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Paris – Primo Levi and self-knowledge

Paris: 1954

Paris: 1954

For a while I had taken some photographs of Paris; more specifically I had taken photographs of the things that get attached to the walls of Paris: posters, brass plaques telling us who did what, brass plaques telling us about fallen heroes, moments of street art, advertisements, stickers … whatever. I was hoping to have an exhibition of my photos that would be entitled ‘Paris close up’ – although, underneath it all, I knew that the exhibition would never happen. I did not know the type of people who would want to see my docu-photographs of Paris.

One day whilst I was working on my Paris-walls project I turned west from the Place de la Republique and threaded my way towards home. In the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis – that’s just past the zone where the Chinese call-girls hang out – I noticed the elegant green leaves of a bamboo brushing up against a pale grey piece of Parisian wall. On the wall, in stylish sky-blue lettering, was written the word SUICIDE. The word seemed to refer to suicide in a rather general way. No particular person’s suicide was indicated. I imagined that the word pointed towards a generic suicide.

I took a photograph of the wall and the sky-blue suicide letters and immediately thought of Primo Levi.

I don’t know why Primo Levi committed suicide. The fact that people commit suicide doesn’t surprise me. But, in Primo Levi’s case, it seemed terribly ironic since he had survived incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp.

However, as I thought again about Primo Levi’s suicide I think I know why he decided that he had enough of life: In one of his books – in ‘The Periodic Table’ – he came to say that he ‘knew himself’. He knew, for example, how he would react if he were to meet a former concentration camp official – a former captor of his. Primo Levi knew that on such an occasion he would remain courteous and he would listen and he would try to understand. Only afterwards would anger begin to overtake him. But it was always only later; only later would he feel the surge of fury and outrage at what had taken place – at what had happened to him, at the terrible suffering that had been inflicted on him and his fellows.

Somehow, I knew that the content of his self-knowledge was closely related to his subsequent suicide.

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