In one of the central chapters of If this is a man Primo Levi, the author tells of a conversation with another person in the field, Jean. In between that shared task, Levi will be starting to teach Italian. And he does so through the Hell of Dante, in particular the canto of Ulysses. In one of those translations, Levi recalls a passage and I will read your text -because Levi writes better than I do, and because it is best to leave it to those who live the experiences to count:
‘Consider’, I continued, ‘your ancestry:
for animal life not have been born
but to acquire virtue and science’
As if I would feel also for the first time: as a clarion call, like the voice of God. For a moment I have forgotten who I am and where I am (If this is a Man, The Canto of Ulysses, p 124)
Do not leave to call the attention that in his account of the real hell Levi us remember the hell more famous of the literature. It is also important to remember that hell is imagined to get the hell out real: When you perform an activity as normal as to teach another language, to perform an activity such as remembering a poem, and working with the language; it is how Levi can remember-between the middle of hell – that which is not hell. And it gives thanks to Jean.
Comparing both situations, the real and the imagined, we will serve to us (who, by chance of fate, we both are unknown) to better understand what happened in the camps.
The first thing is about the location of the unutterable, the ineffable. For Dante what is really inexpressible and incomprehensible, and thus declares several times, and much of the text is oriented to show us this, it is paradise (and in particular the Song 1 and 33, the initial and the final of the Paradise). And it is stronger as it moves in him and the pilgrim approaches the divinity. Hell, in contrast, is fully expressible -to count the sins and their punishments Dante does not represent or displayed greater difficulty. The hell is human. But in the real hell happens the opposite: it Is the degradation of the field that you can’t say or express. The first image of those who are in the field (that in which we are going to convert) is the image of what we can comprehend or understand. The show a situation that for those who are distant to it is difficult to even imagine is what the book of Levi try, and the stunning opening poem places us before the question of whether those who are in the normal life can understand who has suffered what they have suffered, if you can find them as human beings even. And this without going even on the topic of the sunken (which was already the subject of a previous entry to the purpose of the text Agamben) that represents the limit of it. The problem of the difficulty of expressing the experience shows without getting to that limit. But it is hell, not paradise; the experience of evil, not the contemplation of the divine good; what is a limit to the meaning and the understanding.
The above is understood better if we compare the evils of Hell. In Dante it is well known that the penalties fit the sins: To those who fell in lust and were left to move for she condemns them to an eternity of being moved by wind; to those who fell in the greed to live in the rot (which is the end result of what you ingested). In the measure that we advance in to Hell, and the sins are greater, the penalties to your time become more severe (and we’ll find the people who live under an eternal rain of fire, those who are perpetually and afresh dismembered, and so on). But in all this variation of penalties nothing about the real hell, nothing is about to lose the person, and to consider themselves as abandoned of mankind. As we said Levi, when we consider the reaction of them with the hanging of one who resisted:
At the foot of the gallows, the SS saw us pass with indifferent gaze: his work was done and done well. The russians can come now: there are no longer any strong men among us, the latter now hanging over our heads,and for others, a few halters have sufficed. Can come the russians: we don’t find more than the tamed us, the finishes, worthy now of the death-defenseless waiting for us.
To destroy a man is difficult, almost as much as creating it: it has not been easy, it has not been brief, but what you have achieved, German. Here we are, docile under your eyes: from our part, nothing you have to fear: nor rebellious acts, or words of challenge, nor even a look that judge (If this is a man, The last, p 162-163)
What produces the hell is the extinction of the human, of being a person. The closest thing in Dante it is the loss of identity consistent experience thieves in Canto 25 of the Hell (which characteristically is not to Dante the worst of the punishment, being in the eighth circle, not in the ninth, and last, dedicated to the traitors). But they do not cease to be people who suffer. The suffering particular to stop being a person, that Hell, it was impossible to be even thought of.
And maybe a last point, it serves us to go back to the beginning: The hell imagined is a hell spoken. Even in the most pathetic moment of Hell, Ugolino gnawing the head of Ruggieri (Hell, Canto 33), to remind the traitor that did it to die left with their children, they speak and tells. Speech is still the person. But the real hell is beyond speech, and in it no one wishes to speak, and no one wants to listen to it to sink in for him. And the less talk that is so characteristic of the human, and so characteristic of Dante’s Inferno. And is that recovery of speech, language, which in part recovers Levi to try to teach Italian by translating the Canto of Ulysses. The speech that allows you to get the hell out.
The men, well, we were able to actually create a greater hell than any we could imagine. The pure good is really inaccessible, but the evil without mixture itself has existed.