The Paradox of Affect: Exposure and Modesty in Primo Levi's Work

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Marcus, Millicent


This dissertation offers an affective reading of Primo Levi’s oeuvre through the lens of pudore, an affect which pertains to modesty, restraint, and privacy. My contribution aims at revisiting conventional readings of Levi as a hyper-rationalist humanist by carving a space for the study of emotion in his work and by grounding his stylistic practice of pudore in a constant and productive tension between exposure and modesty. I maintain that pudore – in its paradoxical role of being both an embodied affect and an affect that may conceal other emotions – is the organizing affect of Levi’s work, and I analyze its hermeneutic implications across literary genres in the three chapters that compose this dissertation. Chapter 1 focuses on Levi’s testimony, from Se questo è un uomo (1947 and 1958) to I sommersi e i salvati (1986). My claim is that Levi understands the Holocaust as an assault on pudore, constantly negotiating his testimonial writing in the tension between exposure and modesty. In fact, testimony requires an affective compromise: Levi both partially waives his own sense of pudore when putting into words what he endured and witnessed at Auschwitz and partially restores the modesty and human decency so brutally denied in the concentration camp precisely through the mode of testimonial representation. By tracing tropes of nakedness and clothing in his texts, from Levi’s analysis of the Nazi attack on external and internal layers of defense in the camp to his configuring his writing as an act of “clothing” (rivestire) people and facts in words, the chapter discusses Levi’s powerful undoing of the binary between exposure and agency, showing how vulnerability and resistance can coexist in his testimony. Chapter 2 analyzes the tension between exposure and modesty in the relatively understudied corpus of Levi’s short fiction. I take his first collection of science-fiction short stories, Storie naturali (published under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila in 1966), as an example of the multi-layered relationship between pudore and Levi’s fictional production. Throughout the book, tropes of embarrassment and scandal emerge as the driving motifs of several of his short stories, many of which entail problematic experiences of blushing, uneasiness, and voyeurism. In this chapter, I begin to trace the stylistic markers of Levi’s fruitful intellectual pudore towards the complexity of reality, including notions of gender and sexuality. I argue that a focus on fiction allows for a reassessment of Levi's relationship to the male/female gender binary. While his Holocaust-related production relies on a rather normative understanding of gender differences, I offer a reading of several of his short stories as a place of stylistic experimentation on queer notions of gender. Finally, Chapter 3 looks at selected meta-literary moments in Levi’s later works, from the novel La chiave a stella (1978) to the anthology La ricerca delle radici (1981) and the collected essays of L’altrui mestiere (1985). In this chapter, I present pudore as the source and structuring principle of an array of rhetorical techniques – chiefly reticence, irony, and understatement – that Levi often relies upon in reflecting about writing (which Levi provocatively defines as “stripping oneself naked”, denudarsi). By considering the figures of Ancient Greek prophet Tiresias and French Renaissance humanist Rabelais as paradoxical, self-declared models for Primo Levi’s public persona, the chapter discusses the interplay of pudore and exhibitionism in Levi's works as well as in his growing awareness of the literariness of his writing.

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