceived of Auschwitz as an experiment designed to destroy the “human,” created in part, at least in the West, by Dante’s poem. What I will be suggesting is that Levi emphasizes the distinctions between his and Dante’s experiences by including in his conversation with Dante’s Inferno (paradoxically) his rejection of that conversation. There may or may not be something “human” which persists after Auschwitz, and the only way to ask this question, without preconceiving an answer, is to dramatize silence. The resultant ambiguity urges readers to, as Levi puts it, “participate in” the events described and/or dramatized.