Intertextuality- The Canto of Ulysses

26 Nov

        In Chapter 11 of Primo Levi’s If this is a Man, the author introduces intertextuality with reference to the following texts: The Divine Comedy and Homer’s Odyssey. The Canto of Ulysses (the 26th Canto) is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno, which is part of The Divine Comedy. Dante’s Inferno describes Dante’s journey down the circles of hell, guided by Virgil.  In Canto 26, Dante describes his encounter with Ulysses (otherwise known as “Odysseus” in Homer’s Odyssey) in hell. The story of Ulysses describes his long journey back home after the Trojan War. In the poem, Dante condemns Ulysses to the eighth circle (fraudulence), who won the Trojan War by means of deceit (with the Trojan Horse trick).
        The intertextuality is initiated due to Levi’s sudden desperate attempt to retain his humanity, as the texts represent Italian literature and Italian is his native language. Moreover, his intent of reciting the Canto is to send a message to Jean the Pikolo, who, despite his acquaintance with Levi, is still a prominent of the camp, part of its hierarchy. Thus, there is some peculiarity as to why Levi chose this piece of literature in particular to recite, especially in teaching what should be simple Italian. It appears that Levi is trying to urge Jean to hold on to as much of his humanity as possible, especially because, “…tomorrow he or I might be dead”. Thus, he implies that if they are to die, they should at least die as men. In the end, what was supposed to help Jean ended up being for Levi’s own good as well, as he wanted to remember his native language, a shred of his humanity. The reader can also grasp this when Levi writes, “Here, listen Pikolo…you have to understand, for my sake” (119).  Of course, trying to remember each of these excerpts proved to be a difficult, agonizing task for Levi, as his recitals were sketchy. This is because it required him to tap into memories of his past, memories of his humanity and home, when he was human.      
       The concept of Dante’s Inferno essentially describes the descent to hell, and this is where the most significant connection is made to Levi’s novel, as it describes what Levi states as being “on the bottom”. In other words, the Lager is to Levi as hell is to Dante. In the Lager, the prisoners are put through hell, enduring harsh labor, deprived of their needs and on the brink of death on a daily basis.
         In his testimony, Levi also portrays the loss of identity the prisoners of the Lager undergo, reduced to nothing but numbered slaves treated like dogs. This is where another excerpt of the Canto fits in, as in Ulysses’ speech, he says, “You weren’t born to live like brutes” (line 119), or the translated version in Levi’s novel, “Your mettle was not made; you were made men…”(119). This speech is intended to encourage the prisoners of the Lager, to ultimately defy the influence of the camp.
         The last line of the chapter, which is also recited from the canto, is also very profound, carrying a similar effect to that of a “stand-alone line” in a poem.  It is also in stark contrast to the emotion that seemed to be building up in Levi’s words up until this point, as he runs out of time to recite the canto, and consequently, relish his memories. It refers back to one of the previous chapters where Levi introduces the concept of the “drowned” and the “saved”. While it is obvious Levi was one of the “saved”, in this particular moment where he recites the line, he is implying that he, as well as the other prisoners (“’And over our heads…”), is one of the “drowned”, as the water envelops them (“’…seas closed up.’”).


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