Reading and discussion from The
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.