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.