Primo Levi and the Question of the Animal: Suffering, Techne, Creation.

Doctoral Dissertation


The Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) is one of the most significant European authors of the twentieth century. The double nature of his writing - based on both his tragic experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz and his career as professional chemist - has been internationally recognized as a truthful image of our recent past, in its tangle of horror and progress, technology and suffering.

In this dissertation, I investigate the mysterious presence of animal representations and references to animality in Levi’s books in order to achieve a better comprehension of what aesthetic and ethical questions he left us. Relatively unexamined by scholars, the complex and extensive animal imagery Levi employed in his literary works offers first and foremost an insight into his experience at Auschwitz and the function of testimony. Equally importantly, it provides an original perspective on both the cultural legacy of the twentieth century and the contemporary debate on post-humanism and human-animal relationships.

My research explores Levi’s body of work on the issues of suffering, techne, and creation respectively, and reveals how his animal imagery possesses first of all an unquestionable ethical origin (suffering). This initial ethical intuition goes then through a deep and wide investigation of the material, transformative, act of writing, and his animal representations become part of a project in which literary hybridization plays a major role (techne). Finally, as part of this creative project, Levi’s animal imagery counterbalances the horror produced by what he calls a “controcreazione” [countercreation], i.e. Auschwitz, and proposes a less anthropocentric understanding of our presence in the universe (creation).

This dissertation concludes noticing how the animal representations displayed by Levi transform his whole oeuvre into a testimony about the possible limitrophy between human and non-human animals.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-02242014-121041

Author Damiano Benvegnu
Advisor John Welle
Contributor Theodore Cachey, Committee Member
Contributor Vittorio Montemaggi, Committee Member
Contributor John Welle, Committee Chair
Contributor Ben Heller, Committee Member
Contributor Joseph Buttigieg, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Literature
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2013-12-17

Submission Date 2014-02-24
  • United States of America

  • italian literature

  • animal studies

  • holocaust studies

  • continental philosophy

  • testimony

  • twentieth century

  • literary animals

  • animal ethics

  • italian culture

  • human-animal relationship

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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