If This Is a Man

by Primo Levi

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable.

Early in the book, Levi makes this statement. Although he and the others are headed for misery at Auschwitz, it is the misery that, ironically, keeps them alive. Misery is the “material cares” of life in the camp: what a person has to do to get through each day. These occupy the mind, and, Levi notes, it is the blows, thirst, and cold that keep the prisoners focused. These hold the void of despair at bay.

There is no why here.

When Levi, extremely thirsty on his arrival at Auschwitz (“the lager”), tries to break an icicle from a window and suck on it, a guard grabs it and throws it away. Levi, new to the camp, asks why he can’t have it and is told “there is no why here.” This short phrase becomes the operative logic of the lager. Everything is forbidden not because it makes any sense to do so but because the lager was created to make sure everything is forbidden to the prisoners. Levi must accept early on that he has left the rationality of his former world behind and is living within the logic of might makes right. No other explanation is needed.

Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.

Much of Levi’s struggle will be not only to get food and rest, but to retain his humanity. For example, an interlude in which he can talk to a fellow prisoner about Dante’s Divine Comedy helps Levi stay alive, reminding him that he is still human in a place where everything is done to dehumanize the inmates and rob them of their individuality.

For living men, the units of time always have a value, which increases in ratio to the strength of the internal resources of the person living through them; but for us, hours, days, months spilled out sluggishly from the future into the past, always too slowly, a valueless and superfluous material, of which we sought to rid ourselves as soon as possible. . . . For us, history had stopped.

Levi and other men who have been in the lager a relatively long time watch new arrivals. One day, Levi hears news that the Allies are coming, and he learns of Normandy, of the Russian advance, and of the assassination attempt on Hitler, which gives rise to “violent but ephemeral hope.” This history—the moving flow of life and circumstance—is, however, so far beyond the reality experienced in the lager that Levi can’t take it seriously. What life is for him and the others is a day-by-day slog of misery that they must get through as quickly as possible without any hope that things will be different tomorrow. Levi expresses here how the experience of the lager is different from that of the ordinary world and grinds down people’s souls and hopes.

I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.

Continuing the theme that staying human is integral to survival, Levi credits an Italian civilian, Lorenzo, who befriended him, with helping him to survive by reminding him that there is another, more humane world on the outside worth living for.

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