Stanislao G. Pugliese, ed. Answering Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Science and Humanism after the Fall. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011. 224 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-3358-8; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-3359-5.
Reviewed by Raniero Speelman (Utrecht University)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Primo Levi's Humanism Revisited
Stanislao G. Pugliese was among the forces behind two major conferences on Jewish-Italian culture at Hofstra University, one general, the other dedicated to Primo Levi, by far the most famous Jewish Italian writer. Pugliese edited the published proceedings from both conferences (The Most Ancient of Minorities  and The Legacy of Primo Levi ). In his introduction to Answering Auschwitz, Pugliese confesses that after the first Levi conference he was not yet ready to let the discussions on Levi rest. He was especially concerned that Levi’s political ideas and their implications had not been sufficiently explored. In 2007, the twentieth anniversary of Levi’s death, Pugliese and his colleagues organized a second conference on Levi at Hofstra, focusing on the Holocaust experience as a second “fall of man,” the proceedings of which were published as Answering Auschwitz.
With elegance, Pugliese and the authors, both American and European, convincingly demonstrate that anyone who might think that everything or, at least, enough has been written on this subject is indeed mistaken. In the last few decades, Holocaust studies have become part of a new discipline aimed at explaining and giving sound interpretations of the inconceivable crimes of Nazism and its sister ideologies, like fascism (unlike Pugliese, I hesitate to use the term “fascism” without more nuance or distinction). Three different approaches have emerged in this process: ideational, situational, and psychological. Each position is clearly exposed in the essay “Warum?” by Joram Warmund, who is attracted to what psychology can contribute to the field. This is followed with Amy Simon’s contribution “Guilt or Shame?” wherein she analyzes the distinction between guilt and shame and the different meanings of “shame” (i.e., survivors’ shame, personal shame, shame due to contact with women, shame for the effects of Auschwitz, and the vast “shame of the world” caused by failing human solidarity) assumed by Levi.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Psychology, Theology, and Philosophy” (the second element is not particularly well highlighted), includes a very interesting essay about suicide, “After Auschwitz: What Is a Good Death?” by Timothy Pytell. This piece mainly focuses on the relationship between Levi and Jean Améry and the differences between the authors’ deaths. Pytell shows much good sense in not ignoring the many unanswered questions that still make it difficult to mark Levi’s accidental death as suicide. Other essays in this section are by Johan Åhr, “Primo Levi and the Concept of History,” and by Marie Baird, “Kenosis, Saturated Phenomenology, and Bearing Witness.” Åhr is slightly mistaken on Levi’s entering Turin’s Jewish School after the enactment of the racial laws of 1938. In fact, he was already at age twenty studying at Turin University, and benefited from the rules that allowed Jewish students to earn university degrees.
The second section, “Humanism and Politics,” might be considered the most significant. Levi’s humanity and humanism is discussed by Joseph Farrell in “The Humanity and Humanism of Levi” and by Jonathan Druker in “Levi and the Two Cultures.” They treat essential aspects of Levi’s position as a modern humanist as linked to classic Italian culture. The hybridity discussed by Druker can, as a matter of fact, be traced back to the conjunctio oppositorum (unity of opposites) that Renaissance philosophers, like Marsilio Ficino, used to bridge differences between contraries. In “The Partisan and His Doppelganger,” Ilona Klein analyzes If Not Now, When? (1982) from the viewpoint of its protagonist Mendel as Levi’s doppelganger and the watchmaker Mendel’s profession of “mending time.” The concept of time in the essay is an original and productive contribution to its interpretation, though of course not the only one. I would suggest that the theme of revenge, which is strongly present in the novel, should not be overlooked. A similar group of partisans as those described by Levi, headed by Abba Kovner, fought in the German-occupied territories primarily moved by thirst for revenge, performing many actions quite similar to Levi’s “Gedalists.” I think Levi was likely familiar with their adventures even if a book about the Kovner group was only published much later by Rich Cohen (The Avengers ).
Politics are represented by Rita Sodi’s essay, “Primo Levi in the Public Interest,” which directs readers to Levi’s activities as a “terza pagina” writer for the Turin daily La Stampa and his involvement in Israeli politics. Politics are important to understand Levi as a leftist intellectual who always felt governed by a party that did not represent anyone from his class and cultural background (i.e., the Christian Democrats). Sodi here leaves out a perhaps less significant activity: Levi as a member of his children’s grammar school board, where he distinguished himself as an advocate of modernization of teaching programs and making a step away from what he had once called “the Crocean conspiracy” hovering over Italian education.
Massimo Giuliani’s essay, “Primo Levi’s Struggle with the Spirit of Kafka,” is among the contributions I liked most, for personal reasons that will be clear to readers of my interpretation of Levi’s short fantastic stories as “modern midrashim.” Giuliani convincingly appreciates the Storie naturali (Natural histories) (1966) and Vizio di forma (Fault of form) (1971) tales as parables of a “new humanistic gospel” (p. 138), in which errors have to be mended according to the Jewish tradition of tikkun ha’olam (repairing the world). The fault of transcending their limits (which can be seen as “original sin,” thus bringing us back to the subtitle of the present book) not only explains much of the scientist’s thought on the Holocaust but can also be linked to Levi’s later ideal of a kind of Hippocratic oath that he would recommend all scientists take: that is, of not using their knowledge against mankind. Levi’s work strongly contrasts with Franz Kafka’s in its vision of evil, but I do not know if Levi had already read Kafka when writing his fantastic short stories, more immediate models for which might be seen in writing by Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi.
Sensory experience is studied in detail by Sara Vandewaetere, whose PhD work in Antwerp was on this subject, in “Ethics and Literary Strategies.” The idea of pain as Levi’s founding sense and of “writing the senses” as literary strategy (though for me not Levi’s only one) is particularly interesting (p. 155). In “Literary Encounters and Storytelling Techniques,” Elizabeth Schreiber deals with Lilìt ed altri racconti (part of which has been translated as Moments of Reprieve), revealing the substantial unity of the book’s three sections as what she calls “literary encounters” and the use of “narrational embedding” in some of the tales (p. 158). I would like to point out a possible eco-critical reading of two of the tales here discussed, “The Bridge Builders” and “A Tranquil Star,” (both originally published in Lilit ) as still another important key to Levi’s short stories.
In “Autobiography and the Narrator,” Nancy Harrowitz takes the Periodic Table (1975) as a point of departure for an analysis of the sometimes problematic relationship between the two. Indeed, Levi seems to reduce and reject autobiography in order to reclaim it in the form of poetry. This may account as well for his changing of names (e.g., Lello Perugia’s becoming “Cesare”). As for Levi’s ancestry in the Periodic Table’s initial chapter, “Argon,” I would recall Alberto Cavaglion’s critical suggestion to consider it as Levi’s own kind of “Our ancestors,” homage to his friend Italo Calvino’s trilogy I nostri antenati (Our ancestors), which is equally misleading in a title claiming a fictitious genealogical relationship.
In “Primo Levi and the History of Reception,” William McClellan draws on Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin for a profound analysis of the way the Holocaust has changed the ethics of reception, invoking the centrality of the Canto di Ulisse (The Canto of Ulysses) episode as creating a “now” moment. Fred Misurella’s “Writing against the Fascist Sword” opens the fourth section, “Reflections on Writing,” which offers a general introduction on Italian writing in the Fascist period. In “Singoli stimoli: Primo Levi’s Poetry,” Nicholas Patruno justly sees the author’s poems as equal to his prose, though of a different kind. We should not forget, in fact, that Levi’s first dated work was a poem, “Crescenzago,” written two years before his deportation. In “Levi's Correspondence with Hetty Maas,” Levi’s biographer Ian Thomson provides a vivid portrait of an extraordinary woman who in vain tried to make Albert Speer read If This Is a Man (1947, German translation 1962).
Within the very rich production of Levi studies, such as scrupulously recorded by James Tasato Mellone’s update to his previous bibliography in Pugliese’s 2005 edited collection, Answering Auschwitz is a valuable contribution. Mellone’s project is limited to English and Italian language contributions; therefore, some important international contributions are excluded, such as the proceedings of the international reception conference edited by Yannis Thanassekos and Philippe Mesnard (Primo Levi à l’oeuvre: La reception de l’oeuvre de Primo Levi dans le monde ), which is mostly in French even though the authors discuss important issues and take into consideration language areas not previously examined.
A few small errors are found in the text. For example, Levi’s word for “guilt” is, of course, colpa, not culpa (p. 33). It might be an interesting echo (or Freudian lapsus) of the Catholic confession formula: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But Levi was anything but a Catholic and his sense of guilt was different even if confessed. And on page 168, the Petrarch quotation is not correct: “la vita è breve sogno” (life is a short dream) may remind us of Calderon. In Petrarch’s Canzoniere (I, 14) the verse is: “che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno” (that all what pleases on earth is a short dream). This, of course, has consequences for the interpretation of the whole story.
Next year, 2012, will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Levi’s death. I hope Pugliese will be encouraged to organize another conference. It could center on Levi’s relationships with other Italian Holocaust survivors, a subject not intensively treated in Answering Auschwitz.
. The “terza pagina” (third page) of a newspaper traditionally hosts a column by a well-known writer.
. Raniero Speelman, “Primo Levi’s Short Stories: Modern Midrashim,” in The Legacy of Primo Levi, ed. Stanislao G. Pugliese (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 23-32.
. In this chapter, Levi described a moment of reprieve in Auschwitz, when he tried to explain Dante’s encounter with Ulysses in Hell (canto 26) to a fellow prisoner and cited the “small speech” with which Ulysses incited his former companions to set sail once more to pass the Pillars of Hercules in search of another world. In this speech an explicit reference was made to man’s task not to live as brutes but to pursue “virtue and knowledge.”
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Raniero Speelman. Review of Pugliese, Stanislao G., ed., Answering Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Science and Humanism after the Fall.
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