First Lecture «“Outrageous Fortune": Luck, the Shoah and Modernity»

The first Primo Levi Lecture has been presented by Robert Gordon, professor of Italian Culture at the Cambridge University, on November 10, 2009. A large audience and two classes of the Liceo D'Azeglio have gathered in the Great Hall of the School of Natural Sciences, Physics, and Mathematics of the University of Turin.

In the lecture, published by Einaudi in May 2010, Robert Gordon explores the literary tradition and philosophical quandaries thrown up by the workings of luck, chance and fortune. Looking at a body of literature stretching from Dante to Boccaccio, Machiavelli and Shakespeare, he shows how the myths, images and patterns of thinking about


were taken from classical culture and adapted by both Christian and Renaissance humanist writers. He also suggests that these very traditions, which persist to the present day in our contemporary imagination, are evidence of a universal trait of human society and, almost certainly, of human consciousness itself: an acute awareness of the uncontrollable disorder of our world. Part of our vocation as storytelling animals comes, indeed, from a need to imagine ways of coping with the vagaries of 'outrageous fortune'.

In the second part of the book, Gordon jumps forward to the twentieth century, and finds compelling and suprising links between this tradition of storytelling about fortune and the Shoah. In particular, he finds a disturbing but illuminating convergence on the question of survival: who survived the Lager and why, and what does it mean to say - as Primo Levi often did - that survival in the Lager was, more than anything else, the work of pure chance? This part looks in turn at three very different works, each of which touches on the Shoah, chance and questions of survival: an American work of popular science, Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkards Walk (New York, 2008); a Spanish film, Intacto (dir. Juan-Carlos Fresnadillo, 2001); and a masterpiece of Holocaust literature, the Hungarian Imre Kertész's Sorstalanság (Fateless, 1975). Each shows in its different way how a something resembling a modern myth has emerged in our culture, which sees the figure of the survivor of the Shoah as close to the incarnation of good luck: as the 'luckiest man in the world', par excellence. Only the most extreme form of random good fortune could allow the survival in that most rigid and all-consuming system of totalitarian racial violence that was the Nazi Final Solution.

In the final part of the book, Gordon turns to Primo Levi to show how, in this as in so many other aspects of our understanding of the Shoah and of modernity more generally, was one of our most intelligent and acute guides. Levi reflected across his entire oeuvre - from the very first words of Se questo è un uomo to the intense power of key pages of I sommersi e i salvati - on the problem of fortune, on the random or vastly disproportionate causes that split the paths of those few who survived from the many millions who died, and on the ethical challenges these questions provoke for us. With equal intensity, he also described the workings of chance in scientific knowledge and research, tapping into ideas of probability and statistical knowledge that lie behind many modern ideas of chance, and playing in his science-fiction stories with the odd inversions and ironies that luck and our attempts to control it throw at us. In the end, Levi's core intuition is that luck and fortune, for all that they might seem to threaten us, also contain the seeds of disorder that we need in order to survive, 'il germe di tutti i nostri domani'.


Robert S.C. Gordon. «Sfacciata fortuna». Luck and the Holocaust [«Sfacciata fortuna». La Shoah e il caso], Einaudi, Torino 2010.

"Sfacciata fortuna". Luck and the holocaust

Robert Gordon re-reads the work of Primo Levi and other stories of the Holocaust in the light of literary representations of Fortune and aspects of the modern scientific method.

Interview with Robert Gordon: "Primo Levi, una sfortuna sfacciata", La Stampa, November 10, 2009

Presentation of «Sfacciata fortuna». Luck and the Holocaust

Presentation of the volume drawn from the first "Primo Levi Lecture": Robert S.C. Gordon, «Sfacciata fortuna». Luck and the Holocaust [«Sfacciata fortuna». La Shoah e il caso], Giulio Einaudi editore, Torino 2010.

Featuring: Robert Gordon, Fabio Levi e Domenico Scarpa. Introduction by Ernesto Ferrero.