Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview

8
Purpose and Work

The aims of life are the best defense against death: and not only in the Lager.

The Drowned and the Saved

Work played a central role in Levi's life, both in the Lager and in ordinary life. In the Lager, toiling as a slave had a virtual monopoly on his energy and thoughts. In ordinary life, his work as a chemist occupied a great space in his active world, and after he retired as manager of the paint factory, his work as a writer was never far from his thoughts. For Levi, understanding the nature of work comes close to understanding the core of purpose in life. Although a separate book should be written on Levi's relationship with work, we will have to be satisfied with condensing his thoughts into this chapter.

The free pursuit of the good life through work comes close to expressing Levi's ideal, but of course this leaves out the trenchant ironies we would expect from him.1 First, we will describe sources, constitutional and cultural, for our penchant for work. Second, we will focus on Levi's conception of work and its place in his life philosophy. Third, we will focus on work in the Lager and the consequences of the total perversion of this work by the Germans. Fourth, we will look at individual strategies of work devised by Levi and others that helped to forestall their demise. Finally, we will investigate Levi's ironic comments on work and see if work can provide us with purpose in life.

____________________
1
From Plato through Freud, philosophers have spoken about the centrality of love and work. Levi says very little about love in his works, preferring to speak about work. As we have noted, he does speak of friendship a great deal.

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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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