There is this incredibly beautiful chapter, The Canto of Ulysses, in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. In it Levi attempts to teach Italian to a fellow inmate, Jean, on the hour long walk to the kitchens. Levi writes:
I would be pleased to teach him Italian: why not try? We can do it. Why not immediately, one thing is a good as another, the important thing is not to lose time, not to waste this hour.
He starts the lesson with the twenty-sixth Canto of Dante’s Inferno which describes the eighth circle of hell where the counsellors of fraud are kept. In this verse Ulysses, infamous for his smooth talking ways, tells the story of his last voyage. Levi writes:
Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour.
Levi is determined to not only remember Dante’s lines but to teach Jean the words. He is tormented that he can only bring forth bits and pieces. Several stanzas, however, remain intact and he recites Ulysses’ inspirational speech that ultimately pushes his men onward to their death:
“Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.”
As if I also was hearing for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am… [Jean] begs me to repeat it. How good [Jean] is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message…
I would give today’s soup to know how to connect … the last lines [together]… [but] it is late, we have reached the kitchen, I must finish:
“And three times round we went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.”
I keep [Jean] back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this “as pleased Another” before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today …
We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. “Kraut und Ruben? Kraut und Ruben? The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: Choux et navets. Kaposzta es repak.
Levi’s chapter ends here at the soup kitchen with the last line of Dante’s Canto—the last line spoken by Ulysses:
“And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.”
Levi speaks to me on a level I find hard to express. His writing is strikingly poignant and so utterly defiant—that in the face of such deprivation and brutal savagery, humans can count on the power of words to get them through another day, perhaps only an hour … even a second.
I have never faced the degradation and humiliation that Levi and others in the concentration camps suffered. I have never had to fear death at every moment or to feel continued powerlessness, hunger, fatigue and defeat. But I have known the power of words and felt uplifted by them. They have reached deep within me, a reassurance that I am not alone.
I will write more on this but Levi’s urgency, the force that urged him to teach Jean the words of Dante, is contagious. I find I need to get this out tonight in whatever state.