In both real-life and fictional testimony, the problems of reliability-judgment multiply when witnesses report events that count as extraordinary. Historians and other judges then suspect the teller of misrepresentation. On such testimonies there accordingly converge the issues of reliability and rhetoric, truth and persuasion, norm and narrative discourse. To illustrate them, my essay juxtaposes the testimonial viewpoints and practices of two survivors of the Nazi camps: Primo Levi and Dan Pagis. The two may seem poles apart: while Levi is considered the quintessential witness, Pagis chose silence, just as his poems of fantasy stand opposed to Levi's documentary prose. Yet the comparison remains illuminating because even the divides prove thematic, central, and even dynamic, in that the writers undergo a symmetrical change. While the early Levi is relatively optimistic about the success of his project, his last book, The Drowned and the Saved,expresses a great disillusionment about his life's work as a witness to the Holocaust. The change can be traced, first, to his growing doubts about the reliability of witnesses, and second, to the reactions of readers, which made him question the very human capacity to understand whatever lies beyond one's own horizon of experience. Over the years, either party to the dialogue has turned out, or become, unequal to its demanding role.
Pagis's alternative strategy of communication—fictional, poetic,implicit—is the focus of the argument. The Holocaust surfaces as late as his third book, mainly in a small group of poems. Their dense and subtle poetic composition functions for rhetorical, notably testimonial ends. Equally important is the fictionalizing of both the world and the discourse about it. A twofold dialogic process (inset versus framing) ensues, whereby we catch a glimpse of Pagis's own viewpoint on the subject he otherwise avoided. In rejecting typical witnessing material and techniques, Pagis changesthe very priorities of representation, from the standard problematic frontal attack to a defamiliarizing obliquity heightened by the resources of fantasy. Likewise with the shift from victim/victimizer relations as witnessed nowadays by a participant to their earliest precedents in the Abel/Cain affair and, more generally, to their sources in a God-created humankind. By this boldest departure, the target of attack itself ascends, or extends, from earth to heaven, and with it everything else. This strategy is exemplified and further generalized from the two poems that not only carry it to a limit but also thematize the issue of testimony in the process, beginning with their titles:“Testimony” and “Another Testimony.” Through such odd-looking obliquities, I conclude, Primo Levi's unachievable ideal (as opposed to his splendid documentary performance) is realized in Pagis's bold fictions of testimony.