By Jonathan Druker (auth.)
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Extra info for Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections
Levi ends the chapter with a one-sentence paragraph: “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer” (130). 32 While this hypothetical statement acts as a dramatic exclamation point to Levi’s anger, and implies that prayer might be inoffensive to Levi when it is selfless, the underlying concern of the passage is the humanist’s inability to salvage anything of value from Auschwitz. Added to this is the irritation provoked by those like Kuhn who fool themselves into thinking that religion might be able to succeed where reason fails.
As deployed in Survival in Auschwitz, Dante’s Ulysses seems to affirm his humanity by audaciously pursuing knowledge; however, for Horkheimer and Adorno, the figure of Ulysses in Western culture is ambiguous—he represents the liberation of humanity from myth but also embodies aspects of fascism in that he conceives of knowledge as power, and uses language and reason to further his self-interests. Before exploring why Dante’s medieval text figures so crucially in Levi’s memoir, we need to consider Lawrence Langer’s assertion that literary citations, far from enriching Holocaust testimony, actually sterilize it, filtering 42 PRIMO LEVI AND HUMANISM AFTER AUSCHWITZ the reader’s “experience of Auschwitz .
The remedy for this failure of the Enlightenment, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is not less rationality but more of it devoted to self-reflection (Dialectic xvi). The challenge to critical thought is substantial because a powerful dialectic drives Western civilization toward self-destruction: “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology” (xviii). ) Each concept in this linked pair requires some explanation. Instrumental reason, whether applied to science or society, claims sole possession of truth, and is, therefore, an “absolute authority” (18) resembling a force of nature, or even a new myth, that neither justifies nor reflects critically on itself.