Monday, May 28, 2007

A Gnostic Detour

Primo Levi
(Image from The New York Times)

I continue to delay my promised grappling with the ideas of Robert Koons, but perhaps today's tangent will prove interesting to some.

Over the weekend, I happened to read "Prisoner of War" (New York Times, May 27, 2007), Jonathan Rosen's review of Primo Levi's A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories (translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli).

Primo Levi (1919-1987), as most of you already know, survived Auschwitz and wrote about this defining event in a couple of works -- in 1947/58, Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man, published in the States as Survival in Auschwitz), and in 1963, La tregua (The Truce published in the States as The Reawakening) -- but the experience left its mark on a number of other stories.

I haven't read much by Levi even though I bought one or two of his books while I was studying in Berkeley back in the eighties, and those books are on my shelves, misplaced somewhere among the double-shelved volumes of similarly unread books. Perhaps I'll finally read them in my old old age, when I'll ask myself, "Why didn't I read these before?" It's a question that I've been asking myself for years about books that I've just read -- initially, if I recall, after Morse Hamilton introduced me to Dostoevsky back in 1976.

Literature that deals with the existential questions concerning good and evil is what I find most compelling. I guess that this is what drew me in my academic studies to focus on Gnosticism, though I don't generally have a very high opinion of the Gnostic solution.

Anyway, I'm wondering if I should read Levi's stories in A Tranquil Star, for they deal with these questions. In one of the stories, "Gladiators" (1976), Rosen tells us that a "reluctant man brings his eager girlfriend" to watch a battle between people and cars, but the "spectacle sickens both of them." Rosen remarks:
What Levi's story captures, and passes on to the reader, is the guilt that observers feel just for having been there at all; their mere presence implicates them. It is the sensation he noticed in the eyes of his Russian liberators in "The Reawakening," the shame "the just man experiences at another man's crime."
I recall feeling something like this during the Balkan crisis of the early nineties -- perhaps shame that Europeans could still be doing such things to minorities nearly 50 years after the Holocaust, shame in the presence of the world. Rosen observes that Levi's concern with shame, however, was broader:
This shame, as much as the crimes of the Germans, was the human stain that darkened and spread over Levi's long career. His radical humanism kept him from taking refuge in "us and them" distinctions -- he was much more focused on the shame of the species. (Unlike Eli Wiesel, Levi -- a highly assimilated Jew -- never quarrels with God, in whom he did not believe even as a young man.)
Before whom, then, does one feel this shame? The universe? The universe itself, however, appears flawed:
[D]espite his rational stance, human guilt took on mystical overtones in his work, and can seem a sort of belated original sin. It's bound up with the question, which troubles all his writing, of whether his time in Auschwitz was a season in hell or a glimpse of the true condition of the world.

That question haunts these stories as well. The possibility of transcendent evil is felt with great force in "The Molecule's Defiance" (1980), a seemingly straightforward account of a night at a factory that grows sinister when a vast batch of resin forms a single monster-molecule and bursts free of its container. "The hatch rose by itself, not suddenly but gently, solemnly, as when tombs open and the dead arise." The palpable dread comes not from the fear of an explosion or the loss of a night's work or the expectation of reprimand that dogs the chemist on duty, but from a kind of moral sickness, a sense that evil has sunk into the very molecular structure of the world. "A fire or an explosion can be a much more destructive accident, even tragic," the narrator tells us, "but it's not disgraceful, like a gelatinization."
Despite Rosen's suggestion of "transcendent evil," the evil here seems more immanent, more material, therefore Gnostic. Rather than love as that which binds all things together, something else is lurking:
[The] image of rational scientific rescue is undone in a story like "The Molecule’s Defiance," where the laws of science do not seem rational at all. Instead of each molecule having "two hands" that form an elegant "rosary," they develop a third hand and then "every rosary joins with two or three other rosaries, and in the end they've formed a single molecule, a monster." Religious imagery overwhelms scientific language, and all the irrational elements that Levi recoiled from in human society seem to have penetrated the very fabric of the universe.
Rosen avoids the morally laden term "evil" and uses instead the expression "irrational elements," but that fits with a Gnostic view of the cosmos -- a cosmos that at its core is evil because it is irrational, chaotic, yet somehow conscious even though ignorant.

Intellectually, I don't find Gnosticism compelling, but Levi's story might be, and might not be so Gnostic-sounding as Rosen's account makes it seem ... though Rosen doesn't mention Gnosticism, for that matter.

Perhaps I see only what preoccupies me...

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At 8:41 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I recall feeling something like this during the Balkan crisis of the early nineties

I have been reading the last few post with little understanding, but today thinking why I use the pronoun we, when referring to America or the US, I thought of this post. I think I feel the responsibility of every act good or bad of my country. I felt somewhat the same, because I didn't speak my beliefs to those that mattered before the Iraq war.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, my recent posts have not been models of clarity, partly because I've been pressed for time.

Anyway, I know what you mean by the pronoun "we" and the accompanying sense of responsibility.

Jeffery Hodges

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