Endowed Chair Lecture explores connections between Dante and Primo Levi

Elie Wiesel Associate Professor of Judaic Studies Sharon Portnoff
Elie Wiesel Associate Professor of Judaic Studies Sharon Portnoff

How does one get home from hell?

That’s the question grappled with by medieval poet Dante, and, much later, Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi.  

Levi used Dante’s work as a lens through which to tell the tale of his own experience during the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel Associate Professor of Judaic Studies Sharon Portnoff explained in her Endowed Chair Lecture Series talk on Oct. 5.

“On its surface, it seems incongruous that Levi, a modern Jew, would witness to Auschwitz through Dante, a medieval Christian,” Portnoff said, yet “Levi’s choice of Dante in this matter points to something larger, something about what might be permanently ‘human.’”

In her talk, "Primo Levi's 'Reveille' and Dante's Purgatory:  A Quiet Defense of the Liberal Arts," Portnoff broke down Levi’s poem about how—even after they returned home—the prisoners of Auschwitz couldn’t escape the horror of their experience. She then drew parallels between the poem and Dante’s Commedia, discussing the role of dreams and art in filtering suffering.   

“Levi’s ‘Reveille’ evokes Dante’s poem to suggest—as Dante implies—that we cannot rely on dreams or art to change the brute facts of reality. But the subtlety and nuance with which Levi draws on Dante’s poem does more than enlarge this knowledge: after all, Dante’s ‘brute reality’ was exile from Florence; Levi’s was exile from the higher aspirations of humanity,” Portnoff said.

Portnoff is the second faculty member named to the Wiesel Chair, an endowed position established in 1990 by a generous gift from alumna JoAnn Hess Morrison ’67 in honor of the late Nobel laureate, author and international human rights advocate Elie Wiesel. A professor at the College since 2008, Portnoff specializes in modern Jewish thought, Israel and Holocaust theology and teaches courses in the Holocaust, post-Holocaust responses, religious ethics and Jewish traditions.  

In addition to the lecture, Portnoff was honored with a reception and dinner. Poet in Residence Charles O. Hartman, the Lucy Marsh Haskell ’19 Professor of English at Connecticut College, will give the next Endowed Chair Lecture on April 5.

October 12, 2016