Writing & Suicide: A Note on Primo Levi and Jean Amery

One morning Primo Levi threw himself down a staircase. The year was1987 and the place was Torino in the house where Levi lived for his entire life with the exception of the year he spent in Auschwitz. January 27th is Holocaust Remembrance Day and as a way of remembering the day myself, I offer this excerpt from an unfinished manuscript I have writing on and off for some years on Primo Levi. The subject matter has proved to be too heavy for me to continue on a sustained path, and as such there are many faults with the manuscript. Yet, Levi’s ghost is always there, haunting me when I least expect it, or just when I think I have been able to move past the deep depression that always follows me once I spend some time writing about him. Nevertheless, his voice rises above the dead, and his heed for us to never forget what happened is powerful.

Maurice Blanchot in a section of his book, The Writing of the Disaster, places the intersection between writing and suicide into perspective. One of the fundamental points of that book is (perhaps following Derrida) that writing is not speech. Writing presents the world with an unalterable record, while speech, by its very nature, changes continuously. In a way, all of Levi’s writing may be considered a form of autobiography. I have argued in this chapter that Levi’s writing became a hubristic act that at first saved him from the incomprehensibility of the Lager and ultimately killed him through exhaustion. The notion of autobiography is central to any approach to Levi and his work. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot states, “To write one’s autobiography, in order either to confess or to engage in self-analysis, or in order to expose oneself, like a work of art, to the gaze of all, is perhaps to seek to survive (emphasis mine), but through a perpetual suicide—a death which is total inasmuch as fragmentary” (p.64). The hubristic nature of autobiography (the self-centeredness of attempting to describe) is also exhaustive in the sense that it functions to defer suicide. Every time the writer attempts to describe something through the agency of writing he or she is simultaneously revealing something of himself or herself. In this sense, writing (especially the autobiography as such) is a form of suicide. Blanchot goes on to state that “To write (of) oneself is to cease to be, in order to confide in a guest—the other, the reader—entrusting yourself to him who will henceforth have as an obligation, and indeed as a life, nothing but your existence” (p.64). Through his writing Levi shared himself with the world, and by the time The Drowned and the Saved was published he had nothing left to say; he had consumed himself (the metaphorical form of suicide) through his writing. Levi’s writing became not only a means of escape from and resistance to the two Lagers (Auschwitz, which was beyond his control, and his “home” life, which was of his own making) but also a means of deferral in regard to his suicide.
Ironically it is in The Drowned and the Saved that Levi offers an argument against suicide. In the chapter titled “The Intellectual in Auschwitz,” Levi explores Jean Amery’s suicide as an act of defiance which, Levi states, he himself has always been incapable of committing. Amery’s suicide was one in a series of “returned blows” directed toward the Nazis. In one particularly illuminating passage, Levi states:
A few years ago I learned, in a letter to our common friend Henry S., about whom I will speak later on, that Amery called me “the forgiver”. I consider this neither insult nor praise but imprecision. I am not inclined to forgive, I never forgave our enemies of that time, nor do I feel I can forgive their imitators in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, or South Africa, because I know no human act that can erase a crime; I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or return blows. (p.137)

Levi’s “rebuttal” to Amery is direct and to the point; he is a man incapable of physical violence. Amery chose to return the blow through the agency of his writing (indeed, a great deal of what resides in At the Mind’s Limits is a blow toward the Nazis and their sympathizers) and ultimately through his planned suicide. Amery’s suicide was an act of defiance. As such, he sacrificed himself so that the world could know that the pain of memory was too great to carry. I believe that Levi recognizes this in his chapter on Amery and is fundamentally disturbed by it. He is disturbed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he may recognize the despair in himself. Unlike Amery, Levi’s suicide was not an act of defiance; rather, it was an act carried out in the face of despair

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