Tag Archives: If This is a Man

Intertextuality- The Myth of Sisyphus

28 Nov

While it may not be referenced literally in Primo Levi’s If this is a Man, the Myth of Sisyphus can highly relate to certain contexts of his novel. The myth itself, written by Albert Camus, is about a man condemned by the Greek gods to roll a rock up a mountain continuously, which they believed to be the most justifiable, effective form of punishment. Even at the few times Sisyphus actually made it up the mountain, the rock would merely tumble back down again, so the entire thing is meaningless, constant labor. This is where the obvious connection is made to Levi’s novel, as the author can assume the position of Sisyphus and the Gods represent the Nazis who sent Levi to his meaningless punishment. The life of a prisoner in the Lager (“Häftling”), as Levi vividly describes, is nothing but monotonous, brutal and constant labor. While at times, Levi is able to catch some respite, ultimately he ends up compensating for it by working even harder.

A certain excerpt from “The Canto of Ulysses” (chapter 11) appears to reference the myth of Sisyphus, even though it is one from Dante’s Inferno. Levi writes, “’…When at last hove up a mountain, grey with distance, and so lofty and so steep…” which obviously provides imagery of a mountain. Thus, it could be suggested that Levi is referring to the myth to metaphorically describe life in the Lager. Moreover, what appears to be one of the main messages from the myth, is the fact that Sisyphus began to accept his fate, or chose to be above it and despite being eternally doomed to a futile task, he still carries elements of life and humanity in him. While Levi knew his fate, or thought he did, he still survived and chose to continue with the “absurd” ways of the camp rather than take what I would imagine to be the easier way out: death. Levi, as well as the others who fell in the category of the “saved” did not let their fates crush them.

In chapter 9, “The Drowned and the Saved”, among the few stories Levi tells us of the “saved”, one of them contains similar elements to that of the Sisyphus myth, even if coincidentally. This is the story of Elias Lindzin, the one Levi describes as being invincible and resistant to the loftiness of the camp. What especially catches my attention is the concluding line to his story, as Levi writes, “Elias…was probably a happy person”(104). This sounds strikingly similar to the last line of Camus’s myth, as he says, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Camus was also a philosophical writer, and the myth of Sisyphus carries elements of absurdism, as he emphasizes the absurdity of the gods’ condemnation and refers to Sisyphus himself as the “absurd hero”. This again relates to the novel, as the concept of and life in the concentration camps were absurd, and as Levi explains, comprised of absurd laws. This is demonstrated when he writes the following, regarding the story of Elias, “His fame as an exceptional worker spread quite soon, and by the absurd law of the Lager, from then on he practically creased to work.”(103)

Statement of Intent

28 Nov

I have created a photo essay consisting of 5 very different photos on chapter 8 of our book, This Side of Good and Evil. My first photo was just a generalized photo. It is a piece of western propaganda during the war with the eyes and helmet of a Nazi soldier with the words “HE’S WATCHING YOU” in bold text at the bottom. This was chosen because it shows how Levi and the prisoners are being watched at all times and have no sense of privacy whatsoever. The second photo was of a puppet, tangled up within its strings. This portrays the SS Guards as the puppet master and being in complete control of the prisoners. I chose this photo over other images of puppets because this one was tangled up within its strings where it is constricted and cannot move freely, much like the prisoners within the camp. My third photo was of a pile of monopoly money. I used this because it represents the form of currency within the camps which could literally be anything ranging from shirts to gold teeth. I chose monopoly money because it represents how it is worthless outside the game of monopoly however within the game it is an essential piece. This correlates with the trade happening inside the camp with the trade of normally cheap or worthless goods, which are worth everything to the prisoners inside the camp. The fourth photo I chose was of an angry dentist pulling teeth from his patient. I chose this to represent both, how living in the camp was torture, like pulling teeth, and how the SS would end up taking the gold teeth from their victims when they were sent to the gas chambers. I chose this because it was fairly straightforward in relating to the chapter and also can depict an additional message as well. My fifth and final image was a screen shot of a classic video game Zero Wing on the Sega Mega Drive, which contained many poor translations from Japanese to English. The photo I chose is of one of the characters saying, “All your base are belong to us.” I chose this specifically because it shows how there is a broken communication between the guards and the prisoners. The bad English shows how they often are not understandable to each other. I chose the phrase “all your base are belong to us,” because it represents how the SS Guards own everything of the prisoners’. This is evident in the book on page 89 when it says, “the very gold of our teeth is their property, as sooner or later, torn from the mouths of the living or the dead, it ends up in their hands.” This shows how everything ends up in the hands of the SS therefore everything belongs to them. In conclusion I chose these photos all for a multitude of reasons and aimed at using them with multiple meanings therefore representing the chapter of the book to a fuller extent.

Textual Reference to the Bible

26 Nov

Not only Levi expresses his feelings and describes his situation through reference from the “The Divine Comedy” and the “Odyssey”. He also makes references from the Bible. He describes one of the characters by referring to the serpent from the Bible. The character he describes is Henri who is capable of surviving in Lager camp because of his intelligence and his ability to make friends with others in the camp. This is after the description of the characteristics of Henri similar to the serpent in Genesis at the end of the chapter: “….inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the Serpent in Genesis” (106). In the reference to the Bible, Henri is portrayed as the serpent or also known as the devil. He refers to him as a serpent because Henri is capable of deceiving the SS officers or soldiers and winning their trust. That’s similar to Devil’s characteristics. Henri can speak different languages fluently and easily communicate with SS officers or other people in the camp. One can compare Henri with the Devil because he knows every language of the world and can speak to anyone easily. He’s also considered as friendly and he can show sympathy for other people when they are sad or depressed. Everybody finds him communicative and affectionate. Again, it’s similar to the traits of the Devil. Devil can be seen as your best and closest friend, someone you can trust and someone who understands or sympathize with you to gain friendship and take advantage of you. Similarly, Henri is capable of doing what the Devil does. Therefore, he has numerous friends in Ka Be and has freedom to enter the camp whenever he wants. That also helps him to evade the extermination.

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.’”).

Textual Reference to Divine Comedy and Odyssey

25 Nov

Textual Reference to Divine Comedy and Odyssey

In chapter “Canto of Ulysses”, Levi refers to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, Inferno and makes connection with his journey to Lager camp while talking to Pikolo, the messenger and the cleaner. One of the references Levi mentioned from the “The Divine Comedy” was: “So on the open sea I set forth.” It refers to the journey to Lager camp. The open sea doesn’t have any limitations. It flows spontaneously and continuously. This refers to the situation Levi is going through. Levi and the prisoners will continue to suffer until they die and there will be no one to prevent the work and turmoil from happening.

He also refers to the “Canto of Ulysses” and the “Odyssey”. Levi talks about the journey of Ulysses and admits that he has done a terrible thing saying the story in prose: “….how sad, I have to tell it in prose- a sacrilege…….that none should prove so hardy to venture the uncharted distances”. This indicates that Levi is admitting that he didn’t tell the story accurately forgetting some of the lines from the “Divine Comedy”. The “uncharted distances” refers to the way to Lager camp when they were travelling inside a wagon. Levi hints at no matter how brave and courageous the person is, he/she will not be able to bear the pain and will be trapped inside the Lager camp forever.

There’s another reference to the “Divine Comedy” which is mentioned at the end of the chapter after Levi and Pikolo arrives in the kitchen and stand in a queue to get a bowl of soup, “And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.” The phrase refers to drowning of people which is similar to the title of chapter 9 which is “The Drowned and the Saved”. The phrase also indicates that if someone enters Lager camp, he/she will not get freedom. Instead, he/she will be exterminated.