Carlin Romano: Here There Is a Why: Primo Levi, Humanist

Roundup: Talking About History

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.

Writers closely identified with the Holocaust rarely escape their literary cells. Elie Wiesel has written 57 books—try naming a few of them besides Night. When Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish novelist and Auschwitz survivor, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, the Swedish Academy understandably cited his "writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history," even as Kertész, the first Hungarian to win the prize, expressed hope that it might more generally shine light on the "ignored literature of Hungary."

And then there is Primo Levi. When he plunged to his death down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building on the morning of April 11, 1987, only minutes after answering the doorbell of his third-floor apartment and thanking the concierge for his morning mail, a single question—"Did he commit suicide?"—threatened to turn Levi's entire life and work into a simplistic verdict on the possibility of a Holocaust survivor's transcending demons of the past.

One triumph of scholarship, however, is that it can ride the force of established reputation like a wave, and take us into new dimensions of a writer or subject. At first glance, Answering Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Science and Humanism After the Fall, a new collection of essays edited by Stanislao G. Pugliese (Fordham University Press, 2011), looks to be more of the same—another deserved monument to 20th-century literature's most disciplined witness to the Holocaust, that flinty, unsentimental voice like no other. But Pugliese, a professor of modern European history and Italian studies at Hofstra University, offers us a fuller portrait.

Levi, he reminds us, undertook "a political stance of consistent, fervent, and ongoing antifascism" throughout his career, and not just against the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. "Every age has its own fascism," Levi wrote in a 1974 essay that Pugliese aptly quotes, "and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many."...

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