Understanding the Inexpressible: Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved

As described by Primo Levi in his work The Drowned and the Saved, the ultimate effect of the Nazi concentration camps was not just to execute a section of the population; more than life, the camps took humanity itself. Thus, it is implied in Levi’s writings that those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust were, by definition, not the ones who had undergone the full force of the Nazi’s dehumanizing project. They were able to once again return to the human community after their harrowing experience. Levi describes the ones who were forced to see this process through as being the only true witnesses to the worst of the holocaust, an act of witnessing which robed them of all ability to express what had been experienced. This is why Levi describes these people as “those who saw the Gorgon”, to see what they saw was to be lost forever.

Levi, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, explains that for the survivors memory was selective, and sometimes even misleading. As he says: “It has been noticed, for instance, that many survivors of wars or other complex and traumatic experiences tend unconsciously to filter their memories”. The survivors accounts are of a time at which everything human in them rebels, and they would rather forget, or place emphasis on the “relaxed intermezzos” between the worst of their experiences. Furthermore, even in the face of such torments, as Levi recounts, the human mind often seeks to alter its own reality. This is evident in Alberto’s response to the sure death of his father. After he was sent to the chambers, Alberto invented for himself an elaborate myth detailing how his father had survived and had been sent to a camp for geriatrics.

Not only does Levi question the completeness of the picture presented by the survivors, he also notes that the experiences many of them shared were not what the majority of the prisoners actually faced. Indeed, that was exactly how they were able to survive, “by their prevarications or abilities or good luck”. The camps were made to kill people, those who survived, then, were the exceptions and not the rule; they usually had options that were never offered to those who died. These people were called “Muslims” and within the camps they were “the irreversibly exhausted, worn out prisoners close to death”.

Communication, and through it the twin benefits of community and information, was precious within the Lagers. Language was vital in the camps for, as Levi explains, the essence of human life is such that “one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful and easy way to the peace of others and oneself”. Many of those who survived could either speak German, the language of their captors, or another language which connected them to their fellow prisoners. In knowing German one had a great advantage, for, “[t]hose who understood them and answered in an articulate manner could establish the semblance of a human relationship”. This semblance of a relationship, while not insuring life, prevented one from falling into the”irreversible exhaustion” and extreme isolation of the “Muslim”.

As Levi describes:

“This ‘not being talked to’ had rapid and devastating effects. To those who do not talk to you, or address you in screams that seem inarticulate to you, you do not dare speak… if you don’t find anyone your tongue dries up in a few days, and your thoughts with it.”

Language is not merely a tool, allowing us to externalize the internal world of the mind; it is also constituent and and feeds back into the way our minds themselves work. Without it, we lose an integral part of ourselves. Levi makes this an essential characteristic of the human, making the broad statement: “All members of the human species speak, no nonhuman species knows how to speak”. He further emphasizes the human non-human dichotomy and the effects of losing the ability to communicate when he describes the reactions of the Italians in the camp, who looked around: “with bewildered eyes, like trapped animals, and that is what they had become”. Not only does this loss of communication drastically change the victims’ ways of thinking, but it also pronounced a virtual death sentence for the prisoner. As Levi describes: “In short, you find yourself in a void, and you understand at your expense that communication generates information and that without information you cannot live”.

This is what it took in the camps to make a “Muslim”: the utter loss of the ability to express even the most basic of thoughts,  with it any connection to human community, and a certain death sentence after time spent in cruel labour. These were the people who truly witnessed all the holocaust had to offer, and because of it could never actually express what they saw, for the holocaust did not only kill the person, but the human within. This is why it is only possible to get a third party’s account of the events, that a precondition of understanding them is, paradoxically, never “really” knowing what they experienced, and being only too aware of this divide. In a passage of the greatest importance Levi explains:

We who were favored by fate tried, with more or less wisdom, to recount not only our fate but also that of the others, indeed of the drowned; but this was a discourse ‘on behalf of third parties,’ the story of things seen close at hand, not experienced personally. The destruction brought to an end, the job completed, was not told by anyone, just as no one ever returned to describe his own death. Even if they had paper and pen, the drowned would not have testified because their death had begun before that of their body… they had already lost the ability to observe, to remember, to compare and express themselves. We speak in their stead, by proxy.

This is why Levi describes the true witnesses of the holocaust as “those who saw the Gorgon”, for to truly see it was to lose all that makes one human. It is not a paradox to say that the only witnesses were those who could then never bear witness, for that in itself was the very state that the true witnesses were reduced to. The circumstances of the “Muslim” were so distant from those which we can imagine because the Holocaust had finished its work. It is humbling and awful insight, and should give some pause for thought when we seek to speak about such things, and for such people, to realize that we seek to speak of a thing in some ways beyond the communicative capacity of any human language, and that our grasping signs, our subtlest, most penetrating statements, can always only be at best second hand, the impression of the shadow of a borrowed signifier, whose actual owners took it along with them on their inexpressible journey to the end.

For More Information:

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage International, 1988.