Dante and Levi: What you need to know

      All you need to know about Dante Alighieri (d. 1321) is that his Divine Comedy ranks as the greatest literary work in the Italian language. This does not mean you need to have read part or all of it in order to follow Sharon Portnoff’s talk on October 28. There won’t be an exam at the end. Our public-facing talks are meant to provide us with food for thought, not make us feel insufficient. We will be in good hands: Sharon Portnoff has read Dante. So did Primo Levi.

Who was Primo Levi? Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian chemist who, in February 1944, at the age of 24, was captured by Italian fascists, handed over to the Nazis, and deported to Auschwitz. Following liberation by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, he eventually made his way back to his native Torino where he wrote poetry, worked in a paint factory, and, as early as 1947, published his meticulous and sober account of life as a slave laborer in the Buna camp (se questo é un uomo). The second edition (1958) was more widely distributed, including in English, French, and a German translation he closely supervised. Levi went on to write other acclaimed books, including The Periodic Table (1975), The Drowned and the Saved (1986), among others. He died in 1987 of a fall into the stairwell of his home. The circumstances of his untimely death remain disputed.

What does Levi have to do with Dante? Levi’s prose style is dispassionate, as one might expect from a scientist. But he has recourse, at important junctures, to the poetry of Dante, whose Inferno perceptively describes the kinds of psychological horrors and absurdities that were realized in a camp system whose sole purpose was dehumanization, esp. the dehumanization of Jews.

As we planned the 2019 Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture series on “writing from a place of survival,” we felt that it was important to recall Primo Levi. We are looking forward to Sharon Portnoff’s lecture on Monday, October 28, 7:30pm, at the Tsai Performance Center. Please reserve your seat!