This is part II! If you haven not read part I, you will find it HERE

Comparison and delimitation


Having looked at both conceptions of hell and Levi’s as well as Dante’s journey through their hells, I’d like to have a closer look at the points of convergence, or better put, Levi’s use of Dante’s Inferno. Direct quotations, such as on page 27, l.31 from the Inferno, 21st canto, p.291, lines 47-49 create a direct bond to Dante and a new dimension that leaves room for interpretation. This is when Levi realizes that in Auschwitz it is a different “swimming” than in the Serchio, because a NS soldier answers Levi’s question for why they do not get water with the simple but harsh words, that there is no why in Auschwitz. Another aspect lies in the basic structure of the various stages of Levi’s sojourn, which is similar in outline[1] to that of Dante and Virgil, especially through the encounters[2] with the different prisoners (Gunzberg 1986, p.19f.).

Important to mention here is, that Levi views the camp from a human perspective[3] and in his reflections excludes the rule of God from the rule of man (Sodi 1990, p.18). Dante, on the other hand, develops a progressive affinity with God through his witnessing of the divine justice exercised in hell and, as we have seen throughout his journey, his personal moral conformity to it. If one goes on to compare the principle of contrapasso in the two works, one encounters a contradiction (Sodi 1990, p. 27f.). In Dante’s Hell, the punishment is measured by the committed sin, whereas in Auschwitz, the perpetrators annihilate the innocent without a logically comprehensible motive[4] from the perspective of the Jews (Gunzberg 1986, p.16f.).

As for the journey to hell, one can point out the similarities of the starting point for both poets. They got lost and were searching for a way to prescribe meaning or a “mission” onto their lives[5]. Dante found Virgil who accompanied him and gave him meaning, whereas Levi was by himself after he was separated from his partisan group.

Another analogy in the beginning is the Charon, which ships Dante and Virgil to the other side into hell. For Levi and the other deported Jews, it is the train, which becomes “[…] their ferryboat, […], their collective Charon (as) the omnipresent SS.” (Gunzberg 1986, p.14f.). Once on the train/boat both pilgrims lose their ties to reality and the outside world, after which they enter their hell through a gate with an inscription of hopeless condemnation. Yet the inscription in Dante’s Inferno seems to be more honestly presenting, what awaits, whereas Auschwitz’s inscription portrays a perverted falsity of hope (Barth 2003).

Throughout Levi’s account of Auschwitz, it becomes clear, that he is describing a perpetual loss of everyone’s identity the longer one stays within the concentration camp. NS soldiers and camp veterans referred to this as the Muselmann (Levi, p.68), who has no identity anymore, but only reacts and behaves like an animal soon to be facing death without fully realizing it. In contrast, Dante’s journey through hell shapes or even solidifies the poet’s identity through his agreement with the divine justice he witnesses. At the level of the individual one can describes identity “[…] as an aspect of one’s cognitive map that concerns the configuration and structure of one’s self in relation to the social world.” (Greenfeld and Eastwood 2007, p.256). I would add that Auschwitz does not allow for a usual social world to develop, thereby creating a realm that favours the loss of identity, rather than its development or its persistence. Greenfield and Eastwood continue to argue by referring to the identity as inextricably bound to the culture it belongs to. In Auschwitz, that culture was focused on creating the Muselmann. As Jonathan Druker (2009, p.31) describes it, Auschwitz reverses the process of the Enlightenment for the prisoners, because they accept the concentration camp and its attached ideology to think for them, whilst giving up on thinking for themselves.

One of the most relevant passages in Primo Levi’s autobiographical novel with regard to Dante is chapter eleven (Levi, p.105): The Canto of Ulysses, in which Levi quotes parts of Dante’s Canto de Ulysses (Inf. 26th Canto) to teach Jean the piccolo[6] Italian and to become aware of his cultural roots, while the two fetch the soup for lunch.

Once again, the Dante analogy of the two travellers walking together through this universe of dangers crystallises here (Sperandio 2009, p.31f.) and in this case they meet Rudi the block leader (Levi, p.107), who can be seen as a representation of the figures that pass Dante’s and Virgil’s paths in hell. More importantly, Levi’s remembering of Ulysses brings with it a personification of him with this mythical figure. Both of them being the “everyman”, that suffers his human fate, thereby defining being human as being a survivor (Druker 2009, p.142f.).  But other than with Ulysses, Levi starts a revolt of reason and knowledge (Sperandio 2009, p.35) against the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz. Therefore Levi, in contrast to Ulysses, breaks only his metaphysical chains of oppression[7], whilst expressing his urgent need for a cultural re-identification in order to revive his imagination. This enables him to pave the way to remain human in a cultural sense, thereby avoiding becoming a Muselmann. Gunzberg, L (1986, p.14) argues that one can differentiate between factual analogies, spiritual analogies and the progress of the protagonist, that connect Levi and Dante. Here I would add one can identify a role development of three stages. Dante and Levi begin as the lost, become a pilgrim, and become a poet after they present an account of their witnessed hell and fortify a view/ a belief about the world and its hell. Yet Levi was forced to become a pilgrim, whereas Dante wanted to fulfil a divine mission.

[1] Journey through limbo, inscription on the gate of hell, observing and experiencing hell and the souls that suffer there, etc. (Se questo è un uomo, chapters 1 – 2).

[2] Steinlauf (Levi, S.39); Elias (Levi, p.93); „Null-Achtzehn“ (Levi, p.40)

[3] As a place to contemplate the psychological nature of human beings (Sodi, 1990, p.26f.).

[4] Interview with Levi: “[…], many of the Nazi’s actions reflect nothing but the desire to inflict suffering for the purpose of inflicting suffering – and nothing more.” (Sodi 1990, p.10).

[5] Dante unsuccessfully trying to climb up the mountain, Levi trying to fight Fascism in an unorganized/unofficial partisan group.

[6] Organisation office in the concentration camp, also: messenger and scribe.

[7] Chains of the Nazi ideology and its goal of the ultimate dissolution of the imprisoned.


As we have seen in the examination of the Canto de Ulysses, Dante enables Levi to retain his cultural identity in Auschwitz (Gunzberg 1986, p.26). Through stylistic means, the reader is placed in the shoes of a pilgrim, as Dante was at the beginning of his journey, and together with Levi treads this hell-like universe in the hope of understanding something, which is not meant to be understood (Gunzberg 1986, p.12). With this dantesque armour of the work “Se questo è un uomo?” Levi finds a filter to make the incomprehensible more tangible through the literary shaping of reality (Sperandio 2009, p.38f.). Here one could further investigate with psychoanalytic methods, if Levi was not able to work through his trauma of Auschwitz without using Dante.

Without this literary image and framework, the reader would find himself in a dark forest, struggling to comprehend these terrible events and to understand this human spirit that has involuntarily passed through a man-made hell and even had the burden of surviving it. Thus, I come to the conclusion that one should not compare these two hells directly, but rather delimit them from each other. In doing so, one arrives at a deeper understanding of Primo Levi’s account of Auschwitz and his conception of the psychological nature of man (Sodi 1990).

Nowadays Dante and Levi can be described as two poets of Italy; one created a fictive work that was the framework for the other to conceptualize a cruel reality. The other became a poet through his trauma of Auschwitz, in another way answering Adorno’s question of the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz, by presenting a real account of hell on earth[1]. This leads me to answer that it is not Dante’s hell on earth, therefore not God’s hell on earth, but man’s hell on earth. Levi proclaimed his book to be a calm and reflective study of the human nature and mind (Camon 1993) and presents with the help of the most detailed description of hell in literature, referring to Dante’s Inferno, the possible hell of man, that he witnessed in Auschwitz. This observation, out of the authors perspective, is best concluded with Levi’s statement, that there cannot be God, for there is Auschwitz (Sodi 2011).

Furthermore, referring to such a famous literary work with a lot of cultural influence allows especially Italians, but also Europeans the identification with the author, paving the way of understanding or comprehending Auschwitz from a personal point of view, yet without judgement, but scientific and literary curiosity. Using Dante as a medium also means that Levi, who embodies a strong Italian identity, used an already existing symbolic artefact of his culture to mediate between the listener and those who have experienced a concentration camp.  The act of remembering, found in the act of reading and discussing Se questo è un uomo, creates a communality across both space and time (Erll and Rigney 2009), which allowed his work to become part of the collective memory and with time it was anchored in the cultural memory (Assmann 2007) of Europeans and especially Italians.

I would have liked this kind of different approach to a blog article to be more of a psychoanalytic approach, but during the process of research realized, that there is much more work involved and knowledge to be accumulated in approaching this topic from that particular angle in order to gain a fruitful outcome. Now I reject my own thesis of the possibility of Dante’s hell on earth and draw a fairly neutral conclusion. Perhaps even in line with Levi, who tried not to judge but to observe and leave the judgement to others (Camon 1993). Another conclusion I can draw is that this article, despite its length, only scratches the surface of the complexity and depth of the work “If this is man” by Primo Levi, and of course of the Inferno by Dante as well, and that a more in-depth study in the future would be a tempting idea. Maybe I was able to get you interested in this topic and you’d like to further investigate this thought-provoking impulse.

[1] By first of all literarily writing about it and secondly by approaching his account in a poetic, ethical and creative way (Sperandio 2009, p.14).



Dear readers,

Thank you for your time. Perhaps you have gained a small insight into a possible cultural studies focus of the IES study program.

I look forward to any comments and remarks on the format of the article, but of course also on its content.


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