Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview

2
Hobbesian Hell

It was a Hobbesian life, a continuous war of everyone against everyone.

—The Drowned and the Saved

Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses…. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term “extermination camp”, and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: “to lie on the bottom.”

—Survival in Auschwitz

This chapter will examine the most consequential context for Primo Levi's ideas, the Monowitz Lager in the Auschwitz complex. Auschwitz itself was made up of forty separate units, enterprises sustained by slave labor, but these enterprises were but a temporary diversion in an overwhelming death machine that methodically killed Jews in great numbers.1 In Monowitz Levi toiled, first in harsh physical labor, and later in a factory in the complex that was supposed to, but never did, produce synthetic rubber.

One of the keys to surveying our world and its circumstances is whether we decide there is any room for improvement in that world, or whether the human condition does not suggest possible better worlds. Usually the

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1
The “politically correct” way to say this is that many groups had members killed, but the stark reality is that Auschwitz was overwhelmingly a death camp for Jews.

-23-

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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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