Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview

1
Force Majeure

The duel had not resembled its models: it had been unbalanced, unfair, dirty, and had dirtied him. The models, even the most violent, are chivalrous; life is not. He set out for his appointment, knowing that he would never be the same man as before.

—“Force Majeure”

In his short story “Force Majeure, ” Primo Levi compresses his experience of the Holocaust into a frightening confrontation between a citizen and a sailor.1 The story, a metaphor for the major tragedy of his life, brings Levi's Holocaust experience closer to us as he presents a dangerous quandary, an episode that could conceivably happen to us. The story opens with the protagonist, identified only as “M., ” rushing to make an important appointment with the manager of a library. In an unfamiliar part of town, he asks a passerby the quickest way to get to his appointment. The stranger points to a long, narrow alleyway. It disturbs M. to see that there are no doorways or niches in the alley, and when he is halfway down the alley he sees “a husky lad in a T-shirt, perhaps a sailor, come toward him.” The sailor whistles for a dog, and M. hears the panting dog come up behind him: “They both advanced until they came face to face. M. moved close to the wall to free the passage, but the other did not do the same: he stopped and placed his hands on his hips, completely obstructing the path. He did not have a threatening expression; he calmly seemed to be waiting, but M. heard the dog let out a deep snarl: it must be a large animal.”2

____________________
1
We are aware of the history of the term Holocaust and the arguments that follow as to the proper use of the concept. Is the term to be appropriated by those describing other events? It is used here for convenient reference and not to close down debate on the subject.
2
Levi, “Force Majeure, ” in “The Mirror Maker”: Stories and Essays by Primo Levi, 62. Future references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

-9-

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Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival *
  • Introduction 1
  • I - The Origins of Levi's Philosophy 7
  • 1 - Force Majeure 9
  • 2 - Hobbesian Hell 23
  • II - Ill-Constituted Beings 43
  • 3 - Ill-Constituted Beings 45
  • 4 - Violence 57
  • III - Optimistic Pessimism 89
  • 5 - The Tragic Sense of Life 91
  • 6 - Useful Qualities of Human Nature 117
  • 7 - Choices 131
  • 8 - Purpose and Work 161
  • 9 - Optimistic Pessimism 180
  • IV - Defense of Modernism 197
  • 10 - Civilized Liberalism 199
  • 11 - A Defense of Modernism 220
  • V - Conclusion 253
  • 12 - Levi's Death 255
  • Bibliography 265
  • Index 273
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