Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections

By Chang, Natasha V. | Shofar, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections


Chang, Natasha V., Shofar


Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections, by Jonathan Druker. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. 173 pp. $74.95.

Jonathan Druker's ambitious and challenging book critiques the philosophical roots in humanistic Enlightenment thought that characterize Primo Levi's corpus of writings on the Holocaust. Addressing a lacuna in literary and Holocaust studies, Druker reassesses Levi's humanism from a critical point of view and exposes the problematic assumptions that organize Levi's representation and experience of the Holocaust. In order to carry out this task, Druker juxtaposes Levi's writing with that of four'posthumanist" theorists - namely, Theodore Adorno, Emanuel Lévinas, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. For Druker these theorists serve as useful counterpoints to Levi's work insofar as they assert, each in its own way, "that fascism was not only a bitter enemy but also a logical result of the Enlightenment; that the social and political structures of domination serving totalitarian regimes are implicit in Enlightenment thought; and that the principle of universality [which Levi held so dear], while purporting to emancipate the individual, crushes cultural and ethnic difference of every kind while revitalizing forms of intolerance like antisemitism" (p. 2).

The book is organized thematically, with each of the seven chapters devoted to a different concept: man, culture, language, ethics, history, science, and labor. For the most part, the chapters present a different combination of Levi's Holocaust writings together with the writings of one or more of the theorists mentioned above. Chapter One focuses on the ways in which Levi, in Survival in Auschwitz, privileges the humanist concept of Universal Man over an identity based upon difference. Levi's unflagging faith in the validity of the universal human subject leads Druker to see a type of secular theodicy in the text, or an "attempt to integrate particular instances of suffering into a narrative of historical progress directed toward the good" (p. 29). Although Levi's experience in Auschwitz precipitates a crisis of belief in the validity of this theodicy - similar to the end of theodicy as outlined in Lévinas and Adorno - for Druker it remains a troublingly predominant conceit of the text. Chapter Two focuses on the figuration of Ulysses in Survival in Auschwitz as a problematic symbol of temporary redemption from the world of the lager and as a "vessel for the humane [cultural] values that promise Levi a means to resist the camp's inhumanity" (p. 36). Reading Levi's figuration of Ulysses against Horkheimer and Adornos discussion of Homer's Odysseus, Druker complicates the traditional understanding of Ulysses that fails to question the links between high culture and violence.

Chapter Three uses Lyotard's concept of the différend "to explore the unexpected intersection . . . between Primo Levi's humanism and Hegelian modes of discourse like those of Nazism and Italian Fascism" (p. 55). Druker focuses here in particular on what he calls the "imperial 'we'" in Survival in Auschwitz, that is Levi's use of the first person plural to speak from a distant, analytical, and primarily scientific point of view. Druker stresses that his intention is not to "crudely" say that "Levi's 'we simply recapitulates a Nazi perspective; rather . . . that Levi and the Nazis and all of Europe share the models of Enlightenment thought that lead not only to common ways of understanding history but also to radical programs that seek to remake societies by destroying them" (p. 68).

In Chapter Four Druker uses Levinas's writings on ethical engagement with the other in order to draw out, in Survival in Auschwitz, "the muted presence of an anti-Enlightenment counternarrative" which puts into question the validity of humanist ethics. This counternarrative, as Druker sees it, is in constant tension with the opposite impulse that validates the humanist ethical project found throughout Levi's writing.

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