Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview
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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.

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


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