The Drowned as Saviors of Humanity: The Anthropological Value of Se questo è un uomo
In the preface to his masterpiece, Se questo è un uomo, Primo Levi warns the reader that his book will not reveal anything new about death camps, but that it should “furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.”1 Levi hopes that his writing can be a source of valuable knowledge despite what he claims to be its obvious flaw, namely, its lack of systematicity He apologizes by explaining that although his writing did intend to help establish objective knowledge for the future, it also served the short-term and subjective purpose of “internal liberation” (liberazione interiore): it has been written “in order of urgency” (per ordine di urgenza) rather than according to logic (non in successione logica), hence its fragmentary character (carattere frammentario). However, his book was praised for this very failure to achieve systematicity. Daniel R. Schwarz, for example, ranks Levi as one of the “most effective” narrators of the Holocaust because, he says, “[Levi] observes human behavior not as a part of general rules but of wondrous particulars to be observed…. [H]e is an Aristotelian who lives in the ineluctable modality of the visible; generalizations are based on what he has observed.”2 Bryan Cheyette also shows that Levi had “an agonizing sense of the limitations of unproblematically turning experience into knowledge.”3 Because of his aversion for stereotyping and of his preference for what he calls in The Periodic Table a “typically grey human specimen,” Levi “is not contained by any system—moral, linguistic, scientific” (279).
KeywordsAlpha Male Major Premise Originary Thinking Anthropological Theory Subjective Purpose
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.
- 1.“Potrà piuttosto fornire documenti per uno studio pacato di alcuni aspetti dell’animo umano.” Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 1989), 9.Google Scholar
- 2.Daniel R. Schwarz, “Painful Memories. The Agony of Primo Levi,” in Imagining the Holocaust (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999), 98.Google Scholar
- 3.Bryan Cheyette, “The Ethical Uncertainty of Primo Levi,” Modernity, Culture and the Jew, ed. Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 268.Google Scholar
- 4.Patricia Sayre and Linnea Vacca, “On Language and Personhood: A Linguistic Odyssey,” in Memory and Mastery. Primo Levi as Writer and Witness, ed. Roberta S. Kremer (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), 128.Google Scholar
- 9.Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, trans. William Templer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 294.Google Scholar
- 10.Giorgio Agamben, Quel che resta di Auschwitz (Turin: Bollati Boringheri, 1998); trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Remnants of Auschwitz (New York: Zone Books, 1999).Google Scholar
- 11.Eric Gans, Originary Thinking. Elements of Generative Anthropology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
- 12.Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1947), 82.Google Scholar