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Answering Auschwitz

Primo Levi's Science and Humanism after the Fall

Stanislao Pugliese

Publication Year: 2011

More than twenty years ago, the Italian chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi fell to his death from the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. Within hours, a debate exploded as to whether his death was an accident or a suicide and, if the latter, how this might force us to reinterpret his legacy as a writer and survivor.Many weighed in with thoughtful and sometimes provocative commentary, but the debate over his death has sometimes overshadowed the larger significance of his place as a thinker after Auschwitz.This volume contains essays that deal directly with Levi and his work; others tangentially use Levi's writings or ideas to explore larger issues in Holocaust studies, philosophy, theology, and the problem of representation. They are included here in the spirit that Levi described himself: proud of being impureand a centaur,cognizant that asymmetry is the fundamental structure of organic life. I became a Jew in Auschwitz,Levi once wrote, comparing the concentration camp to a universityof life. Yet he could also paradoxically admit, in an interview late in life, There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God.Rather than seek to untangle these contradictions, Levi embraced them. This volume seeks to embrace them as well.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright,

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

In April 1987, as my classmates and I were preparing to graduate from college, word arrived that the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi had died, presumably a suicide. Like millions of people around the world, I was stunned. Having read only his first book,...

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Prologue: Answering Auschwitz: Levi’s Science and Humanism as Antifascism

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pp. 1-14

In April 1987, the Italian chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi fell to his death in the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. Within hours, a debate exploded as to whether his death was an accident or a suicide and, if the latter, how this might force us to reinterpret his...

Part One: Psychology, Theology, and Philosophy

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Chapter 1: ‘‘Warum?’’

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pp. 17-30

During his initiation into what one survivor labeled the ‘‘Holocaust Kingdom’’ 1 and others would describe as the ‘‘Anus Mundi,’’2 the young and naïve Auschwitz prisoner Primo Levi reached outside a window for an icicle to quench his thirst. A guard patrolling outside rudely slapped it...

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Chapter 2: Guilt or Shame?

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pp. 31-40

Primo Levi’s corpus of writings has become an important part of a larger discussion in trauma, emotion, guilt, and shame theories. Because he is the Holocaust survivor who most articulately, poignantly, and openly discusses his own experiences during the Holocaust and his own relationship...

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Chapter 3: Primo Levi and the Concept of History

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pp. 41-55

After World War II, which wreaked havoc on a Europe still in shock and bleeding from the great war before it, a distrust and rejection of ‘‘historicism’’— skepticism toward any abstract, imposing generalization about the character and trajectory of society and history except in defense of individual...

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Chapter 4: Kenosis, Saturated Phenomenology, and Bearing Witness

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pp. 56-66

Any appreciative reading of Primo Levi’s The Reawakening is experienced, at least in part, as an avid cheering on of Levi and his assorted companions as they wend their way homeward to Italy (via Russia) in a circuitous meandering that is somewhat reminiscent of a picaresque adventure....

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Chapter 5: After Auschwitz: What Is a Good Death?

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pp. 67-84

Suicide brings on many changes. A life ends abruptly and the suicide is interpreted differently depending on circumstances and opinion. Sometimes it is seen as profoundly irrational, absurd and tragic, other times, as a heroic last act of an individual taking action to determine their fate....

Part Two: Humanism and Politics

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Chapter 6: The Humanity and Humanism of Primo Levi

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pp. 87-102

In a wide-ranging, polemical lecture in Turin in 1979, Primo Levi discussed the roots and variations of racial prejudice in history, finding early traces of the phenomenon even in the seemingly innocuous biblical verse in the Canticle of Canticles,...

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Chapter 7: Levi and the Two Cultures

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pp. 103-113

Primo Levi stresses and even exaggerates the importance of ‘‘hybridity’’ in his works and in his authorial persona.1 He tells his readers more than once that he was both an Italian and a Jew, both a chemist and a man of letters who was formed intellectually by scientific texts and humanistic...

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Chapter 8: The Partisan and His Doppelganger: The Case of Primo Levi

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pp. 114-126

Published in 1982, Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?) is Primo Levi’s first novel proper. Perhaps Primo Levi so regretted not fully living life as an Italian Jewish partisan that he re-created his lost dream through its pages, and had his partisan brigade not been captured, perhaps Levi’s...

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Chapter 9: Primo Levi in the Public Interest: Turin, Auschwitz, Israel

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pp. 127-134

This essay focuses on three extraliterary facets of Primo Levi: his public associations with Auschwitz and Holocaust commemoration, his leadership role in the Jewish community of Turin, and his contribution to the intellectual debates over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many of Levi’s nonliterary...

Part Three: Literature

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Chapter 10: Primo Levi’s Struggle with the Spirit of Kafka

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pp. 137-146

It has already been shown that Primo Levi’s science-fiction stories are a kind of modern midrashim.1 In the Jewish tradition, this term refers to an exercise of pedagogical hermeneutics that creates imaginary stories and dialogues about biblical figures and that intentionally forces the original...

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Chapter 11: Ethics and Literary Strategies

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pp. 147-155

Any reader of Primo Levi’s work will be struck by its degree of sensory detail: the reader is provided with precise information about the appearance, sound, scent, taste, and feel of people and objects. The most obvious explanation for Levi’s attention to such sensorial aspects has been cited by...

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Chapter 12: Literary Encounters and Storytelling Techniques

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pp. 156-168

At first glance, Primo Levi’s Lilìt appears to be a loosely connected collection of stories divided into three unequal parts. The first section contains autobiographical material from Auschwitz and descriptions of other Shoah victims that Levi discovered in literature. The next two sections are a...

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Chapter 13: Primo Levi and the History of Reception

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pp. 169-176

Today, it is imperative that reception history be put in the context of a reception ethics.1 The old historicist regimen regulating our relation to the past no longer is adequate to guide us in comprehending our historical situation and moral universe. In a previous paper, ‘‘Primo Levi, Giorgio...

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Chapter 14: Autobiography and the Narrator

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pp. 177-190

In the last chapter of The Periodic Table, entitled ‘‘Carbon,’’ Primo Levi traces the itinerary of an atom of carbon as it moves from limestone to air to leaf. The energy of the carbon eventually emerges in the hand of the writer as he places the last dot of the essay upon the piece of paper, thus...

Part Four: Reflections on Writing

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Chapter 15: Writing Against the Fascist Sword

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pp. 193-199

Pro Archia, Cicero’s important speech urging Roman citizenship for a Greek poet, famously defends poetry because it is one of the arts that ‘‘civilize and humanize men.’’ He argues that literature provides important models of virtue for men of action, exemplary language for speeches by...

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Chapter 16: ‘‘Singoli Stimoli’’: Primo Levi’s Poetry

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pp. 200-211

For Primo Levi, to communicate was of the utmost importance. In Auschwitz he quickly learned that to communicate increased one’s slim chances of survival, and as a man of science, whose inclination it was to observe with patience, to analyze, and to understand, he was able to...

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Chapter 17: Primo Levi’s Correspondence with Hety Schmitt-Maas

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pp. 212-216

On April 11, 1987, more than forty years after his rescue from Auschwitz, Primo Levi fell to his death in the block of flats where he lived in Turin. The authorities pronounced a verdict of suicide. Levi had pitched himself three flights down the stairwell. Not since Pasolini was found murdered...

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Chapter 18: A Note on the Problem of Translation

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pp. 217-219

Although Primo Levi is known for his writings about the Holocaust and for the autobiographical book The Periodic Table, he also wrote poems, stories, essays, and reviews. He began writing poems and stories when he returned from Auschwitz, even as he was writing about his experiences...

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Chapter 19: Primo Levi: A Bibliography of English and Italian Scholarly Writings, 2003–2010

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pp. 220-240

The heuristic value of Primo Levi’s approach to living and writing is evident by the different ways scholars in various disciplines are using his writings. Increasingly, the study of Primo Levi is not only the purview of literary critics and historians. Through an exploration of Levi’s work,...

Epilogue: Primo Levi’s Gray Zone: A Sequence of Drawings

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pp. 241-246


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pp. 247-282

Works Cited

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pp. 283-294


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pp. 295-300


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pp. 301-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248872
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823233588
Print-ISBN-10: 0823233588

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011