Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture

Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture

by Peter Balakian

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ISBN-13: 9780226254470
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities and professor of English at Colgate University. He is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Ziggurat and June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974–2000. He is also the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, a New York Times best seller, and Black Dog of Fate, a memoir. A new collection of poetry, Ozone Journal, is also available this spring from the University of Chicago Press.

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Vise and Shadow

Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture

By Peter Balakian

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25447-0


Poetry as Civilization: Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz

At a certain moment near the end of his time in the Lager in Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi recovers, in memory, part of Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno. It is a moment that first comes as a surprise, as he is talking with the Alsatian student Jean, the Pikolo (messenger-clerk) of their Kommando. The Kommando has just finished cleaning an underground petrol tank, and Levi recalls that "the powder of the rust burnt under our eyelids and coated our throats and mouths with a taste almost like blood." Levi has become friendly with the Pikolo, with whom he shares an interest in books and language. Jean is an "exceptional Pikolo," Levi tells us—shrewd, physically strong, and also humane, never neglecting the less privileged comrades of the Lager.

Jean also has an interest in things Italian and would like to learn the language, and now the two of them find themselves in a rare moment. It is a clear, warm June day, and Jean has helped to arrange for Levi to accompany him, to be the assistant to the "Essenholen," the one who gets and transports the daily ration. Although this means carrying a pot of more than a hundred pounds on two poles, it is nevertheless a bit of a luxury amid the other grueling chores of the Lager, and, most crucially, the two will have time together, and because Jean has found a longish detour for them, they will have a whole hour together. The prospect of this small journey opens up Levi's spirit in what is perhaps his most exuberant moment in his time at Auschwitz: "One could see the Carpathians covered in snow. I breathed the fresh air, I felt unusually light-hearted."

The hour is both a small reprieve and yet a moment under pressure. They begin talking about their homes in Strasbourg and Turin, about books they've read, about the similarities of their mothers. An SS man passes on a bicycle and orders them: "Halt," "Attention," "Take off your beret!" Surely they can't fully escape the reality of the Lager, but as they walk on, aware of how precious their time is, Canto 26 rises up in Levi's mind; it just comes. The ellipses splice us there—where the poetry has risen to the surface of consciousness after how many nights of pain and mind-numbing brutality, after how much saturation in death. There it is. "Who knows how or why," Levi remarks, but there is no time to speculate.

Why The Comedy, the Inferno? The relationship between one hell and another is an obvious trope, but Levi takes on that challenge. He is also an educated Italian, a scientist by training, and he knows his nation's literature. Like any schoolboy, he knows his Dante the way a British schoolboy would know his Chaucer or Milton or Wordsworth. Levi reminds the reader, inadvertently, that this passage of this poem has been in the basement of his head for a long time, and the meanings of this short moment in the Inferno are many. Who can say how carefully planned or manipulated this chapter is, as all memoir must be, but it seems beside the point as the authenticity of this hour in the Lager bears the mark of experience.

Levi notices how attentive Jean is, and so Levi begins, as he puts it, slowly and "accurately." To engage poetry while trying to stay alive at Auschwitz—Primo Levi never puts it that way, and of course he doesn't need to as the moment will speak for itself. But still poetry rises to the surface in this strange and horrible situation, and this young chemist—an Italian Jew deported from Turin—allows us to see how a man can be helped in his effort to stay alive by immersing himself, for just a short time, in a passage from Dante.

Although Canto 26 also deals with the evil counselors of Florence, who abused their talents for immoral purposes with their glib tongues (hence they are burning on fiery tongues of flame), the part of the canto that comes back to Levi is the story of Ulysses and the Greek hero's last voyage. In a moment, Levi becomes the teacher, explaining the anatomy of the inferno and its punishments and something about the poem's structure—how Virgil is reason, and Beatrice, theology. He is the hopeful teacher on the first day of class—certain that Jean is intelligent and "will understand." And like any good teacher about to convey knowledge of something he or she loves, Levi feels "a curious sensation of novelty." As a force of vitality returns to Levi, who has barely been allowed to be a man, he tells us now that he feels "capable of so much."

After months of deprivation, of near starvation, of living on a crust of bread, lukewarm liquid called soup, of cold, of half-sleep nights, of watching others die of disease or plain murder ("today in our times, hell must be like this," he says in an early chapter), here is Dante's language in his head, coming off his tongue. Not only has it come back, but he is teaching this bit of poetry to his friend Jean. It's the moment in which Virgil speaks to Ulysses (Dante's way of bringing Virgil and Homer together). As Levi recites the words, Jean is focused on him:

Then of that age-old fire the loftier horn Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;

And like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame Language, the tip of it flickering to and fro Threw out a voice and answered: "When I came...."

In the syntax and rhythm, in the drama of images, all of a sudden, here at Auschwitz, there is a bit of joy. A tongue coming out of the flame: What could be more resonant? Surely the allegory has many echoes for Levi, a Jew at Auschwitz. But even more, it seems, it's the fondling of the nuances of Dante's language that stops time for him. And it's not only recall and recitation, but translating, which is another challenge; "poor Dante, and poor French," Levi remarks, but Jean is with him fully, and he likes the "bizarre" simile of flame as tongue and even suggests the word for "age-old," as he too becomes a kind of collaborator in the translating process. The moment here reminds us that the act of translating is a deeper kind of reading, for in translating there is a reliving of the poem, a kind of rebirth of the text through the translator that involves a radical identification between translator and poet.

As they continue walking, Levi struggles to come up with the lines, and frustration prods him on. He remembers "When I came" and then is lost: "nothing, a hole in my memory." And then another line comes: "When Aeneas gave it that name." And then another hole, and another line: "nor piety to my old father, not the wedded love that should have comforted Penelope...." A marvelous catch for Levi, this next tercet, but he doubts himself. "Is it correct?" he asks himself, and then slides forward a couple of lines to something he is sure of: "so on the open sea I set forth." It's a line that excites him, he likes his translation of it, and his imagination starts to churn. It's not "je me mis," he tells Jean, it's more dramatic and risky, "more audacious," he says, like "throwing oneself to the other side of a barrier." Levi is teaching and translating at once, as the process begins to rejuvenate his whole being.

The image of the sea now prods him in a Proustian way. The "open sea" is something Jean, too, knows from personal experience—he, too, has been there. Levi luxuriates for a moment in his own sense-memory as he considers how to explain this image to his Alsatian friend. "It is when the horizon closes in on itself, free, straight ahead and simple and there is nothing but the smell of the sea; sweet things, ferociously far away." As powerful as the poetry is, Levi's reverie takes him further. Here at Auschwitz, what freedom to think of the open sea, "nothing but the smell of the sea; sweet things, ferociously far away." Were it said in any other way, it might seem sentimental, but this moment of release for Ulysses in the canto becomes a moment of unexpected revitalization and a momentary emancipation of spirit for the prisoner at Auschwitz.

But then the world of the Lager breaks in, all of a sudden it seems, for they have arrived at Kraftwerk, where a Kommando is laying cable. He recognizes the Kommando engineer, also named Levi, and as he sees the man's head just jutting up above the trench: "he waves to me, he is a brave man, I have never seen his morale low, he never speaks of eating." But Levi pushes away from this jarring image of reality and returns to the poem, to the phrase "open sea." "Open sea, open sea"—it's the rhyme he's looking for—the third line of the tercet. And, as rhyme always performs that dialectical magic—pulling us forward in the poem with a new word while simultaneously throwing us back to the word with which it rhymes—Levi comes up with it: "and that small band of comrades that had never left me."

And then frustration again—as memory fails him, and he is forced to paraphrase as he explains to Jean about Ulysses's "foolhardy journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules." A "sacrilege," he calls it, "to have to tell it in prose," but at least he has rescued two lines from the scene, and "they are worth stopping for." Looking at the cable-laying Kommando, with the stench of death of the Lager in his nose, Levi rescues two more lines:

that none should prove so hardy To venture the uncharted distances.

As some strange feeling of self-affirmation overtakes him, he says to himself, "To venture" is the same as "I set forth," the words he had translated just a moment ago. The nuance of phrase engages him, and he confesses: "I had to come to the Lager to realize that it is the same expression as before: 'I set forth.'" He says nothing to Jean of this small revelation, and then sees the sun and realizes it's almost midday and that his hour is running out.

But his memory darts ahead a few lines, and he continues being the passionate teacher, teaching his last student at the end of the world. "Open your ears and your mind," he implores Jean, "you have to understand, for my sake."

Think of your breed: for brutish ignorance Your mettle was not made; you were made men, To follow after knowledge and excellence.

"For my sake"; the phrase is haunting. At Auschwitz such meaning is almost too much. Behind barbed wire, in a world that undermines the basis of civilization, Levi holds on to lines of poetry, to a sense of "knowledge and excellence." "As if I also was hearing it for the first time," Levi exclaims, "like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am." What more might one say about the transforming power of poetry? After six months at Auschwitz, such a moment as this is possible.

There is something singular about this moment, something different, perhaps, from other revelatory moments I can think of in the history of literature. It is a moment of poetic epiphany in which aesthetic and moral insight are fused in an instance of deep reading in a situation of great duress. It is a moment that almost takes us to a place "anterior to language" (the phrase is Elaine Scarry's), a place verging on the inexpressible, on overwhelming insight.

The exchange of energy grows in a kind of Buberian way between student and teacher, because the now faithful student is more deeply aware of his teacher's passion, even if he doesn't fully understand it, and the good and decent Jean begs his teacher to repeat the lines, because, as Levi puts it, "he is aware that it is doing me good." For a moment, Levi suggests that this little tercet is able to sum up their lives, despite what he calls his "wan translation and pedestrian commentary." He hopes that Jean, too, feels the passage "has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders."

With the poles for the soup (that tepid broth of watery something that is sickening but essential for survival) on his shoulders, Levi is engrossed in the moment Ulysses speaks. "My little speech made everyone so keen," and he tells us that he tries in vain to explain to Jean the nuances of "keen," how many meanings it has; and certainly the idea that Ulysses's words affected, gave strength, inspired his men speaks to the force of language here, too, at noon in the Lager. Though Levi can't remember another four tercets, in his frustration he seamlessly folds in a bit of the cosmopolitan life of language in the Lager: keine Ahnung, Levi says, and Jean replies, Ça ne fait rien, vas-y tout de meme—and then back to Dante as Levi comes up with the powerful stanza about the sea.

... When at last hove up a mountain, grey With distance, and so lofty and so steep I never had seen the like on any day.

Once again, a small reverie overcomes Levi, and the seduction of association now pulls him back to recollections of his home in northern Italy. Those mountainous waves evoke real mountains. "Oh Pikolo, Pikolo, say something, do not let me think of my mountains, which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin!" An image of the beautiful verging on the sublime, as the mountains show themselves in the distance in the light of dusk. An image of home, an exclamation mark after Turin; until now in his account of life at Auschwitz, there has been no such memory of home—a memory naturally fraught with pain so that Levi exclaims, "enough, one must go on, these are things that one thinks but does not say." In the soup line, the struggle of literary memory goes on, and we can, having come this far in Survival in Auschwitz, appreciate what it means for Levi to say "I would give today's soup to know how to connect 'than any I had seen' to the last lines. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes." To give up a day's soup at Auschwitz for a rhyme—what more could one say about the pneumonic power of rhyme, about how sound and repetition shoots through the mind to make connections? In frustration "I close my eyes, I bite my fingers ... other verses dance in my head," he exclaims, and then, as they arrive at the kitchen, with an acute sense that time is running out, he realizes it's only a tercet that he's missed, and at last he comes up with that last stanza.

And three times round she went in roaring smother With all the waters, at the fourth the poop Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.

Almost frantic, he holds Jean back in the soup line because "it is necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this 'as it pleased another' before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead." Then he spills into a moment of uncharacteristic emotion, as his sense of ultimate meaning has been sprung by the poem: "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 reasons for our fate, for our being here today...."

What is Levi driving at? The Middle Ages? The human, the necessary? Something gigantic, a flash of intuition? The reason for our fate, for being at Auschwitz? Notwithstanding the power of Canto 26, it is Dante rediscovered in this context that has brought Levi to such a place of heightened feeling about art and life. For Dante, the idea of divine power resides in the notion of "pleased Another." Has the tragic ending of the greatest of classical heroes brought Levi to understand Dante's idea of God, of human fate, of suffering? And, one is prodded to ask, given this odd circumstance of Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz: Could even Dante have imagined the Holocaust, the idea of genocide in the modern era? Perhaps this is an implicit meaning of the vision of human behavior in the Inferno. Surely Levi believes this, and this is why the Inferno is liberating for him in more ways than one.

With his inimitable sense of irony, Levi cuts from the depth of his consciousness to the soup line, among "the sordid, ragged, crowd of soup carriers from other Kommandos." As they are pushed together in line to get their ration, the announcement is made "Kraut und Ruben": cabbages and turnips. He hears it in three languages: "Choux et navets. Kaposzia es repak." He's back to reality, and the paragraph ends.

But not the chapter. There is just one more line, the last line of Canto 26: "and over our heads the hollow seas closed up." From cabbages and turnips to the death of Ulysses; perhaps it is not so disjunctive; perhaps it brings everything together. An image of death, and the death of the greatest classical hero, punished for his deceit and hubris. A chilling image; death by water, and a death that Dante invented for Ulysses, in a Christological revision of Homer. Dante's invention of such a death for Ulysses, his placing him in such a low circle of Hell, is punishment for Ulysses's deceit and hubris and perhaps for his perverse use of reason, the very cunning that for Homer was a virtue. But the image of drowning has special meaning at Auschwitz. As Levi makes clear in another chapter, "The Drowned and the Saved," in which he explores the psychology of survival, those who lack the necessary survival skills are doomed, in his essential metaphor, to drown.


Excerpted from Vise and Shadow by Peter Balakian. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Poetry as Civilization: Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz
2 The Poem as History
3 Ingesting Violence: The Poetry of Witness Problem
4 Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son and the Confessional Era
5 Hart Crane’s Broken Tower
6 Poet from Kars: Yeghishe Charents and Armenia’s Modern Age
7 Collage and Its Discontents
8 Arshile Gorky: From the Armenian Genocide to the Avant- Garde
9 The Anatolian Embrace: Greeks and Armenians in Elia Kazan’s America, America
10 Siamanto’s Bloody News
11 Bob Dylan in Suburbia
12 Writing Horizontal: Notes Toward the Poem as Space

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