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Identity and Humanity in Primo Levi's "Se questo è un uomo": Enlightenment, Vision, and the "animale-uomo"

  • Author(s): Peterson-More, Nathanial
  • et al.
Abstract

Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo, first published in 1947, is much more than simply a recounting of the author’s experiences as a prisoner in the Monowitz-Buna labor camp (Auschwitz) during World War II. Indeed, Levi himself explicitly addresses this point in the preface, where he states, “questo mio libro, in fatto di particolari atroci, non aggiunge nulla a quanto è ormai noto ai lettori di tutto il mondo sull’inquietante argomento dei campi di distruzione.” Instead, he outlines a goal that is significantly broader in scope: “fornire documenti per uno studio pacato di alcuni aspetti dell’animo umano” (Levi, 9). Thus, the work transcends issues of national or even ethnic identity to explore instead more fundamental questions of humanity and personal identity: the primary emphasis of Levi’s text is on what his own experiences and those of his compagni, or fellow prisoners, can teach us in regard to what it means to be a human being at Auschwitz and indeed after Auschwitz. Engaging closely with the text, and drawing upon the theories of Agamben and Foucault, along with important insights by historian Martin Jay, the present essay will analyze some of the complex philosophical and psychological issues investigated by Levi, focusing especially on the closely-related thematic concerns of vision – which, as I shall demonstrate, is closely tied to his Enlightenment ideals – and the intricate relationship between the human and the animal.

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