Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival, by Frederic D. Homer

By Lerner, Saul | Shofar, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival, by Frederic D. Homer


Lerner, Saul, Shofar


Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 277 pp. $39.95.

Professor Frederic Homer's interpretation of Primo Levi's views in the book Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival is an important contribution to comprehending both Primo Levi's thinking and aspects of the literature of survival. Through his description and analysis of Levi's ideas, Homer has shown his readers how "Levi's understanding of how people try to cope with circumstances when all the rules of life no longer apply, his habit of asking whether creation could have occurred in a better way, and his work as a chemist as both method and meditation all create ideas that are a rich source of modern political thought" (p. 4). Most of the book, indeed, is involved with (1) showing how Levi describes the ways that people were able to survive the Holocaust in the midst of circumstances beyond their control when the conventions of civilization had been undermined or destroyed; (2) demonstrating Levi's perceptions of the consequences of human imperfection made all the more dramatic and tragic by the circumstances of the Holocaust; and (3) illustrating the nature of Levi's "scientific" detachment and reflection as he tried to make sense out of his Holocaust experience. This describes the substance of the first three sections of Homer's book. The fourth section describes Levi's support of modernism and liberalism and is an interesting contrast with the popularity in the contemporary academic world of a commitment to postmodernism and deconstructionism. The last section of the book briefly addresses, but does not resolve, the debate about the nature of Levi's controversial death.

A very important description of the psychology of survival which relies on insights from Primo Levi and others, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976) by Terrence Des Pres, provides real insight into why some survived the Holocaust and others did not. This is a theme that Homer also deals with, and his analysis, from Levi's perspective, adds much support to the general ideas, psychological insights and mechanisms, and analysis that Des Pres provides. Here, Homer adds to the body of available literature on the psychology of survival. Homer, however, goes beyond psychological insights as he discusses Levi's perception of "Hobbesian Hell." His perspectives are not only psychological, but also political, and he supplies his readers with a description of Levi's ideas that places the perception of the Holocaust into the mainstream of political philosophy. Homer, for example, speculates on both the psychological and political consequences of the condition of inmates of concentration camps for whom, in Levi's words, "Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name" (Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, pp. 26-27). While this condition was described by Richard Rubinstein, The Cunning of History (1978) as a world of "total domination" that shaped the concentration camp experience, Levi and Homer make clear that survival amid impoverishment and scarcity was possible, with a will and with the help of the "market." Some, of course, found it impossible to survive these conditions and they could be easily enough identified by Levi through their characteristic mannerisms. A second set of conditions with which Levi described the camps was that they constituted "the godless, irrational universe" (Homer, p. 31). Levi's view of the purposeless violence of the camps and Homer's agreement that "There was no `why' there" (Homer, pp. 36-7) is to be contrasted with the much more acute analysis of Des Pres in his section on "Excremental Assault" (The Survivor, pp. 51-71) and in George Orwell's 1984 (1948). A third condition on which survival hinged was a purely accidental fate which often could be aided by the activities of the inmate. These factors all influenced survival in Levi's Hobbesian Hell. …

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