With Paola Mieli (psychoanalyst) and Joan Acocella (writer and critic).
Film screening: Sleeping Beauty in the Fridge, directed by Massimo Scaglione (RAI, 1978), a television short produced in collaboration with the author (Italian w/English subtitles)
As a survivor moved to become a writer by the “necessity” to share his experience, Primo Levi narrated the devastating effects of the deprivation of one’s subjectivity in the lager. New York and Paris based psychoanalyst Paola Mieli traces the voice of Levi the storyteller in his reflection on the causes and implications of what he defined as an “immense biological and social experiment,” pondering on the issue of segregation in our times and on the heritage the camps have bequeathed onto the present.
In Mieli’s interpretation, through surreal inventions, Levi pointed to a disquieting continuity between past aberrations and present normality, showing beyond any doubt how the present is subtly interwoven with the logic of the past. In his short story, Sleeping Beauty in the Fridge, Levi describes with great acumen the tight relationship between science new technologies, and subjective alienation, as well as the ways in which normality, and the tranquility of a prosperous life, are in fact the product of a bio-political normativity, universally accepted with careless complicity.
November 24, 7:00 pm, NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, 21 West 12 Street
Reading and discussion from The Drowned and the Saved. Michael Rothberg (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
The Nazi genocide of European Jews has frequently been described as the paradigm of modern evil. More than any other event, it seems to oppose a group of guilty perpetrators to a mass of innocent victims. The Jews, after all, were not singled out for anything they might have done, but simply for who they were. As a secular Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi was well situated to observe this dynamic. Yet, in his final work, The Drowned and the Saved, Levi painted a radically different picture of the Holocaust. His exploration of what he called the “gray zone” drew attention to the space between the poles of good and evil and to the moments of blurring between victims and perpetrators. Without relativizing the nature of the Nazi system, Levi upended the conventional view of the Holocaust and drew attention to the considerable degree of collaboration and complicity produced within the concentrationary universe.
As Levi suggested at the end of his essay on the gray zone, his concept has implications that go beyond the crucial question of how to define the nature of the Nazi camps or Lager. In this talk, the literary scholar Michael Rothberg will discuss the implications of Levi’s concept of the gray zone for two additional realms: those of historical responsibility and cultural memory. By complicating our conception of victims and perpetrators, the existence of the gray zone suggests, first, the need for a new figure of responsibility beyond the perpetrator, a figure Rothberg calls the “implicated subject.” The gray zone also poses challenges for memory. If, as Levi himself notes in the preface to The Drowned and the Saved, memory tends toward stylization and simplification, how is it possible to remember the ambiguities, intricacies, and stratifications to which Levi draws our attention? Inspired by Levi’s writings, Rothberg will reflect on the challenges to, and possibilities for, thinking about responsibility and memory under the sign of the gray zone.
December 9, 7:00 pm, NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, 21 West 12 Street
Reading and conversation on “On Translating and Being Translated”, (Other People’s Trades)
Ann Goldstein (editor of Primo Levi’s Complete Works) and Esther Allen (Baruch College)
“To Translate and Be Translated” from: Primo Levi, Other People’s Trades, and was translated by Anthony Shugaar
According to Genesis, the first humans had only one language: this made them so ambitious and so dexterous that they set about building a tower that reached as high as the sky. god was offended at their audacity, and he punished them in a subtle manner: not with a thunderbolt but by confounding their speech, which made it impossible for them to continue their blasphemous work. This episode has parallels, surely no accident, with the story of original sin, a story that comes shortly before this one in the bible and which was punished with expulsion from Paradise; we can conclude that linguistic differences were perceived from the earliest times as a curse.
And a curse they have remained, as anyone knows who has been forced to live, or, even worse, forced to work, in a country where he doesn’t speak the language, or anyone who has been obliged to hammer a foreign language into his head as an adult, when the mysterious material in which memories are engraved becomes more refractory. Further, for many people, at a more or less conscious level, anyone who speaks another language is a foreigner by definition, an outsider, a “stranger,” and different from me; and someone different is a potential enemy or, at least, a barbarian—that is to say, etymologically speaking, a stutterer, someone who cannot speak, a quasi-non-human. Thus, linguistic friction tends to become racial and political friction, yet another curse that afflicts us.
It ought to follow that those who practice the trade of translator or interpreter should be honored, inasmuch as they strive to limit the damage done by the curse of Babel. […]
December 15, 7:00 pm, NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, 21 West 12 Street
Reading and conversation on Primo Levi’s poems and writing on poetry.
André Naffis-Sahely (poet and translator) and Jonathan Galassi (translator of Primo Levi’s poems. Editor in chief, Farrar Straus Giroux).
Jonathan Galassi, novelist, publisher and distinguished translator of Giacomo Leopardi and Eugenio Montale, will appear in conversation with André Naffis-Sahely to discuss his lifelong dedication to Italian poetry and his new translations of Primo Levi’s poems, which were featured in Liveright’s monumental Complete Works of Primo Levi. Galassi will read his English translations to be followed by Naffis-Sahely reading the Italian originals. A short Q&A will follow.
January 2016, Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue
Reading and book presentation dedicated to Primo Levi’s close circle of family and friends in Turin
Speakers: Guri Schwarz, Alessandro Cassin, Stella Levi and others
Bianca Guidetti Serra’s Primo Levi, The Friend is a brief text in the form of a limmud. In Jewish tradition, a limmud is a teaching that serves as a memorial to someone who has passed away, dedicated to topics close to their heart; it allows the reader to participate in an ideal conversation—of the kind old friends continue to have with the departed. By delicately weaving personal memories with abundant quotations from Primo Levi’s writing, Guidetti Serra conjures up his presence, and reveals how Primo Levi, the man—his thoughts, attitudes, and character — was intrinsically linked to his work. What also comes alive here is Levi’s unique gift for deep and long lasting friendships. Bianca Guidetti Serra (1919-2014) was a lawyer, fought as a partisan in the Italian Resistance and continued to be a political activist throughout her life. She met Primo Levi during their university years and maintained a close, lifelong friendship with him. She is the author of Compagne, Einaudi 2009, a collection of interviews with politically engaged women from Turin.