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L’alto mare aperto: Pikolo ha viaggiato per mare e sa cosa vuol dire, è quando l’orizzonte si chiude su se stesso, libero diritto e semplice, e non c’è ormai che odore di mare: dolci cose ferocemente lontane.
The high sea opens up new possibilities of connecting. This passage of the chapter follows a moment of solid and fixed textual memory. After managing the recitation of two terzine from Inferno 26 that initiate the encounter with Ulysses, Levi indicates his frustration at his inability to translate, but also points to Jean’s ability to connect from afar, from a cultural and linguistic remove. Then a gap in memory, a struggle to recall. Half phrases finally crystallise in a well-remembered line, ‘Ma misi me per l’alto mare aperto’ (Inf. 26, 110). This line first prompts Levi to play the role of teacher, explaining to Jean how ‘misi me’ is not the same as the French ‘je me mis,’ but rather something bolder. In doing so, in envisioning the liberatory potential of breaking a boundary, a chain, putting oneself beyond a barrier, Levi sees a precious and telling connection between himself and Pikolo: ‘noi conosciamo bene questo impulso’. There is a flattening of difference here, a forging of a bond between two men that stretches across the Mediterranean, across a linguistic and poetic divide. Levi is no longer explaining, translating, teaching; instead, they have found a connection in seeking to go beyond, to break out and be free.
Importantly, this oceanic connection privileges Jean’s experience over Primo’s technical knowledge. It is by no means the same as the disdain for intellectuals shown by Alex at the beginning of the chapter. Rather, this emphasis on Pikolo’s experience - ‘Pikolo ha viaggiato per mare e sa cosa vuol dire…’ - is a way to privilege what might be gained through the perspective of the cultural outsider. Jean has been on the sea; he apparently knows what Primo describes as that feeling of freedom when there is nothing left but the aroma of the ocean. Has Primo not had that? (Perhaps only in the pages of books, by Salgari, Conrad?) Is he thus able to have a wholly different, more potent experience of Inferno 26 as a result of this ‘non-native’ reading? Earlier in the chapter, the ‘leggero odore’ of paint and tar have - strangely, almost paradoxically - brought to Levi’s mind ‘qualche spiaggia estiva della mia infanzia’, but this is of another order. Primo’s experience seems to have been shore-bound; Jean has truly sailed.
Because Pikolo knows (and the use of ‘sapere’ is telling here, in contrast to the ‘canoscenza’ of Ulysses’ dictum to follow), Primo can convey with both precision and lyricism that mode of apprehension and feeling of emancipation: ‘è quando l’orizzonte si chiude su se stesso, libero diritto e semplice, e non c’è ormai che odore di mare’. He is envisioning and embodying the possibilities of freedom, of being unbound and certainly not being inundated by odours of a very different kind, such as the paint and tar evoked earlier. The image of the horizon closing in on itself stands in stark contrast to the end of both Dante’s Inferno 26 and the end of this chapter, when it is the sea that closes over Ulysses and his companions, and - by implication and association - over Primo and Jean once more as well. The use of the verb ‘rinchiudere’ in that final moment is also striking, almost as if to imply that there are moments such as this one that open out to the world at large but there is the inevitable return to the horror of the camp that once more closes over them. Here, though, the sea is freedom: it is a simple, straight line of the horizon that connects these individuals together in their desire to escape.
In that exquisite, bittersweet phrase ‘dolci cose ferocemente lontane,’ there is something not just Ulyssean (‘né dolcezza di figlio…’), not just hybrid (‘dulcis’ and ‘ferox’ together, which also resonates with the ‘viver come bruti’ to come), but also a channeling of Purgatorio. One might think in particular of the opening of Purgatorio 8: ‘Era già l’ora che volge il disio | ai navicanti e ’ntenerisce il core | lo dì c’han detto ai dolci amici addio…’. Here, too, the sweet memory of things left behind is made bitter by their absence and separation across the sea. Such a way of thinking Ulysses and the ocean voyage across the Commedia is almost a banality; it nonetheless serves to give us some impetus to thinking about Levi as a reader of not just Inferno, but of other parts of the poem as well.
And it serves to have us perhaps think about this powerful moment of Mediterranean connectivity a little differently, to take that insight of valorising Jean’s non-native perspective out to the world at large. In his 1990 work Poetics of Relation, Martinican philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant espouses Relation as a means to connect globally and valorise the multilingual, multicultural nature of the Caribbean as a model for global culture that is rhizomatic and not tied to a single, Western line of becoming. Glissant sees the Mediterranean as an enclosed sea, ‘a sea that concentrates’, while the Caribbean is ‘a sea that explodes the scattered lands into an arc. A sea that diffracts’. In this moment of SQ, I wonder if we might find the Caribbean model as one that resonates more with the Primo-Jean dynamic, as Jean’s experience of the open sea asks us to see Dante’s text as one that is not enclosed but rather must be opened up to the global reader. Indeed, Glissant himself characterises Dante’s Commedia as a work that is committed to cultural mixing, dwelling on how ‘one of the greatest monuments of Christian universalisation stresses the filiation shared by ancient myths and the new religion linking both to the creation of the world’. Perhaps this moment of connection, of seeing the liberatory possibilities in the open sea that beckons, is not just a way to palpably feel the strength of Primo and Jean’s new bond, but also to urge us as global readers to embrace the diffractive, rhizomatic potential of a decolonised Dante.
Levi’s ‘chissà’ suggests that the decision to discuss Dante’s ‘Canto di Ulisse’ during the walk with Jean was a matter of mere happenstance, or better still of fortune, to use a word that was dear to Levi and crucial to his conception of the Lager (Gordon 2010). ‘Who knows’ how and why the Inferno, and not another text, came to Levi in this pivotal moment of human connection amidst the inhumanity of Auschwitz?
To answer that question, we may wish to note that Dante’s Inferno similarly occurred to many others among the first witnesses to describe the horrors of the Lager. In an article published in the Socialist daily Avanti! in October 1945, Francisco Largo Caballero, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, recounted his ‘Ritorno dalla morte’ after being interned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which he described as ‘uno scenario da “Inferno” dantesco’. Writing in the same daily in July 1949, the French Resistance fighter turned member of Parliament Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier described her own internment in similar terms: ‘Auschwitz! Si è molto scritto sui campi della morte: quando ci eravamo ci pareva che solo un Dante avrebbe potuto descriverne l’orrore per coloro che non ci sono stati’. Umberto Consiglio, bearing witness to the enormity of Dachau for L’Èra Nuova in May 1946, argued that ‘[s]olo Dante, guidato dal suo alto ingegno e aiutato dalle Muse, potrebbe degnamente descrivere quello che è stato il martirio di migliaia e migliaia di esseri umani’, comparing his arrival in the camp to ‘il “lasciate ogni speranza” della porta dell’inferno dantesco’. In that same year, Aldo Pantozzi described Mauthausen as the brutal realisation of Dante’s vision: ‘La fantasia di Dante relegò nelle infernali viscere della terra tali scene: dovevano passare sei secoli di civiltà perché esse, dalle tenebre infernali, venissero trasferite alla luce del sole dalla barbarie nazista’ (Pantozzi 2002, 88). In Liana Millu’s 1947 Il fumo di Birkenau, she describes that infamous Polish camp as having ‘l’aria “senza tempo” descritta nel cerchio dantesco’, relates how during her imprisonment her thoughts became ‘un tormento quasi dantesco’, and recalls her struggle to call to mind, as she sought to make sense of her condition, ‘un canto dell’Inferno dove si parla di dannati che trasportano pietre’ (Millu 1947, 36, 139, 166). As Robert Gordon summarises the situation, in Italian accounts of the Shoah, ‘Dante’s Inferno is a familiar and recurrent reference point’ (Gordon 2010, 52).
Far from a random occurrence or even a fortunate intimation, therefore, Levi’s decision to deliver a Lectura Dantis while in confinement might best be understood as conforming to a recognisable cultural pattern. Consider that while Levi and Jean were discussing ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ in Auschwitz, more than five thousand miles away, the Italian prisoner of war Giuseppe Berto was offering his own interpretation of Dante to his fellow internees in Camp Hereford, Texas, where he was held from May 1943 to February 1946 (‘La “lectura Dantis” di Giuseppe Berto’, 286). Berto, who would go on to achieve literary acclaim with the publication of the novel Il cielo è rosso in 1950, had been captured in Africa, and the experience of military defeat, coinciding with the collapse of Mussolini’s regime, shattered his most deeply held convictions. Unlike many other Fascist true-believers, however, Berto refused to pass directly into the anti-Fascist camp, engaging instead in a continued confrontation with his former faith motivated by an agnosticism that he termed afascismo (Intellettuali per la libertà, 88).
That confrontation propels Berto’s Dante lectures, which he began to deliver in November 1943, but which were published for the first time only in 2015. If Levi focused on Inferno 26, Berto chose instead Inferno 5, the canto of Paolo and Francesca, with whom his current fate, cut off not only from his home but also from his previous ideals, inspired evident sympathy. It is not hard to recognise Berto himself in the description of Francesca’s ‘malinconia di cose belle perdute per sempre’ (461). Yet Berto appears to identify more with Dante the poet than with the sinners whom Dante pilgrim encounters during his voyage. Having witnessed first-hand, and with profound regret, the demise of Fascist Italy’s imperial ambitions in Africa, Berto presents a Dante
ancorato a quella sua medioevale concezione imperialistica, mentre l’impero e il potere teocratico dei papi erano ormai cose morte […]. E chi vi ha detto questo, vi ha anche spiegato come gran parte della grandezza morale di Dante abbia le sue origini appunto nella sua fede in ideali sorpassati. E questa interpretazione, ben che non possa del tutto convincerci, ci affascina per la sua novità, e sopra tutto perché molti di noi sappiamo quanto costi mantenere fede a quegli ideali che sembrano perduti (451).
With these words, Berto unmistakably addressed himself to all those Blackshirts whose honour rested on the refusal to forsake their ideals even when all seemed to be lost.
Primo Levi’s ideals are of course quite far from those promoted by Giuseppe Berto. Levi had been captured as an anti-Fascist partisan, Berto as a Fascist colonial soldier. Yet, just as Levi, interpreting Dante in Auschwitz, finds ‘forse il perché del nostro destino, del nostro essere qui oggi’, so too does Berto find that the Commedia speaks to his conflicted condition before the ‘pulpiti herefordiani’ (448). Ultimately, that condition appears to align Berto more closely with Levi than with Dante, whose unforgiving judgement of the sinners in Inferno clashes with more modern sensibilities. For Berto, ‘la poesia di Dante si rafforza e si esalta proprio dove i sentimenti umani raggiungono una vetta tale da superare i pregiudizi del poeta […]. Farinata, Ulisse, Brunetto Latini hanno un valore umano che sta al di sopra della religione e della morale’ (455-456). Does not this celebration of the sinners’ humanity echo, across a vast physical and ideological divide, the ‘così umano e necessario e pure inaspettato anacronismo’ that Levi discovers in his sympathetic identification with Dante’s Ulysses?
«misi me» non è «je me mis»
As in ‘Argon’ in Il sistema periodico, Levi here demonstrates a philologist’s interest in historical grammar. The grammatical difference that separates the marked ‘Ma misi me’ and its unmarked equivalent in Italian is not expressly stated (the French je me mis is the ordinary, unremarkable grammar, and hence can’t serve to illustrate it). Levi’s free indirect discourse here indicates how much store he put in this difference: he explains its effect in three different ways to Jean (as ‘audacious’, as a broken chain, as the other side of a barrier).
The expected fourteenth-century Italian syntax is Ma misimi. (It is unlikely to be Ma mi misi, as it would be today, because in old Italian ma frequently triggers the postposition of the pronoun). But Levi does not limit himself to describing impressionistically the effect of the marked grammar. Scientifically, he analyses the form of mettersi via comparison with other instances of the same lemma in the passage. Of si metta: ‘I had to come to the Lager to realise that it is the same expression as before’.
The difference between Ma misimi and Ma misi me is that the unaccented, enclitic pronoun mi has become the accented, separate word me. This completely changes the rhythm of the line: *Ma mísimi per l’álto máre apérto (accents on 2, 6 and 10) becomes Ma misi mé per l’álto máre etc. (with accents on 4, 6 and 10). A number of Commedia manuscripts, in fact, have misimi – another clue to precisely the ‘audacity’ that Levi detects in Dante’s rhythmical and grammatical usage here.
Dante’s me makes his reflexive pronoun mi into (almost) a transitive object – a distinct, real-existing entity, separate from the grammatical subject: ‘I’ act on a ‘me’, not just ‘myself’.
What Levi hears, via a kind of solecism, is a prominent, sticking-out me – ‘oggi mi sento da tanto’. This is a sense of self that grows – ‘Per un momento, ho dimenticato chi sono e dove sono’ – into almost an answer to his title’s question.
la luce del giorno ci giungeva soltanto attraverso il piccolo portello d’ingresso
The scant daylight that filters in from the small door and breaks the darkness of the underground gas tank does not simply penetrate the cold, damp, and suffocating enclosure in the author’s memory. It also infiltrates the second, revised edition of SQ, published by Einaudi in 1958. In its first version, which appeared eleven years earlier with De Silva, no daylight makes its way into the dark hole where Levi and his commando pretended to be working: ‘Eravamo in sei in una cisterna interrata, al buio. Non era uno dei lavori peggiori, perché nessuno ci controllava’ (OC I, 81; emphasis added). On closer inspection, the shift from complete darkness to twilight between the two versions can enrich our understanding of this chapter and, more broadly, of Levi’s art of testimony. Glossing another of the several details that Levi revised in his second edition of SQ, Marco Belpoliti explains that such ‘new’ elements simply show how Levi’s memory works ‘per affioramenti progressivi dei ricordi’ (OC I, 1453). The belated mention of the suffused light at the beginning of the 1958 version of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ may indeed constitute yet another example of Levi’s progressive recollection. Certainly, some light must have illuminated the tank for the prisoners to carry out their task. Yet, as Vittorio Montemaggi notes (2011, 53-73), while adding to the realism of the scene, this nuance is also charged with symbolic overtones. It fulfills, in other words, a literary function. Montemaggi argues that this image may intertextually invoke the concluding scene of Dante’s Inferno, when, through a small opening, Dante and Virgil leave Hell’s cave to find themselves on the shore that surrounds Mount Purgatory. From here they begin their upward journey on a beautiful sunny morning. Similarly, by climbing out of the opening of the tank, Levi and Pikolo experience the hopeful transition from darkness into light: they leave the cave to be greeted by a restorative sun and the beauty of the distant mountains. Thus, the soft light suffusing the subterranean prison heralds both the benign presence of the sun and the moment of hopeful reprieve the two protagonists are about to experience. Its appearance in the opening scenes of the chapter’s second edition, therefore, performs a symbolic function. (This is perhaps also the case with the modified qualifier that defines the task assigned to the commando. While in the first version, this was deemed merely ‘not the worst job’, in the second it becomes, in a more positive/sarcastic vein, a ‘luxury job’.) The intertextual allusions to Dante’s Ulysses and Purgatorio that are central to ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ are also introduced by another, more explicit, intertextual reference. At the end of the previous chapter, ‘Esame di chimica’, Levi compares Alex the Kapo with the devils of Dante’s Malebolge (OC I, 223), thus signalling his metaphorical reaching of the lowest part of Dante’s Hell, where fraud rules. In the following chapter, as we have seen, he climbs out, both physically and symbolically, from the concentration camp analogue of a Dantean bolgia. Before being once more submerged by the reality of the camp, in his dialogue with Pikolo, Levi catches a momentary glimpse of humanity’s greatness. Similarly, Dante’s encounter with Ulysses in Inferno 26 may be read as a momentary exception within the base world of Malebolge. (This appears to be Levi’s reading of the episode, as suggested by his footnotes to the school edition of SQ (OC I, 1417-18).) Levi even follows the order of Dante’s cantos, as the devils of Malebranche make their appearance in Inferno 21-23, while Ulysses occupies canto 26.) Likewise, the friendship between Levi and Pikolo constitutes a ‘flaw of form’ in the camp’s universe, where all human relationships are reified. At the heart of this exception is a moment of shared humanity, made possible by a successful act of communication through translation. The precondition of this success is, in Robert Gordon’s words, the two protagonists’ ‘reciprocal openness to the other’ (Gordon 2001, 230). For Gordon, moreover, the true hero of this chapter is Jean Pikolo, ‘an intuitive master of the art of listening’ (249), who obeys ‘the ethical imperative to listen’ (252). Levi further elaborates on this ethical imperative in two contiguous short stories from Lilít e altri racconti, written and published some years later, between 1975 and 1981. In ‘Lilít’ and ‘Un discepolo’, Levi reworks the same narrative situation and Dantean subtext of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, but inverts the characters’ roles and their symbolic movement outside the ‘infernal’ hole. The second story is especially relevant for appreciating the symbolic significance of Levi’s almost imperceptible reworking of the opening scene of the 1958 version of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’. ‘Un discepolo’ reports the episode of the newly arrived Hungarian prisoner, Bandi. Since Bandi’s moral integrity prevents him from breaking the senseless and cruel rules of the Lager, Levi feels compelled to ‘proselytise’ him and teach him to put his life before his moral system. By means of the story’s narrative setting, Levi brings readers back to ‘Il canto di Ulisse’:
In quel tempo pulivamo cisterne. Scesi nella mia cisterna, e con me era Bandi. Alla debole luce della lampadina, lessi la lettera miracolosa, traducendola frettolosamente in tedesco. Bandi mi ascoltava con attenzione: non poteva certo capire molto, perché il tedesco non era la mia lingua né la sua, e poi perché il messaggio era scarno e reticente. Ma capì quello che era essenziale che capisse: che quel pezzo di carta fra le mie mani, giuntomi così precariamente, e che avrei distrutto prima di sera, era tuttavia una falla, una lacuna dell’universo nero che ci stringeva, e che attraverso ad essa poteva passare la speranza (OC II, 258; emphasis added).
Several cues suggest that ‘Un discepolo’ could be read as a companion piece to ‘Il canto di Ulisse’. Both stories recount the same time in Levi’s life in the camp: we are back in the dark and damp underground tank from which Levi had climbed out after Pikolo. This time, however, Levi descends back into the infernal pit to carry a message of hope from the outside world. (With both Pikolo and Bandi, Levi uses the term ‘messaggio’.) It is once again he who is desperately trying to translate a text to an attentive listener, and, once again, it is the listener’s attentiveness and empathy that makes the act of communication possible despite the limits of translation. Finally, the ‘rupture’ in the time continuum of the Lager is once again completed by the unspoken act of sharing food, as Bandi freely gives Levi a stolen radish, the first fruit of Levi’s lesson (the same gesture is repeated in ‘Lilít’). In ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, Levi shares with his reader that, on that occasion, he would even have renounced his daily soup to be able to remember with greater accuracy Dante’s text. Speranza is not a word Levi uses lightly. We do not find it in ‘Il canto di Ulisse’. I would like to suggest, however, that a hint of the hope Levi experienced on that sunny morning in his conversation with Pikolo is symbolised, in the second edition of SQ, by the fleeting daylight that ruptures the darkness of the tank. In ‘Un discepolo’, we learn that very little or no natural light penetrated their underground prison, as they needed a lamp to read Levi’s letter: ‘alla debole luce della lampadina, lessi la lettera miracolosa’. This realistic disclosure about the work conditions in the tank takes the place of the natural light Levi had introduced in his revised edition of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’. Thus, in ‘Un discepolo’, we are once more returned to the same dark enclosure of the first version of ‘Il canto di Ulisse’. If, however, the added detail of the sunlight disappears once more in the companion scene of ‘Un discepolo’, in its place we find that unspoken word: ‘la speranza’.
Ci dev’essere l’ingegner Levi. Eccolo, si vede solo la testa fuori della trincea. Mi fa un cenno colla mano, è un uomo in gamba, non l’ho mai visto giú di morale, non parla mai di mangiare.
In the linguistic framework of the chapter, and in light of the Dantean subtext on which it relies, the figure of this non-speaking character is particularly meaningful since it evokes, as a foil, the character of Nimrod in Inferno 26. Dante introduces Nembrotte as the speaker of an unintelligible language, embodied in a single five-word enigmatic utterance: Raphèl maì amecche zabi almi (v. 61). Three elements seem pertinent to establish the contrastive connection. First, the position: both Nimrod and the ingegner Levi stand in a hole, visible only from the waist up. Secondly, the speaking: Virgil mocks Nimrod’s inability to move out of his own private, untranslatable language, while ingegner Levi ‘makes a gesture’ (‘mi fa un cenno’), entrusting to a non-verbal cue its expression of charitable and friendly connection with Primo. Finally, the restriction of what may be conveyed verbally: Nimrod does not speak intelligibly, while ingegner Levi ‘never speaks of eating’. The verb for “eating” (It. mangiare) is a particularly sensible one in the linguistic domain of the Lager, having been violently shifted in the semantics of the Lager from the human and communal ‘essen’ to the animal and isolating ‘fressen’. Ingegner Levi’s character in the episode reinforces the notion that a desire for communication is at the root of a human community, the exact opposite of ‘life as brutes’.
(L’ingegner Levi appears twice earlier in SQ: first in ‘Il viaggio’ as the father of three-year old Emilia - ‘una bambina curiosa, ambiziosa, allegra e intelligente’ (OC I, 146) - murdered on arrival at Auschwitz; and then in ‘Sul fondo’, nervously asking Primo where his daughter and wife might be.)
«... la terra lagrimosa diede vento...» no, è un’altra cosa.
This verse is not from Inferno 26 but from Inferno 3, the canto of ‘lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate’ and of ‘diverse lingue, orribili favelle, parole di dolore, accenti d’ira’. Both Inferno 3 as a whole, and this line in particular, could have served Levi well to describe his internment in Auschwitz (a land of despair, a Babel of languages, sorrowful words, angry imprecations). Here, however, Levi does not want to refer to the Dante of Inferno 3, the poet whose words could possibly be read as a direct reminder of the world of the camp, but to the Dante of Inferno 26, whose lines offer a revelatory insight into Levi’s (and the other inmates’) existence and destiny.
... Chi è Dante. Che cosa è la Commedia
Dante is one of Primo Levi’s most important cultural touchstones. His use of the Commedia, across multiple works, reflects a sophisticated and intimate reading of the poem. It may come as some surprise that Dante does not appear in Levi’s 1981 literary anthology, La ricerca delle radici, which provides a highly eclectic collection of some of his preferred authors and texts, from Homer to Darwin and Rabelais to Celan. However, Levi justifies this omission on account of the medieval writer’s universal importance: Dante, Levi states in an interview from the same year, is ‘part of any reader’s heritage’.
Allusions to Dante have been identified in Levi’s fiction, essays and poetry. However, it is here in SQ that we witness his most sustained engagement with the Commedia. The most explicit and celebrated use of the poem comes in the present chapter, ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, where Levi uses the famous Ulysses episode from Inferno 26 to teach some Italian to his friend and fellow inmate Jean, and skilfully incorporates into his text suggestive fragments of Dante’s own poem. The Ulysses canto, read in the secularised, Romantic tradition of Croce and De Sanctis, resonates powerfully in the context of Auschwitz and becomes a parable of human courage and self-emancipation. In particular, the Greek hero’s rousing words to his crew and invocation of their very humanity (‘Considerate la vostra semenza…’) resonate viscerally in the dehumanising world of the camp. The recollection of Ulysses sailing beyond the pillars of Hercules into the forbidden sea allows Levi momentarily to imagine breaking beyond the confines of the infernal Lager. The chapter ends, however, with the climactic words of Dante’s canto, describing the sea closing over Ulysses’ boat and the curtailment of his doomed journey, as Levi and Jean’s momentary taste of freedom ceases, and they must again confront the horror and banal misery of the camp. The omnipotent God of Dante’s tale of Ulysses, who punishes the voyager’s doomed attempt to reach Mount Purgatory without divine sanction, implicitly becomes here the Nazi regime that confines him.
In ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, Dante offers Levi a fleeting antidote to the horrors of Auschwitz. Elsewhere in the testimony, however, Levi draws on Dante as a kindred author of the infernal, adapting imagery from the medieval poet’s first cantica in describing his experience of an all-too-real Hell. In the book’s second chapter, Levi explicitly designates his new surroundings as a modern Inferno (‘Questo è l’inferno. Oggi ai nostri giorni, l’inferno deve essere così’). Thereafter, Levi often uses deictic expressions (‘sul fondo’, ‘lassù’, ‘laggiù’), some with Dantean resonance, that construct his experience of the camp as a kind of infernal descent. More specific narrative, topographical and structural echoes appear, too. Nazi guards are compared, both directly and more implicitly, to devils and guardian figures in Dante’s Hell. Different regions of Dante’s Hell (Antinferno, Limbo, Malebolge) are invoked in describing the different parts of the camp. Levi also seems to draw on the example of Dante’s Inferno as a model of confronting the negative limits of language and verbal communication. The topos of inexpressibility that features in the closing cantos of the Inferno also appears in SQ. Both writers imagine the existence of a uniquely ‘harsh’ language (‘rime aspre e chiocce’ | ‘un nuovo linguaggio aspro’) that might do justice to the horrors of their infernal experiences, but which they do not possess. However, while Levi may take inspiration from Dante in numerous ways, there is a powerful and bleak irony at stake when Levi establishes parallels between the medieval poet’s imagined account of a medieval Christian hell, founded upon an infallible notion of divine justice, and his own experience of the historical hell of Auschwitz, a place of the most extreme and barbarous injustice and racialised hate.
Levi’s use of Dante is all the more striking in light of the ways in which the Italian Fascist regime had appropriated and frequently distorted Dante and his poetry in the years prior to his deportation. In the Risorgimento and in liberal Italy, Dante had been endlessly appropriated as a kind of symbol and embodiment of the new nation. Under Fascism, however, there had emerged an even more heavily and crudely instrumentalised cult of Dante. The poet was invoked not only as a source of fervent cultural pride, but as a prophet of the fascist state and of Mussolini. He was given a central place in fascist schooling and was used in irredentist and expansionist campaigns, in setting out highly restrictive language policy, as a model of fascist virility, and on account of his imperial associations. In the late 1930s, passages from the Commedia even appeared on the cover of the magazine La difesa della razza, with Dante appropriated to support the regime’s later politics of racial purity and antisemitism. It is thus all the more striking that Levi makes such imaginative and deft use of Dante across his works. He found in Dante, a poet so freighted with nationalistic interpretations during the period in question, a powerful, personal and highly adaptable resource of language, meaning, and understanding.
«... la terra lagrimosa diede vento...»
The quotation is from Inferno 3, line 133, when Dante is about to cross the river Acheron and, overwhelmed by the experience of entering the realm of hell, loses consciousness. Inferno 3 is also referenced in the chapter ‘Il viaggio’, in which Levi compares the German soldier guiding the newly interned prisoners into the Lager to Charon. Here the verse from Inferno 3, a canto previously referenced to describe Levi’s own descent into hell, surfaces in the author’s memory like a perturbing intrusion announcing that this moment of peaceful suspension with Pikolo is only fleeting and bound to soon terminate.
Giovanni Falaschi (Falaschi 2002) points out that for Levi to remember ‘compagna | Picciola’ but not the equally famous ‘orazion picciola’ is not credible. The same goes for ‘folle volo’, another almost proverbial expression. Falaschi explains this case of ‘selective memory’ as Levi fearing that these expressions might be perceived - either by Pikolo or by his readers - as diminishing or critical of Ulysses, and thus he ‘forgets’ them. However, ‘orazione piccola’ simply means ‘brief speech’, and Falaschi maintains that, while Levi certainly was aware of this, he might have wanted to avoid any confusion.
ha ricevuto il messaggio
Levi’s encounter with Ulysses in Auschwitz centres around his painful yet exhilarating struggle to reconstruct Dante’s text from memory. But when Levi talks of his hope that, despite his inadequate rendering, Pikolo ‘got the message’, he is pointing at something other than pure philology. Uttered in the death camp, Dante’s words shine through the dust of school commentary. This estrangement effect triggers a kind of epiphany: ‘ha sentito che lo riguarda, che riguarda tutti gli uomini in travaglio, e noi in specie; e che riguarda noi due, che osiamo ragionare di queste cose con le stanghe della zuppa sulle spalle’. The momentary sense of liberation Levi derives from owning and sharing Dante’s sublime language has been interpreted as a celebration of humanist values that however fails to recognise the way in which these values are entangled with the very structures of domination that created the Lager (Druker 2004). Yet Levi never provides a univocal interpretation of ‘the message’ of Ulysses’ story. In fact, the episode has had a ‘bifurcated’ critical reception and its meaning has been contested since the Middle Ages (Barolini 2018). Moreover, the figure of Dante in general and his figuration of Ulysses in particular became central to Fascism’s nationalist cultural programme, something Levi could hardly have missed.
As with other protagonists of the Inferno, the issue has been how to reconcile Ulysses’ heroic stature as a character with the fact that he is ultimately condemned as an unrepentant sinner. While the prevalent opinion among early commentators of the Commedia was that Ulysses was a transgressor, there were some who presented him as an admirable figure. Cristoforo Landino calls Ulysses’ speech ‘honest and honourable’. Bernardino Daniello notes that the ancient myth of the ne plus ultra was ‘a false and futile belief’. On the other hand, not all modern critics praise Ulysses’ daring. John Ruskin warily observes that humans are yet to learn the ‘danger of this novelty of wisdom’. Still, it is in the modern period that a more positive view of Ulysses’ intellectual hubris starts to gain traction.
The frontispiece to Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) is often cited as the symbolic watershed between medieval deference to traditional beliefs and the modern project of exploration and innovation. This frontispiece depicts a ship which is about to pass through the pillars of Hercules, just like Dante imagined Ulysses and his crew dared to do. Another ship, near the horizon, is also approaching. Below the depiction of the ships, a Latin motto, taken from the Vulgate, recites: ‘Many shall pass through and knowledge shall be increased’. There is no indication of shipwreck; on the contrary, the ships move confidently ahead in full sail. The world has entered a new era and the ancient prohibition has become void: ‘these times may justly bear in their word […] plus ultra, in precedence of the ancient non ultra’ (Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605)).
To Horkheimer and Adorno, Bacon is the ‘herald’ of the modern belief that ‘knowledge, which is power, knows no limits’ – a principle that, taken to its extreme logical conclusion, leads to the gates of Auschwitz. Had Ulysses gone under, as Dante decreed, the world would have been a better place. However, the postmodern critique of rationalism disregards another, parallel line that connects Enlightenment conceptions of the human to emancipatory discourses in both politics and aesthetics. The revolutionary and Romantic era gave us many versions of the self-sacrificing heroes of knowledge, striving for the emancipation of humankind. Shelley’s Prometheus ‘gave men speech, and speech created thought | Which is the measure of the universe. | And Science struck the thrones of earth and heaven | […] for which he hangs | Withering in destined pain’ (Prometheus Unbound). As Dante does with the Homeric story, Shelley rewrites and extends a classical myth in a way that challenges the idea that knowledge is sinful or transgressive. In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley declares he would ‘rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon than go to Heaven with Paley [eighteenth-century theologian] and Malthus’. Shelley also names Dante as one of the stylistic predecessors to his own use of imagery ‘drawn from the operations of the human mind’. In his readings of the Commedia, Shelley was particularly attracted to similes that illuminate ways of seeing and knowing. But a shadow of Dante’s ambivalence lingers in Shelley’s suggestion that his Prometheus is similar to Milton’s Satan, minus the ‘taints of ambition […] and personal aggrandisement’.
From his long English exile, the Italian revolutionary and nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini contributed to making Dante into a national icon at the service of the Italian Risorgimento. In The Duties of Man, he defines humans as ‘creatures capable of rational, social, and intellectual progress’, warning his readers that ‘you descend to the level of brutes whenever you suppress, or allow to be suppressed any of the faculties that constitute human nature either in yourself or others’ (Mazzini 1892, 45). ‘Brutes’ (‘bruti’) is Dante’s term, and the passage as a whole reads like an extended paraphrase of Ulysses’ ‘orazion picciola’, whose rhetoric Mazzini puts to work here in support of ‘the emancipation of Woman [and] of the working man’ (146).
Mazzini’s duties of man were recast into the Fascist doctrine of the primacy of the state over the individual. The canto of Ulysses was similarly enlisted to the cult of Italian exceptionalism and imperial conquest. Responding to a survey to establish which was the most popular passage of the Commedia, Mussolini apparently nominated the line ‘de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo’. The quotation struck some as scarily apposite. In the clandestine paper ‘Il Ribelle’ of 31 October 1944, the anti-fascist priest don Giacomo Vender, writing under the pseudonym Sancio Empörer, used the same verse to expose il Duce’s seductive lies: ‘Fascism’s great accomplishment has been to dress its sick [‘folle’] idea of life, humanity, nation and religion in seductive attitudes. [Everything] was made into a wing to hurl ourselves […] beyond the pillars of Hercules…de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo’.
Levi leaves out the line altogether. His act of subversion is even more radical: as the Resistance fighters, he feels that Dante’s text is ‘about us’, but the role he chooses for himself is not that of the acquiescent victim, one of Ulysses’ anonymous crew. He writes himself and his fellow prisoner as the heroic, tragic protagonists of Ulysses’ ‘shipwreck with spectator’ (Blumberg). Far from being complicit with the master narrative of Fascism, Levi invokes Dante in the death camp to liberate and reclaim his words and restore to them all the force of their moral questioning.
e che riguarda noi due, che osiamo ragionare di queste cose con le stanghe della zuppa sulle spalle
Dante’s text ‘riguarda’, ‘has to do with’, Levi and Pikolo. ‘Considerate la vostra semenza: | Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, | Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.’ What I would emphasise is that by remembering and translating and discussing Dante, Levi and Pikolo live out that terzina from Inferno 26, or rather, they live out a new version of the terzina. That action - ‘ragionare di queste cose con le stanghe della zuppa sulle spalle’ - is a particular living out of Ulysses’ words. For Levi and Pikolo here, discussing Dante becomes a way of seeking after ‘virtute e conoscenza’, and of going beyond the camp’s Pillars of Hercules; ‘è scagliare se stessi al di là di una barriera’, as Levi writes earlier in the chapter. Yet while Dante’s Ulysses casts aside bonds of friendship and affection - seeing the ‘piéta | del vecchio padre’, the ‘debito amore | lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta’ as obstacles to his pursuit of ‘virtute e conoscenza’ - Levi and Pikolo seek after knowledge through conversation, through attention to each other. In the chapter Pikolo listens, he pays attention, he suggests possible translations, he reassures Levi. Interpreting Inferno 26 - ‘ragionare di queste cose’ - is a joint endeavour (Gordon 2001, 68-70; Insana 2009, 107-10; Montemaggi 2020, 127-42), an endeavour in which Levi and Pikolo pursue virtue and knowledge, but do so in a mode quite different to Ulysses (Montemaggi 2020, 133-35; Montemaggi 2011, 66-67, 71-72).
What seems to matter particularly in this passage is that Pikolo and Levi realise that Dante’s is a text about them. ‘[F]orse […] ha ricevuto il messaggio, ha sentito che lo riguarda, che riguarda tutti gli uomini in travaglio, e noi in specie; e che riguarda noi due’ (emphasis added). The ‘messaggio’ arising from Levi and Pikolo’s joint interpretation of Dante is not only a fuller understanding of the ideas Dante is expressing, important as that is, nor is the message limited to assessing the truthfulness of Dante’s words, important as that is too. But - and perhaps underpinning both of these - the ‘messaggio’ also involves recognising that Dante’s words speak about and to Levi and Pikolo. The repeated ‘riguarda’ casts the terzina as not just concerning humanity as a general, abstract category, but as concerning specific, particular lives: Pikolo’s and Levi’s. In the movement from Pikolo (‘lo riguarda’) outward to all those in travail and then narrowing inward to those in the camps (‘noi’) and then inward again to Pikolo and Levi (‘noi due’), the ‘riguarda’ also cast the terzina as open to be encountered in an equally personal light by others.
At least here, the value of the Commedia seems ultimately to lie not in the particular elaboration that Dante offers of various worldviews, but in how the text becomes part of a reader’s lived experience. The two are, however, connected, and one of the questions arising from this chapter is: How? Levi tells us that Dante’s words - in and through the context of Levi’s encounter with them in Auschwitz - revealed to him, ‘perhaps’, ‘forse’, ‘il perché del nostro destino, del nostro essere oggi qui’. A question perhaps worth investigating further would be: How might moving towards fuller understanding of the Commedia and particular lived experiences of Dante’s text inform each other?
Qui mi fermo e cerco di tradurre.
The late Stuart Woolf (1936-2021) must have smiled to himself when he first translated these lines, as a young historian working on his PhD in 1950s Turin. Woolf is the only published English translator of SQ; his fluid and immediate rendering of Levi’s words remains the version known to millions of anglophone readers. While the task of a translator is never easy, it may be that the clarity and simplicity of Levi’s style lends itself to translation and grants his writing a certain universality - almost like a chemical formula.
‘The Canto of Ulysses’ can be read as an ode to translation, not just from one language to another, but in a metaphorical sense, in the repositioning of meaning between people and time. This goes back to the idea implied in the etymology of the word ‘translation’, which comes from the Latin translatio, to ‘carry over’, to ‘bring across’. In this chapter, instances of translation form a mise en abyme that ‘carries over’ from Homer to Virgil, Virgil to Dante, Dante to Levi, Levi to Pikolo, Italian to French, Italian to English, and text to reader.
This more conceptual idea of ‘translation’ has become a way of understanding the testimonial act, central to Holocaust studies (Insana 2009; Felman and Laub 1992). Witnesses ‘translate’ into words their experience and their trauma. This process is often thought of as entailing a loss: an ineffable residue that cannot be communicated through language. However, the exchange that takes place between Levi and Jean in ‘The Canto of Ulysses’ invites us to rethink translation in terms of expansion, with each new version becoming part of the original’s harvest. The non-Italian reader’s lack of familiarity with ‘Who Dante is’, ‘What the Comedy is’, may at first seem a disadvantage. And yet, this has the enriching effect of aligning us with Jean: the reader/Pikolo attempts to overcome a linguistic and cultural barrier, to be in communion with the narrator/Levi. Conversely, Italian readers are likely to identify more closely with Levi, as they try, with him, to remember lines learned in their schooldays.
The new interpretative perspectives created by the translated text respond to the original and form a polyphony. This polyphonic effect works on two different levels: first, just as a piece of music sounds different when sung by a different voice, a translation performs a text in another language, with another instrument. Second, by co-existing in the literary universe of the original text, the many translations of this chapter embody the multiple voices that have resonated from Levi’s writing. As Levi and Jean walk, we see the process of translation unfold. As they come to understand each other, communication through words falters, and another kind of translation begins to happen:
O forse è qualcosa di piú: forse, nonostante la traduzione scialba e il commento pedestre e frettoloso, ha ricevuto il messaggio, ha sentito che lo riguarda, che riguarda tutti gli uomini in travaglio
The ‘something more’ is in the polyphony of their exchange, where the ensemble is greater than any individual line. It takes on a special significance in Woolf’s translation - or in any translation of these lines, for it becomes another performance, or layer, of the initial translational act. The message of the original seems to swell, rather than subside. And, just as a melody transcends individual notes, the concern for individual words is eventually superseded by the harmony between Levi and Jean. Describing Dante’s approach to divine grace in Paradiso, George Steiner writes:
But as the poet draws near the Divine presence, the heart of the rose of fire, the labour of translation into speech grows ever more exacting. Words grow less and less adequate to the task of translating immediate revelation (Steiner 1967).
Levi draws us to a similar source, one that sounds ‘like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God’. This ‘something more’ that is not bound to language has the universality of music. It reaches towards an inexpressible goodness or enlightenment. This is in direct contrast to the negative ‘ineffability’ that is so often used to describe elements of testimony in Levi and others, in the challenge the Holocaust posed to language, in the impossibility of its translation. Here, language does not drift towards a void of suffering, but towards a chorus of joyful expression, a blast of trumpets. Unlike elsewhere in SQ, the ambiguity present in the meeting of languages is not represented as a chaotic and hellish Tower of Babel, but as a fecund, creative space. Translation is momentarily reclaimed, and acts as an implicit resistance to the obsessive uniformity of Nazi ideology. But their ‘canto’ is interrupted by the cacophony of Auschwitz, and this revelatory chink is closed with a tragic, symphonic surge:
Infin che ’l mar fu sopra noi rinchiuso.
non lasciarmi pensare alle mie montagne
Very often, when we think about ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, we tend to recall only the most famous pages in which Levi tries to remember Dante’s canto. The depth and sense of urgency of the Ulyssean passages are so overwhelming and passionate that they may distract us from other elements in the chapter. However, if we go back to the text and read it closely, we cannot avoid noticing that, after a brief opening in which Levi introduces Pikolo and narrates how he came to be Pikolo’s ‘fortunate’ chaperone to collect the soup for the day, ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ also dwells quite significantly on a moment of domestic memories. While going to the kitchens, Levi writes: ‘Si vedevano i Carpazi coperti di neve. Respirai l’aria fresca, mi sentivo insolitamente leggero’. This is the first moment in the chapter in which Levi refers to the mountains as something that revitalises him and makes him feel fresh and light, both physically and mentally.
This moment foreshadows another, also in this chapter, when Levi goes back to his mountains, those close to Turin, and compares them to the mountain that the protagonist of Dante’s canto, Ulysses, encounters just before his shipwreck with his companions:
... Quando mi apparve una montagna, bruna
Per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto
Che mai veduta non ne avevo alcuna.
Sì, sì, ‘alta tanto’, non ‘molto alta’, proposizione consecutiva. E le montagne, quando si vedono di lontano... le montagne... oh Pikolo, Pikolo, di’ qualcosa, parla, non lasciarmi pensare alle mie montagne, che comparivano nel bruno della sera quando tornavo in treno da Milano a Torino! Basta, bisogna proseguire, queste sono cose che si pensano ma non si dicono. Pikolo attende e mi guarda. Darei la zuppa di oggi per saper saldare ‘non ne avevo alcuna’ col finale.
The significance of the mountains in Levi’s narration is confirmed in this passage. For him, the mountains represent his experience of belonging, his youthful years, and his work as a chemist – the job he was doing when he commuted by train from Turin to Milan. At the same time, Levi’s own memories of the mountains intertwine and overlap with another mountain, Dante’s Mount Purgatory. Here, a deep and perhaps not fully conscious intertextual game starts to emerge and to characterise Levi’s writing. The lines that Levi does not remember are these:
Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto tornò in pianto,
ché de la nova terra un turbo nacque,
e percosse del legno il primo canto.
For Dante’s Ulysses, Mount Purgatory signifies the final moment of his adventure and his desire for knowledge. The marvel and enthusiasm that Ulysses and his company feel when they see the mountain is suddenly transformed into its contrary. From the mountain, a storm originates that will destroy the ship and swallow its crew: ‘Tre volte il fe’ girar con tutte l’acque, | Alla quarta levar la poppa in suso | E la prora ire in giù, come altrui piacque’. Dante’s Mount Purgatory, so majestic and spectacular, represents the end of any desire for knowledge that aims to find new answers to and interpretations of human existence in the world without God’s word.
Going back to Levi’s text, we find that, instead, in a kind of reverse overlapping between his image and that of Ulysses, the image of the mountain of Purgatory suggests to Levi a very different set of thoughts that, although seemingly and similarly overwhelming, opens up new interpretations: ‘altro ancora, qualcosa di gigantesco che io stesso ho visto ora soltanto, nell’intuizione di un attimo, forse il perché del nostro destino, del nostro essere oggi qui’. For a moment, it is almost as if Levi, a new Dantean Ulysses in a new Inferno, stands in front of Mount Purgatory and forgets the terzine and the shipwreck. Maybe Levi cannot or does not want to remember those terzine because the mountain in Purgatory represents something very different for him than for Dante’s Ulysses. Levi’s view of the mountain does not lead to a moment of recognition of sin, as it does in Dante’s Ulysses. For him, the mountain, like his mountain range, is the gateway to knowledge, enrichment, and illumination and to a world that lies beyond the imposed limits of traditional, constricting, and distorted views and that awaits discovery (‘qualcosa di gigantesco che io stesso ho visto ora soltanto’). Something about and beyond the Lager.
To better understand how the mountains are central in ‘Il canto di Ulisse’, we have to remember that Levi’s view of the mountains strongly depends on his anti-Fascism, which he expressed particularly vigorously in two moments of his life: during his months in the Resistance, just before he was captured and sent to Fossoli, and, even more intensely, during the adventures of his youth, when he was a free young man who enjoyed climbing the mountains surrounding Turin. As Alberto Papuzzi has suggested, ‘le radici del suo rapporto con la montagna sono ben piantate in quella stagione più lontana: radici intellettuali di cittadino che cercava sulla montagna, nella montagna, suggestioni e risposte che non trovava nella vita, o meglio nell’atmosfera ispessita di quella vita torinese, senza passato e senza futuro’ (OC III, 426-27). Indeed, reports Papuzzi, Levi confirms that:
Avevo anche provato a quel tempo a scrivere un racconto di montagna […]. C’era tutta l’epica della montagna, e la metafisica dell’alpinismo. La montagna come chiave di tutto. Volevo rappresentare la sensazione che si prova quando si sale avendo di fronte la linea della montagna che chiude l’orizzonte: tu sali, non vedi che questa linea, non vedi altro, poi improvvisamente la valichi, ti trovi dall’altra parte, e in pochi secondi vedi un mondo nuovo, sei in un mondo nuovo. Ecco, avevo cercato di esprimere questo: il valico.
The heart of that epic story made its way into the chapter ‘Ferro’ in Il sistema periodico. The discovery of this (brave) new world, ‘mondo nuovo’, is an integral part and a direct achievement of Levi’s experience in the mountains. The mountains open a new understanding and a new perspective on the world.
Something that escapes common understanding is revealed through the experience of the mountains, both in Levi’s memories of his youth and in his literary recounting of Auschwitz. Reciting Dante in ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ is therefore not only an intertextual exercise for Levi. Only by inserting Levi’s literary references in the complexity of his own experience – before, during, and after Auschwitz – can we fully capture the depth of his reflections. Levi mentally and metaphorically brought to Auschwitz not only Dante but also his ‘metafisica dell’alpinismo’. Together, they contributed to his attempt to come to terms with that reality.
Infin che ’l mar fu sopra noi rinchiuso.
The chapter ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ in SQ ends with a shipwreck. Levi closes the chapter with the same line that Dante uses to conclude Inferno 26, ‘Infin che ’l mar fu sopra noi rinchiuso’. (As Alberto Cavaglion has pointed out, the citation contains a significative lapsus: ‘rinchiuso’ instead of ‘richiuso’.) How should we interpret this ending? I would like to offer a creative reading that plays on the metaphorical meaning of navigation and shipwreck in Western culture.
In Shipwreck with Spectator, Hans Blumenberg argues that humans have sought to grasp the movement of their existence above all through the metaphor of the perilous sea voyage. As the reverberations of the Greek idea of the κυβερνήτης (governor) show, navigation is a widespread metaphor for politics, philosophy, and life itself. Among these reverberations we find an ancient motto that is particularly interesting for its ambivalence and paradoxical structure: naufragium feci, bene navigavi. This motto was first mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, but we find multiple versions of it throughout European culture. To cite a couple of examples from the Italian context, I would recall Leopardi’s ‘naufragar [...] dolce’ (‘L’infinito’) and Ungaretti’s Allegria di naufragi.
How can we interpret the seeming contradictoriness of this motto? The motto calls into question the idea that shipwreck is the sign of bad navigation. On the contrary, there is a mutual implication between good navigation and shipwrecking. This is made explicit by Erasmus in the Adagium 1878:
Nunc bene navigavi, cum naufragium feci (Now that I am shipwrecked, my navigation has gone well/I’ve learnt how to navigate)
Here shipwreck is not in contrast with navigation, but is rather a necessary passage, something without which we cannot have a full and proper ‘navigation’. To put it a different way, only when we have experienced shipwreck can we claim to have navigated well. On the one hand, ‘shipwreck’ is an enriching experience, a possibility that gives meaning to every metaphorical ‘navigation’. On the other hand, in our human existence, it is impossible to navigate without ever experiencing shipwreck. In our finite, imperfect world, shipwreck is ultimately unavoidable.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest that we could read ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ in SQ through the prism of the motto naufragium feci, bene navigavi. I am not arguing that this is what Levi intended to say, but simply that this is one of the ways of reading the text. If we see ‘texts and readers as co-creators of meaning […], [whereby] interpretation becomes a co-production between actors that brings new things to light rather than an endless rumination on a text’s hidden meaning or representational failures’ (Felski 2015, 173-74), ‘Il canto di Ulisse’ could be read as a (metaphorical) navigation on three levels. First, Levi and Pikolo’s journey to get the soup is a navigation through the camp that provides a ‘moment of reprieve’. Second, Levi’s translation of Dante is a metaphorical navigation in the labyrinth of memory, an attempt to trace a route through a sea of oblivion. Finally, Levi’s translation is also a ‘metanavigation’, for it concerns another navigation and shipwreck, that of Ulysses. By overlapping his navigation with that of Ulysses, Levi raises crucial questions regarding the human condition and the fate of the Häftlinge in the Lager.
As in the case of Ulysses, each of the three levels of navigation ends with a shipwreck. But is Levi’s translation of Dante really a failure, or could it be read as the sign of a good navigation? In the Preface to SQ, Levi argues that when the idea that ‘every stranger is an enemy’ becomes the ‘major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager’. The whole Lager could indeed be read through the curse of the Tower of Babel (see ‘Una buona giornata’). Translation is therefore a way of countering this course, a way of reining in the effects of Babel by restoring the humanity of the stranger and building a bridge through language, as Levi argues in ‘Tradurre ed essere tradotti’. By translating Dante to Pikolo, then, Levi is not just recovering fragments of memory. He is countering the logic that lies at the root of the Lager and restoring – if temporarily – his and Pikolo’s humanity. The translation ends with a shipwreck, yes, but that experience – the attempt of ‘enacting’ the human through a navigation – is a good shipwreck: naufragium feci, bene navigavi.
- Apr 2022
Dante wrote this Comedy not in highly regarded Latin, but in the spoken dialect of Tuscany. The decision helped turn that dialect into the legitimate language we now call Italian, a tribute to the importance of literature in shaping language.
- Jan 2021
Some great illustrations from Dante's Divine Comedy via https://www.openculture.com/2021/01/rarely-seen-illustrations-of-dantes-divine-comedy-are-now-free-online.html
- May 2020
E io: «Sì come cera da suggello, che la figura impressa non trasmuta, segnato è or da voi lo mio cervello.
Dante usa questa similitudine per sottolineare che le parole di Beatrice gli siano rimaste impresse come un sigillo di cera; ciononostante, tutto ciò supera il suo livello di comprensione. L'atmosfera cambia, il viaggio diviene più complesso.
Dante, Virgilio e Stazio camminano in fila lungo l'orlo esterno della VII Cornice, con Virgilio che mette spesso in guardia Dante sul percorso da tenere, mentre il poeta è colpito sul braccio destro dal sole, che illumina tutto l'occidente.
Stazio prosegue il suo percorso verso il Paradiso, avendo compiuto la purificazione. Egli ne ha il diritto (non era pagano, ma cristiano). A causa delle persecuzioni, professava la sua fede di nascosto. Ci troviamo nella finzione letteraria, perché non abbiamo alcuna testimonianza storica del presunto cristianesimo di Stazio, che, sulla base di un passo della quarta egogla di Virgilio, si sarebbe avvicinato ai primi cristiani, battezzandosi.
Lì veggio d’ogne parte farsi presta ciascun’ombra e basciarsi una con una sanza restar, contente a brieve festa;
Le anime dei lussuriosi eterosessuali sono, in un certo senso, poste sullo stesso piano rispetto a quelle dei peccatori omosessuali: si incontrano e si salutano baciandosi. Subiscono la stessa pena.
«O tu che vai, non per esser più tardo, ma forse reverente, a li altri dopo, rispondi a me che ’n sete e ’n foco ardo.
La sete di cui parla Guinizzelli è sia quella provocata dall'arsura dovuta alle fiamme, sia la sete di conoscenza.
- Dec 2019
Victor refers to Italian Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) Divine Comedy in which the poet journeys through the nine circles of Hell.
Leigh Hunt’s “Rimini.”
The Story of Rimini was composed by Leigh Hunt and published in 1816. The poem is based on Hunt's reading of Paolo and Francesca in hell, famously told in Dante's Inferno (Circle 2, Canto 5). Hunt's version is sympathetic to how the two lovers came together after Francesca was married to Paolo's brother. The lovers were later punished for the fraternal transgression. The poem advocates for compassion for all of humanity.
Il me lut d’autres nombreuses strophes qui eurent aussi son approbation et provoquèrent un abondant commentaire.
Ce procédé d'autocommentaire de Carlos Argentino Daneri imite la stratégie autocitationnelle (l'"assemplare") à laquelle a recours Alighieri Dante dans sa Vita Nuova. Mais à la différence de Dante qui, tel un scribe, retranscrit sa production poétique dans le "Livre de [sa] mémoire", les strophes de Daneri ne présente pour le narrateur "rien de mémorable".
- Aug 2018
And thrice threefold the Gates; three folds were Brass, [ 645 ] Three Iron, three of Adamantine Rock, Impenetrable, impal'd with circling fire, Yet unconsum'd.
Milton is referring to the Nine Gates of Hell, which Dante presented in his Inferno (part of the Divine Comedy). See http://historylists.org/art/9-circles-of-hell-dantes-inferno.html