Dante tells his men:
|118||Considerate la vostra semenza:|
|119||fatti non foste a viver come bruti,|
|120||ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.|
This is translated in by Stuart Woolf (Levi's English translator) as:
Think of your breed: for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
Of course, in Auschwitz, this is a cry of incredible defiance. But where Dante's Ulysses is destroyed by Another, Levi is destroyed ultimately by the knowledge that in Auschwitz, the struggle was not between the demand for obedience to divine rule facing off against the freedom to find out knowledge and excellence, but between those who embraced brutish ignorance, seeking to extinguish all knowledge and excellence and the men, women and children who entered their inverted, perverse, enclosed empire. The empire where criminals became kings and the bulk of inmates became dispensable vassals.
Levi confronts a terrible paradox in The Canto of Ulysses: to remain a man, he must remember Dante, but the act of remembering and delivering and explaining to the Pikolo Jean, reawakens in the prisoner the terrible agony of remembering his home, his mountains, his life prior to entering the circles of hell that comprised Auschwitz. And yet, through Ulysses, Levi begins to grasp at some explanation for the inexplicable, 'a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate'. Then the mundane, sordid, banal reality of collecting their cabbage and turnip soup dispels the moment and Levi ends with the final line of the canto:
'and over our heads, the hollow seas closed up'.
Even though he is in the category of the saved and not the drowned, here, he is swallowed up.
We must do our utmost, in however small a way, to rescue our fellow men from the hollow seas, to remember that we were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue excellence and virtue, to protect those who are at risk of the terrible brutishness of which we can be guilty and to help those who seem to be sinking into savagery find safe passage into the light of the sun and other stars.