- Jun 2023
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.