Putting this on here, just because… To have it, to remember it… kind of like what the paper itself is about:

The Impossibility of Shared Experience

“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
-Michel de Montaigne

Levi, like Dante, is trying to pass on the story of the people in hell in order to save the souls of other people. Dante, by telling the story of hell, is trying to turn people away from committing sins and is passing on the political story of his native Florence in hopes that the politics will change and that the proper people will be damned for the rest of history; Levi, by telling the story of Auschwitz, is trying to make sure that such atrocities never happen again while telling the story of people that suffered in order to keep the memory of them alive and to keep history alive. The problem arises when these writers try to explain the unexplainable. How can a writer possibly relate an experience to another person that is beyond words? These writers will fail. They will never be able to convey the “true” experience of what they went through, but the failure is important because the story must be passed on and must live on in the memory of history. The stories these writers try and tell will fail because language fails to convey true meaning and will always be interpreted, and because experience, like a text being read, will always be interpreted in different ways.

No one could ever come close to knowing what these writers went through when they were violently disconnected from their society because experience can only be experienced by the one that is present for the experience. For Dante, he took his experience and fictionalized Florence into a hell, and it was hell for him because it was not the land to which he had grown so attached. Dante’s identity was one of being a Florentine. Violently disconnected from this identity is hell for Dante, but it is a hell that he knows he has to get through in order to reach a paradise—which for Dante is reached only in losing himself completely and then finding himself. Whereas Levi’s hell is a real lived experience that Levi has to endure every waking hour. In both cases (and we always have to keep in mind that Dante being exiled to “hell” is not nearly as bad as Levi’s experience of a concentration camp that becomes a tangible, real life hell), these writers face the task of putting into words experiences that cannot be described or understood by anyone who did not actually go through them. This is why Dante turns his account into a fictional creation of a journey through hell leading to paradise because it is only through fiction that someone might get to the experience of being exiled. Rather than say “this is my experience,” Dante conveys this experience through fiction. As prideful as Dante is, he addresses the reader enough—in a desperate plea to be believed and in hoping the reader heads his message: “May God so let you, reader, gather fruit/from what you read” (20. 19-20)— Dante, in places, also lets the reader know that he doesn’t even believe what he is writing. That what he is writing is too unbelievable, and Dante therefore reminds the reader that this is just a story which alludes to reality.

Levi, on the other hand, is in hell and has the much harder task of conveying experiences of his reality in a fictional manner (through a book); furthermore, these are experiences that are so bad that “when you really seem to lie on the bottom—well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining” (Levi 131). Language is too insufficient to be able to convey a reality in which one goes on living because the thought of suicide gives them hope. And yet, like Dante (and to a much greater extent), Levi tries to write about experiences that can never be experienced in words through a text.

Although these stories fail to actually convey the mourning of their writers, it is this failure of conveying experience that is important in and of itself:

For mourning to fully succeed, we should be able to get over the loss of the other in question. But if we can get over him or her, something seems to have failed in the mourning […] From this perspective, a truly appropriate mourning would be a mourning we couldn’t accomplish, that continues until our death. Derrida claims that if mourning succeeds, it fails, and it must fail in order to succeed (Deutscher 71) .

Therefore, even though it would be impossible to transmit an experience through insufficient words, the story must be told and the failure that is achieved is important. It is important for Dante because the stories must be passed on in order for us, today, to sit in the classroom and learn about the ills of Florence and the people that did wrongs to Dante, and it is important for Levi (for an even graver reasons) because he is trying to tell his story in order to pass it on so that history does not forget these atrocities and keeps it from happening again. This is seen when Levi is telling the story of the prisoners who march out of the camp and says, “Alberto was among them. Perhaps someone will write their story one day” (155), but this is their story like it is Levi’s, like it is the failure of action of the world that let this happen. It is a story that will be written again and again in hopes that the world will never forget what happened and never forget to whom it happened to.

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