Sunday, February 17, 2013

Primo Levi – Lilith | One Thousand and One Nights

Primo Levi – Lilith | One Thousand and One Nights:

In the space of a few minutes the sky had turned black and it began to rain. Soon the rain increased until it became a stubborn downpour and the thick earth of the workyard changed to a blanket of mud, a hands-breadth deep. It was impossible not only to go on shovelling but even to stand up. Our Kapo questioned the civilian foreman, then turned to us: we should all go and take shelter wherever we could. Scattered about there were various sections of iron pipe, about five to six metres long and a metre in diameter. I crawled into one of these and halfway down it I met the Tischler, who had had the same idea and had come in from the other end.
Tischler means carpenter, and this was the only name by which he was known to us. There were also the Blacksmith, the Russian, the Fool, two Tailors (respectively the Tailor and the Other Tailor), the Galician, and the Tall Man. For a long time I was the Italian, then, indiscriminately, Primo or Alberto, because they mixed me up with another Italian. So the Tischler was Tischler and nothing more, but he didn’t look like a carpenter and we all suspected that he was no such thing. In those days it was common practice for an engineer to register as a mechanic, or a journalist to put himself down as a typographer. Thus one could hope to get better work than that of a common labourer without unleashing the Nazi wrath against intellectuals. At any rate, Tischler had been placed at the carpenters’ bench and his carpentry was pretty good. An unusual thing for a Polish Jew, he spoke a little Italian. It had been taught him by his father, who had been captured by the Italians in 1917 and taken to a camp — a concentration camp, in fact — somewhere near Turin. Most of his father’s comrades had died of Spanish influenza. You can still, as a matter of fact, read their exotic names today, Hungarian, Polish, Croat and German names, on a columbarium in the Cimitero Maggiore. That visit fills the visitor with pain at the thought of those forlorn deaths. Tischler’s father caught the flu too, but recovered. Tischler’s Italian was amusing and full of errors, consisting principally of scraps from librettos of operas, his father having been a great opera buff. Often at work I had heard him singing arias: ‘sconto col sangue mio’ and libiamo nei lieti calici’ . His mother tongue was Yiddish but he also spoke German and we had no trouble understanding each other. I liked Tischler because he never succumbed to lethargy. His step was brisk in spite of his wooden clogs, his speech was careful and precise, and he had an alert face, laughing and sad. Sometimes in the evening he staged entertainments in Yiddish, telling little anecdotes and reciting long strings of verses, and I was sorry I couldn’t understand him. Sometimes he also sang, and then nobody clapped and everyone stared at the ground, but when he was through they begged him to start again.
That almost canine encounter of ours on all fours cheered him up. If only it rained like that every day! But this was a special day: the rain had come for him because it was his birthday: he was twenty-five years old. Now, by sheer chance I was twenty-five that day too; we were twins. Tischler said it was a date that called for a celebration since it was most unlikely that we would celebrate our next birthday. He took half an apple out of his pocket, cut off a slice, and made me a present of it, and that was the only time in a year of imprisonment that I tasted fruit. We chewed in silence, as attentive to the precious acidulous flavour as we would have been to a symphony. In the meantime, in the pipe opposite ours, a woman had taken refuge. She was young, bundled up in black rags, perhaps a Ukrainian belonging to the Todt. She had a broad red face, glistening with rain, and she looked at us and laughed. She scratched herself with provocative indolence under her jacket, then undid her hair, combed it unhurriedly, and began braiding it again. In those days it rarely happened that one saw a woman close up, an experience both tender and savage that left you shattered.
Tischler noticed that I was staring at her and asked if I was married. No, I wasn’t. He looked at me with mock severity: to be celibate at our age was a sin. However, he turned around and stayed that way for some time, looking at the girl. She had finished braiding her hair, had crouched down in her pipe, and was humming, swaying her head in time with the music. ‘It’s Lilith,’ Tischler suddenly said to me. ‘You know her? Is that her name?’ ‘I don’t know her but I recognize her. She’s Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Don’t you know the story of Lilith?’ I didn’t know it and he laughed indulgently: everyone knows that western Jews are all Epicureans — apicorsim, unbelievers. Then he continued: ‘If you had read the Bible carefully, you would remember that the business of the creation of woman is told twice, in two different ways. But you people — they teach you a little Hebrew when you reach thirteen and that’s the end of it.’
A typical situation was developing, and a game that I liked: the dispute between the pious man and the unbeliever who is by definition ignorant, and whom the adversary forces to gnash his teeth by showing him his error. I accepted my role and answered with the required insolence:
‘Yes, it’s told twice but the second time is only the commentary on the first.’
‘Wrong. That’s the way the man who doesn’t probe below the surface understands it. Look: if you read attentively and reason about what you’re reading, you’ll realize that in the first account it says only: “God created them male and female.” That is to say, He created them equal, with the same dust. However, it says on the next page that God forms Adam, then decides it isn’t good for man to be alone, takes one of Adam’s ribs, and with the rib He fashions a woman, actually a Männin, a she-man. You see that here equality is gone. There are even people who believe that not only the two stories but the two women are different, and that the first wasn’t Eve, man’s rib, but Lilith. Now the story of Eve is written down and everybody knows it; the story of Lilith, instead, is only told, so that few know it — know the stories, actually, because there are many. I’ll tell you a few of them, because it’s our birthday and it’s raining, and because today my role is to tell and believe; you are the unbeliever today.
‘The first story is that the Lord not only made man and woman equal, but He made a single form out of clay — in fact a Golem, a form without form, a two-backed figure: that is, man and woman already joined together. Then He separated them with one cut but they were anxious to be joined again, and right away Adam wanted Lilith to lie down on the ground. Lilith wouldn’t hear of it: “Why should I be underneath? Aren’t we equal? Two halves made of the same stuff?” Adam tried to force her to, but they were also equal in strength and he did not succeed. So he asked God for help: He was male too and would say Adam was right. And so He did, but Lilith rebelled: equal rights or nothing, and since the two males persisted, she cursed the Lord’s name, became a she-devil, flew off like an arrow and went to live at the bottom of the sea. Some even claim to know more and say that Lilith lives in the Red Sea precisely. But every night she rises in flight, wanders around the world, rustles against the windows of houses where there are newborn babies, and tries to smother them. You have to watch out: if she gets in, she must be caught under an overturned bowl. Then she can no longer do any harm.
‘At other times she enters the body of a man, and the man becomes possessed. And then the best remedy is to take him before a notary or a rabbinical tribunal, and draw up a deed in due form in which the man declares that he wants to repudiate the she-devil. Why are you laughing? Of course I don’t believe this, but I like to tell these stories. I liked it when they were told to me, and it would be a shame if they were lost. In any case, I won’t guarantee that I myself didn’t add something, and perhaps all who tell them add something: and that’s how stories are born.
‘ We heard a distant racket and shortly afterwards a caterpillar-tread tractor passed alongside us. It was dragging a snowplough. But the mud it cleaved immediately joined together again behind the machine. Like Adam and Lilith, I thought to myself. Better for us; we would continue to rest for quite a while.
‘Then there’s the story of the seed. Lilith is greedy for man’s seed, and she is always lying in wait wherever it may get spilled, especially between the sheets. All the seed that doesn’t end in the only approved place — that is, inside the wife’s womb — is hers: all the seed that every man has wasted in his lifetime, in dreams or vice or adultery. So you see she gets a lot of it and so she’s always pregnant and giving birth all the time. Being a she-devil she gives birth to devils, but they don’t do much harm even if they would perhaps like to. They’re evil little spirits, without bodies. They make milk and wine turn, run about attics at night, and snarl girls’ hair.
‘But they are also the sons of man, of every man: illegitimate, it’s true, and when their fathers die they come to the funeral along with the legitimate sons who are their half-brothers. They flutter around the funeral candles like nocturnal butterflies, screech, and claim their share of the inheritance. You laugh precisely because you’re an un-believer and it’s your role to laugh. Or perhaps you never did spill your seed. It may even happen that you will get out of here alive. Then you’ll see that at certain funerals the ‘rabbi and his followers circle the dead man seven times. That’s it: they are putting up a barrier so that his bodiless sons will not come to give him grief.
‘But I still have to tell you the strangest story of all, and it’s not strange that it’s strange, because it’s written down in the books of the cabalists, and they were people without fear. You know that God created Adam, and immediately afterwards He realized it wasn’t good for man to be alone and He placed a companion at his side. Well, the cabalists said that it wasn’t good even for God Himself to be alone, and so from the beginning He took as His companion the Shekinah, which is to say, His own presence in the Creation. Thus the Shekinah became the wife of God and therefore the mother of all peoples. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and we were dispersed and enslaved, the Shekinah was angered, left God, and came with us into exile. Actually I myself have thought this: that the Shekinah also let herself be enslaved and is here around us, in this exile within exile, in this home of mud and sorrow.
‘So God has remained alone; as happens to many, He has not been able to endure solitude and resist temptation and has taken a mistress. Do you known who? Her, Lilith, the she-devil, and that was an unimaginable scandal. It seems, in short, that things unfolded as in a quarrel, when one insult is answered by a more serious insult, so the quarrel never ends; on the contrary it grows like an avalanche. Because you must know that this obscene tryst has not ended, and won’t end soon. In one way it’s the cause of the evil that occurs on earth; in another way, it is its effect. As long as God continues to sin with Lilith, there will be blood and trouble on Earth. But one day a powerful being will come – the one we are all waiting for. He will make Lilith die and put an end to God’s lechery, and to our exile. Yes, even to yours and mine, Italian. Mazel tov. Good fortune.’
Fortune has been good enough to me but not to Tischler. And it happened many years’ later that I actually attended a funeral that took place exactly in the way he had described, with the protective dance around the coffin. It is inexplicable that fate has chosen an unbeliever to repeat this pious and impious tale, woven of poetry, ignorance, daring acumen, and the unassuageable sadness that grows on the ruins of lost civilizations.

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