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A Dante Of Our Time

Primo Levi and Auschwitz

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Risa B. Sodi

This original and timely volume details the influence of Dante's Inferno on Primo Levi's classic Holocaust narrative, Se questo è uomo, and his last book of essays, I sommersi e i salvatie. Such key concepts as memory, justice, and the realm of the neutral sinners - «la zona grigia» for Levi - are given particular emphasis. Three questions form the backbone of the book: Can memory be overcome? Where is justice for the Holocaust survivor? and, Is there a middle ground between victim and oppressors, and how does Levi define it? Ample use of interviews with the author reveal how Levi relates these three questions to such contemporary figures as Sigmund Freud, Franz Stangl, Rudolf Höss, Jean Améry, Liliana Cavani, and Kurt Waldheim.

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3. Obliviscence and Reminiscence: Memory and the Memory of Offense 49

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CHAPTER III OBLIVISCENCE AND REMINISCENCE: MEMORY AND THE MEMORY OF OFFENSE Remember the days of old consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you. (Deut. 32:7) With the two words, obliviscence and reminiscence, Philip Boswood Ballard in 1903 undertook the sort of memory study that has largely prevailed since in the social sciences: memory as a physiological entity, a tool, a "muscle" to be tested and exercised. 1 Our approach here begins with this archaic title but will take off in a different direction: memory as knowledge, as justice, as giustiziere. Primo Levi begins his chapter on the "Memory of Offense" in I som- mersi e i salvati with the words, "La memoria umana e uno strumento meraviglioso rna fallace."2 Memory is, after all, a physiological function of nerves, blood vessels, oxygen and organic electricity. It is subject to the same wear and tear as any of our other organs: when exercised, like a 50 Memory and the Memory of Offense muscle, it remains vigorous. When neglected, it degenerates. Memory, however, is more than an organic function, much as a mind is more than a brain. Our memory is the repository of the sum of our life experiences. It is the crux of our personality, the crutch on which our future self rests. Without memory, there can be no progress of the human spirit, no pos- sibility that within a single lifetime, or a generation,...

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