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Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections, by Jonathan Druker. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. 173 pp. $74.95.
Jonathan Druker’s ambitious and challenging book critiques the philosophical roots in humanistic Enlightenment thought that characterize Primo Levi’s corpus of writings on the Holocaust. Addressing a lacuna in literary and Holocaust studies, Druker reassesses Levi’s humanism from a critical point of view and exposes the problematic assumptions that organize Levi’s representation and experience of the Holocaust. In order to carry out this task, Druker juxtaposes Levi’s writing with that of four “posthumanist” theorists—namely, Theodore Adorno, Emanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. For Druker these theorists serve as useful counterpoints to Levi’s work insofar as they assert, each in their own way, “that fascism was not only a bitter enemy but also a logical result of the Enlightenment; that the social and political structures of domination serving totalitarian regimes are implicit in Enlightenment thought; and that the principle of universality [which Levi held so dear], while purporting to emancipate the individual, crushes cultural and ethnic difference of every kind while revitalizing forms of intolerance like antisemitism” (p. 2).
The book is organized thematically, with each of the seven chapters devoted to a different concept: man, culture, language, ethics, history, science, and labor. For the most part, the chapters present a different combination of Levi’s Holocaust writings together with the writings of one or more of the theorists mentioned above. Chapter One focuses on the ways in which Levi, in Survival in Auschwitz, privileges the humanist concept of Universal Man over an identity based upon difference. Levi’s unflagging faith in the validity of the universal human subject leads Druker to see a type of secular theodicy in the text, or an “attempt to integrate particular instances of suffering into a narrative of historical progress directed toward the good” (p. 29). Although Levi’s experience in Auschwitz precipitates a crisis of belief in the validity of this theodicy—similar to the end of theodicy as outlined in Levinas and Adorno—for Druker it remains a troublingly predominant conceit of the text. Chapter Two focuses on the figuration of Ulysses in Survival in Auschwitz as a problematic symbol of temporary redemption from the world of the lager and as a “vessel for the humane [cultural] values that promise Levi a means to resist the camp’s inhumanity” (p. 36). Reading Levi’s figuration of Ulysses against Horkheimer and Adorno’s discussion of Homer’s Odysseus, Druker complicates the traditional understanding of Ulysses that fails to question the links between high culture and violence.
Chapter Three uses Lyotard’s concept of the différend“to explore the unexpected intersection … between Primo Levi’s humanism and Hegelian modes of discourse like those of Nazism and Italian Fascism” (p. 55). Druker focuses here in particular on what he calls the “imperial ‘we’” in Survival in Auschwitz, that is Levi’s use of the first person plural to speak from a distant, analytical, and primarily scientific point of view. Druker stresses that his intention is not to “crudely” say that “Levi’s ‘we’ simply recapitulates a Nazi perspective; rather . . . that Levi and the Nazis and all of Europe share the models of Enlightenment thought that lead not only to common ways of understanding history but also to radical programs that seek to remake societies by destroying them” (p. 68).
In Chapter Four Druker uses Levinas’s writings on ethical engagement with the other in order to draw out, in Survival in Auschwitz, “the muted presence of an anti-Enlightenment counternarrative” which puts into question the validity of humanist ethics. This counternarrative, as Druker sees it, is in constant tension with the opposite impulse that validates the humanist ethical project found throughout Levi’s writing.
Chapter Five marks a departure from the overarching framework of the book insofar as Druker focuses on The Reawakening as a text that structurally narrates the Holocaust as a traumatic event. Druker draws here primarily on Freud’s writings on trauma. His assertion that Levi’s traumatic narrative is linked to a larger narrative about the impact of the Holocaust in Europe, however, remains rather elusive.
In Chapter Six Druker returns to the question of Levi’s humanism and, turning to Foucault’s work on biopolitics, argues that “The Periodic Table dramatizes the collision between the human subject and the human object that necessarily accompanies the technologically sophisticated genocides so characteristic of modernity” (p. 117).
The final chapter of the book brings together Hannah Arendt and Levi’s writings on the theme of labor and shows how the latter offers “acute observations on the dangers that ensue when we too readily accept that work ennobles humanity or that work done well must . . . be virtuous and liberating” (p. 122). This last chapter, focusing on Levi’s last text, The Drowned and the Saved, makes a fitting close to the book as Druker argues that by the 1980s Levi has finally “internalized aspects” the post-humanist “critique of progress” (p. 122).
Although the main argument of the book—that Levi’s humanism must be critically reassessed—is compelling, it stops short of its potential at crucial moments. Druker consistently points to interesting contradictions in Levi’s humanistic thought, but fails to take his argument further. For example, he says in his introduction that one of the intentions of the study is “to uncover internal contradictions [in Levi’s writing] that mirror those in the Enlightenment itself” (p. 11). But little is made of these contradictions after they are identified. Likewise, in Chapter Two he notes that Survival in Auschwitz and Levi’s other writings “[a]t moments . . . seem to defend the humanist subject and, at others, to record its downfall” (p. 38). Druker must delineate more clearly what drives these contradictions and what the reader is to make of them. If as he suggests post-humanist theory shows us that we need to more carefully consider the ways in which humanist philosophy is linked to the genocidal impulse, then what particular insight do the texts of a survivor such as Levi bring (as opposed to the texts of post-humanist theorists)?
One thorny aspect of Druker’s writing is that he often frames his argument in terms of Levi’s potential complicity with the Nazi project. As Druker puts it, “Levi’s humanist discourse not only renews Enlightenment values in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but also quietly recuperates the violence out of which modern Europe has been constructed” (p. 14). Take as a more specific example Druker’s formulation at the outset of Chapter Two: “Horkheimer and Adorno compel us to ask whether culture, as Levi deploys it, contains forgotten brutality, and whether . . . it nurtured the fascist ideologies that produced Auschwitz” (p. 36). He goes on to ask “whether Levi’s humanist account of the death camp is compromised by unacknowledged discourses of domination embedded in his text” (p. 38). After such charged, polemical, and contrarian questions Druker’s response fizzles out. He concludes that Levi’s account both resists fascist ideology and is complicit with it and, in a reductively tautological move, argues that Survival in Auschwitz is a text that “[helps] us uncover the destructive, unending dialectic of culture and barbarism posited by Horkheimer and Adorno” (p. 48).
Regardless of whether one agrees with Druker’s approach or not, however, this book must be valued for the bold questions that it tackles and for the heated and doubtless productive debate that it will spur.
Natasha V. Chang
Department of Italian