Primo Levi: Memory, Meaning, and the Holocaust
36 Battery Place
New York, NY 10280
Primo Levi was an Italian chemist before his experience at Auschwitz, masterfully chronicled in his 1947 work, If This is a Man, thrust him to the forefront of international attention as a witness to Nazi atrocities. With his simple but affecting prose, Levi is often burdened with the task of representing the concentration camp experience and now appears as a staple text of both high school and university curricula. Yet despite his use and misuse by various ideological camps, what remains most striking about Levi’s work is how it continues to unsettle political, theological, or humanistic attempts to make the Holocaust “mean” something comprehensible.
Starting with If This is a Man (translated into English as Survival in Auschwitz) and continuing to later works such as The Periodic Table and The Drowned and the Saved, this course will explore the central and perpetually troubling questions of Levi’s work. Surveying these texts alongside those of his commentators, we will ask: What makes a person human or an act inhuman? Does morality exist within the concentration camp, and if so, of what kind? Who is the survivor and what is the substance of his or her testimony? And how can we situate the horrific reality of the Holocaust within the triumphant claims often made in the name of Western Civilization? In addition to Levi’s work, we will consider contemporary reflections alongside selections from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, published the same year as Levi’s memoir.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
November 13 — December 11, 2018
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Tuesday, November 20th.