If This Is a Man Critical Context - Essay

Primo Levi

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1963 George Steiner observed that silence is the only possible response to the Holocaust because “the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.” Levi makes a similar point when he comments that no words can describe his experience. Terms such as “hunger,” “fear,” and “pain” were created “by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.” Only a new, harsher languagecould express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.

Many who survived the concentration camps chose this path of silence, but Levi was not among them. As the patient in psychotherapy must purge his memory by bringing dark secrets to light, so Levi had a psychological need to tell his story. Like the Ancient Mariner he interrupted those who wanted to go to the wedding, who wanted to get on with life, to tell his tale of death. The writing also gave purpose to his existence; no longer was he engaged in the meaningless labor of Auschwitz. In writing he found work that could truly make him free.

If This Is a Man, like all other Holocaust literature, also represents a political act. As Steinlauf told Levi, each person at Auschwitz had a moral obligation to remain alive so that he could testify to the world about what had...

(The entire section is 434 words.)