Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview

11
A Defense of Modernism

More often and more insistently as that time recedes, we are asked by the young who our torturers were, of what cloth were they made…. [T]hey were made of the same cloth as we, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces, but they had been reared badly.

The Drowned and the Saved

Levi thoroughly believes in modernism, but he has very modest expectations about the role of politics in life. Political arrangements contain the basic tragedies of existence, as does every form of social organization, and they cannot be expected to overcome themselves. He believes in modernism because arguing for the virtues of civilization incorporates the best hope, at least temporarily, for shielding ourselves from pain. We can only be optimistically pessimistic about the achievement and maintenance of these virtues.

The modest aims he puts forth—understanding what the bad is and insuring that it does not happen—presents us ill-constituted beings with our best chance to prevent the worst horrors of life, the ones we commit on each other. Some blame the Holocaust on the origins of Western thought, enlightenment virtues, or the contradictions in modernism. Levi does not find a golden age in Western civilization or in any other cultures. He is not nostalgic; we must consider the return to modernism, but in returning he has his eyes wide open. Our ill-constituted ways keep dragging us down, and we must fight the tendency to give in to the worst in us. It is a world where we struggle for a “brave new world” on the backdrop of “1984.”

This chapter will look at politics, as Levi does, from the minimalist perspective

-220-

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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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