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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival by Frederic D. Homer (University Missouri Press) At the age of twenty-five, Primo Levi was sent to Hell. Levi, an Italian chemist from Turin, was one of many swept up in the Holocaust of World War II and sent to die in the German concentration camp in Auschwitz. Of the 650 people transported to the camp in his group, only 15 men and 9 women survived. After Soviet liberation of the camp in 1945, Levi wrote books, essays, short stories, poetry, and a novel, in which he painstakingly described the horrors of his experience at Auschwitz. He also spent the rest of his life struggling with the fact that he was not among those who were killed.

In Primo Levi and the Politics o f Survival, Frederic D. Homer looks at Primo Levi's life but, more important, shows him to be a significant political philosopher. In the course of his writings, Levi asked and answered his most haunt­ing question: can someone be brutalized by a terrifying experience and, upon return to "ordinary life," recover from the physical and moral destruction he has suffered? Levi used this question to develop a philos­ophy positing that although man is no match for life, he can become better pre­pared to contend with the tragedies in life.

According to Levi, the horrors of the world occur because of the strength of human tendencies, which make relation­ships between human beings exceedingly fragile. He believed that we are ill-con­stituted beings who have tendencies toward violence and domination, dividing ourselves into Us and Them, with very shallow loyalties. He also maintained that our only refuge is in education and respon­sibility, which may counter these tenden­cies. Homer calls Levi's philosophy "opti­mistic pessimism."

As Homer demonstrates, Levi took his past experiences into account to determine that goodwill and democratic institutions do not come easily to people. Liberal soci­ety is to be earned through discipline and responsibility toward our weaknesses. Levi's answer is "civilized liberalism." To achieve this we must counter some of our most stubborn tendencies.

Homer also explores the impact of Levi's death, an apparent suicide, on the way in which his work and theories have been perceived. While several critics dis­count Levi's work because of the nature of his death, Homer argues that his death is consistent with his philosophy. A book rich in brutally honest philosophy, Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival compels one to look at serious questions about life, tragedy, optimism, solidarity, violence, and human nature.

The Holocaust and his work as a chemist were never far from Levi's thoughts. He expressed his ideas about them in short stories, poems, es­says and in a novel, If Not Now, When? Levi also expanded on his ideas and recounted his experiences in extended interviews. Tulle Reggio's Di­alogo finds Levi and Reggio in a dialogue about some of the current issues of science, and Ferdinando Camon's Conversations with Primo Levi is a far-ranging discussion touching on many aspects of Levi's life, but with an overall emphasis on Levi's political views. Other writers' fine work gives valuable information on Levi's life, literary career, and the literary merits of his writings. This work includes two intellectual biographies, Mirna Ci­cioni's Primo Levi: Bridges o f Knowledge and Myriam Anissimov's Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist, and a collection of essays edited by Su­san Tarrow, Reason and Light. The biographies can be read along with Philip Roth's probing interview that appears as an afterword in recent edi­tions of Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. Yet, to understand Levi, there is no substitute for his original works, for they are deliberate models of clarity.

This work is the elaboration of Primo Levi's political philosophy. Levi was a key witness to the Holocaust and an important literary figure of his era, but his arguments need to be inserted into contemporary debates about how we should live and work with others. Levi's political philoso­phy has been overlooked because prior to this volume, his insights on life and politics have not been gathered in one place. Although his thoughts are scattered in many volumes and in several different literary forms, and though he is drawn to the small naturalistic experiment and sharp obser­vation rather than abstract speculation, Levi's work can be expressed as a consistent set of ideas about his life and circumstances.

Though Primo Levi expressed these ideas in a variety of literary genres, he consistently brought the wiles of a chemist-observation, detachment, and analysis-to his work. In Survival in Auschwitz, he writes: "My mod­el (or, if you prefer, my style) was that of the `weekly report' commonly used in factories: it must be precise, concise, and written in a language comprehensible to everybody in the industrial hierarchy.” His naturalis­tic observations as a child, his formal chemistry training, and his relent­less curiosity gave Levi the ability to analyze his life and public circum­stances. His detached reporting was a matter of deliberate strategy, for when he began writing about the Holocaust; he felt that to be credible, he must limit himself to careful description. With the exception of his poetry and certain measured prose where he openly expresses his feelings, his writings are careful observational gems of the circumstances he and others faced and the strategies for dealing with them.

At first glance then, Levi is an "objective" reporter of facts who reserves his emotions and opinions for poetry. Yet Levi's objectivity and his mod­esty toward the complexities of existence distract us from his more ambi­tious attempt to comprehend life and politics. His understanding dictates many of his actions in Auschwitz, on his journey home, and for the re­mainder of what he calls "ordinary life."

Primo Levi brings three unique perspectives to his political philosophy. First, the Holocaust was horrible, and virtually inexpressible, but his nightmare there serves as a stark metaphor for the decisions we have to make in life. Levi invites us to ask ourselves whether we have the strength to stand up against the comparatively trivial problems of "ordinary life," whether our additional resources today are enough to make us a match for life. Levi gives us unique insights into the circumstances of the death camp and the circumscribed options chosen by those engulfed in the night­mare. He insists on using these experiences in thinking about ordinary life upon his return from Auschwitz.

Second, in his science fiction, Levi looks at the human species with a studied detachment and asks if we could have been constituted in a differ­ent manner. By what turn could we have become a better species? In one story, he asks what would happen if pain were pleasure and pleasure pain. In a second, he asks if we would go to planet earth if we knew in advance about life and existence there. In a third short story, a group of technicians make recommendations to God about constructing man before God has acted on his own in creating the world. These stories question our basic nature and ask whether a better job of constructing humans could have been done.

Third, Levi's work as a chemist brings a unique perspective to his political philosophy. The Monkey's Wrench is a work about a rigger, Faus­sone, who serves as an alter ego to the thinly disguised narrator, who just happens to be a Holocaust survivor and chemist. In The Periodic Table, Levi sees life and work through the filter of a chemist. In this sense, his thought resembles that of Eric Hoffer, the American longshoreman who uses his work experiences to come to terms with his life. In sum, Levi's un­derstanding of how people try to cope with circumstances when all the rules of life no longer apply, his habit of asking whether creation could have occurred in a better way, and his use of his work as a chemist as both method and meditation all create ideas that are a rich source for modern political thought.

Prior to World War II, Levi stood apart from his fellow students and tried to understand the world. He has admitted that he was filled with an assortment of inchoate and romantic views. The Holocaust taught him the urgency of understanding oneself as integrally connected with others, whether one wants to be or not. Given the brutal scarcity of Auschwitz, Levi was forced to confront the question of solidarity: First me, second me, why you? His political philosophy was forged of necessity and reflection on those terrible times. Political philosophy, as Michael Weinstein, our most pre-eminent life philosopher has us understand, is not a project for the bitterly disappointed among us reflecting on how we could have lived our lives after we have spent a lifetime of abstract speculation. Under­standing our lives is a matter of understanding the needs of the flesh. Whether we are attacked by life as Levi was, or live lives of quiet con­templation as an ascetic, we are constantly faced with agonizing choices. Levi's work prepares us to think about possible futures as well as how to face the everyday trials of life-so ordinary to others and often so des­perate to ourselves.

The introductory section of this book explores the question of whether we can ever completely overcome something terrible done to us, when we are crushed by other human beings and feel powerless to respond. This section foreshadows Levi's philosophy of "optimistic pessimism."

The second section of the book, "Optimistic Pessimism," examines Levi's assessment of how prisoners stood up to the brutalities in the death camp. He concludes that we are ill-constituted beings who often are not a match for life. Levi asks: Can we be better prepared as humans to contend with the tragedies of existence? In answer to this question, he critiques the postmodern, existential and intellectualist models of choice and gives us his "optimist pessimism" as the best option for the good life.

Levi's political ideas follow with his portrait of Auschwitz as the cyni­cal construction of a synthetic state of nature that maximizes scarcity and terror-in Levi's own words, a "Hobbesian Hell." In his last days in Auschwitz, as the synthetic state of nature disintegrated, an actual social contract was forged between the eleven people left for dead in his infir­mary barracks. This contract takes into consideration an understanding of our fragile natures and discloses Levi's minimalist expectations for pol­itics, his "civilized liberalism" that rests on a firm Hobbesian base with no illusions about human nature. Levi's civilized liberalism provides a flesh-­and-blood alternative to the contemporary liberalism of John Rawls.

The concluding section asks whether or not the manner in which Levi died should influence future assessment of his work. Several critics have tried to discount his work by suggesting that his apparent suicide negates his life and writings. In contrast, this work shows that his hedonism, op­timistic pessimism, and civilized liberalism are consistent with the way he lived and the way he died.

For the most part, the story told is Levi's own, and as much as possible, in his own words. Other thinkers will remain for the most part in the back­ground, except for the occasions where he mentions them or they help to strengthen his case. This book is an appreciative construction, for I am try­ing to cast Levi's incipient philosophy in terms that make it a comprehen­sive, viable alternative to other modern works of political philosophy. It would seem to be in the worst taste to construct a political philosophy, something that Primo Levi never asked for, and criticize him on grounds of its insufficiency. The reader, however, is free of such constraints and may judge Levi's works and my own interpretations against a close reading of Levi and those who have affinities and differences with him. The mistakes, I suspect, are for the most part, my own.I have been teaching a course in political violence for more than twenty­-five years, with a significant component on the Holocaust. When I Intro­duced Levi's Survival in Auschwitz into the course, my interest in the Holocaust in general and Levi in particular increased. I began to use The Drowned and the Saved and some of his other writings in my Contempo­rary Political Philosophy course as an example of how someone with lit­tle formal tutoring in political philosophy can use courage, acute powers of attention, and a voracious appetite for ideas to understand his own life. Also drawing me to him were our similar early educational and religious backgrounds, a close affinity with his ideas, and the gnawing questions that people who read Levi ask of themselves: How would I have responded to such adversity? What are the physical and moral tools for survival? Do I have them? Is there any preparation for such evil? Can we prevent it from occurring again? As I wrote this book I found a sophisticated com­prehensive political philosophy that answered many of my questions, questions that have intrigued me, as well as my students, for many years.

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