Ethics and Ontology in Primo Levi's Survivial in Auschwitz: A Levinasian Reading

By Druker, Jonathan | Italica, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Ontology in Primo Levi's Survivial in Auschwitz: A Levinasian Reading


Druker, Jonathan, Italica


How was I able to survive Auschwitz? My principle is: I come first, second and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others. (1)--Ella Lingens-Reiner

It is not the concept of "man" which is at the basis of this humanism, it is the other man. (2)--Emmanuel Levinas

To offer a new reading of Survival in Auschwitz, this essay borrows Emmanuel Levinas's critique of Western thought and also the posthumanist ethics he proposes as a remedy for its deficiencies. A critical approach of this type is needed to insert Levi's canonical text into a larger discussion about whether the Holocaust, along with the other genocides that have stained the last century, constitute a watershed in the history of Western culture that marks the end of modernity, the end of blind faith in instrumental rationality, and the end of humanist ethics. In the context of this essay, ethics are defined as the continuously negotiated relations between the self (or the subject) and the other (that is, the one who is irreducibly not the same as the self), which, at the negative and positive extremes, encompass either inequality and exploitation or mutuality and obligation.

No literary text engages the ethical implications of the Holocaust more searchingly than Survival in Auschwitz, which is both a record of what the author personally endured in the death camp and also a testimony to the sufferings of others. Levi reports his own physical, intellectual and moral degradation with notable restraint. He candidly admits to having more or less internalized the corrosive ethics of Auschwitz whereby "a man is bound to pursue his own ends by all possible means" (13; "[il] primo ufficio dell'uomo e perseguire i propri scopi con mezzi idonei," Se questo 7). At the same time, he engages the reader ethically with continual references to the victims' faces and eyes, and also to the dehumanizing stares of the SS guards and kapos that deny human status to the victims. These descriptions of face-to-face encounters, harsh gazes, and the seeming invisibility of the extermination camp prisoners before their oppressors provoke our reflection on the problematical relationship between self and other that is always at the heart of ethical questioning. As readers of Levi's memoir, we sense that we are summoned to posit and live by an ethical obligation between humans strong enough to prevent further genocides.

In contrast to the partially misleading American title, the memoir's original Italian title, Se questo e un uomo ["If This Is a Man"], offers no happy endings, but instead promises to interrogate the definition of man, both in Auschwitz and after, and the ethical obligations that may accrue from this unresolved "If" statement. At moments, Levi seems determined to repair the humanist idea of man by reasserting the Enlightenment principle of universality (that is, the idea that all humans are essentially the same and must be accorded the same rights and freedoms) against Nazism's shocking determination that some among us are sub-human. At the same time, and perhaps against Levi's conscious intentions, the memoir also puts in doubt the efficacy of this Kantian universality by refusing to answer definitively the grave ethical question posed by Auschwitz: when a man has lost everything--his name, his language, and his intellectual faculties--what compels us to treat him as a fellow human? In other words, when another is conceived as wholly other, as the Jews were during the Holocaust, humanist ethics might no longer function.

While Levi scholars have usually noted the memoir's humanist agenda, in which reason and culture are only redemptive, they have seldom taken into account the counter-narrative embedded in the text which corroborates that after Auschwitz the Enlightenment conception of man, and the ethical guarantees the word implies, have been damaged irreparably. As one of the most widely read descriptions of Auschwitz from the prisoners' point of view, Levi's testimony shoulders the heavy responsibility of speaking for victims who did not return and who have no voice of their own. …

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