Recently I was asked to speak for a few minutes about a Jewish writer I believe should be better known. Primo Levi certainly is well known, but perhaps more known of than read, beyond, perhaps, Survival in Auschwitz, which maintains something of a life on high school and college curricula as a partner to, or substitute for, Elie Wiesel’s Night. (They are utterly not the same book. Nor the same kind of book. But they feel to teachers somehow like bookends.) In any case, Primo Levi wrote several other extraordinary books, the most powerful (and by far most formally experimental) of which is The Periodic Table. It is a modernist epic in prose. It has none of the immodesty of The Cantos or Ulysses or The Bridge or Paterson, but it seeks, through genocide and meditations on science pedagogy, to make a whole gigantic statement about what’s elemental of the meaning we make, and its parts, elements of a table that it itself a supreme fiction explaining the whole world, do not add up to a coherence but yet do embody the world. Readers of this commentary will have read my praise of this book before, so I will not dwell on it here. But I do happily present my 17-minute talk on the book. Because of the time constraint, I had to choose what to say about several parts that would be representative of the whole, so I concentrated on the final paragraphs of “Iron” (a chapter preceding Levi's stay at Auschwitz, which is reckoned in the chapter called “Cerium”) and the final paragraphs of “Carbon,” the last chapter of the book, and its most (shall we say) organic. Organic in theme and celebratory of the fictive present-tense-writing self in form. Here is that audio: MP3.
Over at the Tinfish Editor’s Blog, Susan Schultz takes time today to summarize her extended visit to the Kelly Writers House. Here is a link to the entire reflection. Here, below, is the first section of her piece, which I'm pleased to pass along for its insights into the question of possible relations between the way we think about genocide and the way we think about dementia. Sounds outlandish but it begins to make sense, in my view, when one approaches either as a problem of memory and witness.
[I've just returned from what I fondly called The Dementia Tour. The Kelly Writers House gigs had been planned for nearly a year; I’d thought going to Philadelphia would make it easier to visit my mother in Virginia. But as it happened, my reading at the Writers House included a farewell to the long project about my mother, which became, more importantly, a farewell to her. And so I gave a reading, did a public interview with Al Filreis, and recorded a PoemTalk with Al, Leonard Schwartz, and Tom Devaney on a poem, “Eating Fried Chicken,” by Linh Dinh. After going to see my Cardinals beat the Phillies (though Al and I only heard the game as it was ending on the car radio, streaming St. Louis announcers into the bowels of Philadelphia), and spending time with a college friend and a couple of UNO pals, I went on the West Virginia University to give a talk on Alzheimer's writing, meet with grad students, and see old graduate school friends.]
That's the inventory. But what actually happened?
Al Filreis began our conversation by noting that I have written about the Cambodian genocide, and he began to connect that content to the Alzheimer's writing I've done that offers a testimony of witness to my mother's decline. But we adopted our son from Cambodia! I told Al.
Our friend Hongly Khuy was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. He’s come to several of my classes to talk about his experiences. He traumatized that first class of freshmen, talking about what it's like nearly to starve to death, what it’s like to see a woman butchered to death for asking for more food (his laughter at the situation’s absurdity bothered the students most), how far one had to walk simply to get a few grains of rice. After a couple more such talks, he had grown much more gentle. He talked differently. Al distinguished between "deep memory" and "common memory." Deep memory occurs in the present tense, always. Common memory acquires a past tense verb, assumes a distance between the moment of trauma and the moment of story-telling. It's easier on the teller and his audience, but less “true” to the experience.
Daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, Debbie Fischer, asks her father, as he lies dying, to tell her the real story of his time at the death camp. He has refused to tell her much all these years, always giving a blandly positive response to life in the camp. Here is the audio recording of her testimony about his testimony: mp3. (See my Holocaust site for much more.)
I've long used the video archive of Holocaust testimony at Yale (housed in Sterling Library there in New Haven). For years a sampling of testimonies has been available for borrowing - first on VHS, then on DVD. Now the folks at Yale (Joanne Rudof and her staff) have made a selection of these testimonies available on YouTube. I urge readers of this commentary to watch Paul D. — to hear about his recurring dream; and Helen K. to hear about her brother dying “in mein arms” on the train to Treblinka; and the remarkable Menachem S., who passed as a non-Jewish street waif for years and literally didn’t recognize his parents when reunited with them in 1945.
You should watch all 30 minutes of Edith's testimony as a survivor of Auschwitz. But if you cannot watch the whole thing, at least for now, move the counter to 15:19 and listen/watch as Edith tries to "describe" Auschwitz in sum.