Abstract of Taylor, R, “Primo Levi: Waving or Drowning? Survivor Archetypes in Representations of the Holocaust”.
Holocaust representation is largely a struggle of representative tropes. Survivor representation has become part of this problem. Pre-Holocaust understandings of survival and Christian and non-Christian literary representations of survival have influenced the development of Holocaust survivor tropes. Two significant archetypes have emerged; the ‘heroic’ type, who has overcome the Holocaust, and the ‘victim’ type, who is overcome by the Holocaust. An archetype in this context is a paradigm or pattern by which all survivors of the Holocaust are judged, and in which survivors participate when they construct a narrative of their experiences acceptable to their audience. Ultimately all survivors of the Holocaust locate themselves in and/or are located in one of two extreme archetypal ways.
Prominent survivors represent all survivors: the image we carry of them stands for all survivors. In life Primo Levi embodied the ‘heroic’ type, emerging as a symbol of the Holocaust who represents rationality. His death, in mysterious circumstances, threw that judgment into question. Those circumstances have allowed his death to be interpreted in two radically different ways; as an accident and as suicide. What must be questioned is not the truth of those opposing arguments but how far they have been influenced by survivor archetypes.
We stand at an important junction. As survivor numbers dwindle decisions must be made about how survivors are to be represented to future generations. Uncovering the complex figure behind the symbolic representation of Primo Levi may allow us to see the diverse reality of survivors and may help to lead to a discourse about survivors based on reality rather than symbolism.