Carlo Levi's New Humanism

By Lerner, Giovanna Faleschini | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Carlo Levi's New Humanism


Lerner, Giovanna Faleschini, Annali d'Italianistica


As a writer, politician, painter, and physician, Carlo Levi was one of the great figures of twentieth-century Italian intellectual life, incarnating, as Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, the humanistic ideal of "l'uomo di cultura" (276). His ambitious program amounted to no less than the construction of "un nuovo umanesimo" founded upon "una riscoperta dell'uomo come unita e come rapporto" ("Sul nuovo umanesimo" 80). Levi uses the term umanesimo with keen awareness of its relevance in the philosophical and political debate of his time. He consciously refuses, however, to attempt a definition or philosophical discussion of the meaning and theoretical value of neo-humanist tendencies (79). Levi's unwillingness to give a clear definition of umanesimo is characteristic of his critical writing, which is fraught with gaps and contradictions and lacks the rigor of systematic philosophical thinking. Rather, his ideas are forged within a constant intellectual "conversation" with the most important figures of European cultural life, a dialogue in which he engaged since his university years, when he began to feel the urgent need to move beyond the stifling provinciality of the Italian cultural landscape. His frequent Parisian stays before the outbreak of WWII, and later his active engagement in leftist politics, allowed him to become acquainted with some of the most influential intellectuals and artists of his time. Thus, rather than fitting into one philosophical system, Levi's thinking can best be understood in dialogic terms, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word. In his theoretical writings, he privileges inclusion rather than systematization and exclusion, seeking to establish forms of coexistence, rather than coherence, among contradictory elements. It is in light of these considerations that we should approach Levi's umanesimo.

As a firm believer in man as the center and subject of history in the search for freedom from sacred bonds and fears (Marcovecchio 100), Levi's outlook is closer to Jean-Paul Sartre's idea of humanism than Heidegger's. (1) Sartre himself recognized in Levi's work the same engagement with human existence he proposed as the essence of Existentialism as a form of humanism. According to Sartre, Levi's curiosity for human experience emerged from a passion for life that allowed him to recognize the value of each and every lived experience. His multifaceted activity as a doctor, writer, and artist was motivated by the same respect for life that gave unity to his work as an intellectual and as a politician (Sartre, "L'universale singolare" 258). Sartre's words about Levi parallel the French philosopher's argument in defense of Existentialism against its (mainly Catholic and Marxist) detractors. Far from encouraging a withdrawal from social reality, Sartre wrote, existentialist philosophy demanded of man a full engagement with the world, since "man will be what he makes of himself" (Existentialism is a Humanism 22). Man bears full responsibility for his own destiny and for the destiny of all humanity. It is the burden of this responsibility that generates the angst that Existentialism recognizes as profoundly human (27). Rather than freezing man into inaction, however, this existential anguish pushes him towards a full engagement with life (34).

Partly in reaction to Sartre, Heidegger published his own Letter on Humanism (1946), in which he condemned the humanistic man-centered position as the worst crime of Western philosophy since Plato. All the evils of the modern world, from capitalism to communism, derive from the humanistic "anthropologization" of Being. Although Levi remained suspicious of what he perceived as Heidegger's dangerously irresponsible anti-humanist relativism, his critical and theoretical writings resonate deeply with Heidegger's re-evaluation of poetic language and art. In this essay I argue that, through his multifarious and even paradoxical discussions of umanesimo, Levi in effect delineates a productive middle ground between Sartre's and Heidegger's contrasting views of humanism. …

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