Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview

9
Optimistic Pessimism

They [chemical events] give you the impression of fighting an interminable war against an obtuse and slow-moving enemy, who, however, is fearful in terms of number and bulk; of losing all the battles, one after the other, year after year; and to salve your bruised pride you must be satisfied with the few occasions when you catch sight of a break in the enemy front and you pounce on it and administer a quick single blow.

The Periodic Table

Primo Levi is an “optimistic pessimist, ” and this oxymoron will make clear much of his life and thought. His optimism must be seen against the backdrop of a tragic existence. Levi addresses what death means, what adversities we face, and how we respond to adversity. With this sequence of questions explored, he confronts the world with his pessimism. Against a backdrop of pessimism, he counterposes his optimism.

Levi speaks of optimism frequently but usually only briefly, and these utterances are scattered throughout his works. There is probably more misunderstanding of his optimism than any of his other ideas. Miryam Anissimov in a fine biography, Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist, makes a reasonable assumption, given Levi's frequent use of the concept of optimism, that he is indeed an optimist. The death of an optimist in the title is meant to be ironic, because Levi is believed to have taken his own life, not usually thought of as the act of an optimist. In his article “Memories of Hell, ” Istevan Deak refers to Levi as a pessimist.1 We will attempt

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1
See Anissimov, Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, 12; Deak, “Memories of Hell, ” 39. Writes Deak: “Todorov [Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps], however, finds many exceptions to the laws of the jungle in concentration camp literature and points out that Primo Levi and other pessimists themselves performed quiet acts of compassion and heroism.”

-180-

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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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