Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Arbitrary Nature of the Universe
The primary theme that Primo Levi includes in If This Is a Man is the arbitrary nature of the universe. He attributes his survival in Auschwitz largely to luck. This includes the randomness of his having been betrayed to the Fascists as a resistance fighter in 1943, captured, and sent to a concentration camp and to the good fortune of his being one of the few who made it out alive when the camp was liberated by the Russian army in 1945.
Rationality and Curiosity
Through his description of life in the camp, Levi pursues the theme of rationality in an irrational world. As a professional scientist, Levi found that he could not abandon the search for logical reasons that he and others were incarcerated in a truly terrible place. Although he was discouraged from asking “why”—such as by the Nazi guard who told him “there is no why here”—he continued to do so. This general attitude toward a scientific approach extends to the more general theme of the importance of human curiosity. Even if we cannot find all the answers to life’s most difficult questions, if we cease to ask them, then we give up a key component of our own humanity.
The Quest for Knowledge and Understanding
Levi’s quest for knowledge was an important element of his own survival in Auschwitz. There were many practical things he had to understand in order to endure the horrors all around him and, he hoped, not to descend into brutality himself. Paradoxically, one thing he had to understand was the fundamentally irrational basis of the entire apparatus. The workers who committed atrocities could not, or would not, try to make sense of their reason for being there. Although hatred often fueled their treatment of the prisoners, most of whom were Jews, that was not always the case.
Survival and Human Connection
Although he was a chemist, and the laboratory work occupied him while he was incarcerated, Levi began to function more as a psychologist as he attempted to survive the camp. Analyzing the behavior of individuals and groups, he developed strategies and tactics that would aid in continuing his day-to-day existence. Setting aside a larger goal of release and concentrating on those daily matters, he adjusted his expectations. Extending himself through kindness and connection to others whenever possible was a crucial part of retaining his own sense of self as well as making life slightly more bearable for others.
In one memorable incident, recounted in the chapter “The Canto of Ulysses,” Levi recites part of Dante’s Divine Comedy to the pikolo, Jean, providing both men with a connection to each other and to a world of poetry, culture, history, and ideas beyond the crushing conditions of the camp. As he struggles to translate the canto about Ulysses, Levi hears Dante’s words “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God.” He narrates:
Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.
This moment of human connection through poetry gives Levi insight into his own condition and helps him to retain his identity and humanity, thus furthering his ability to survive.