Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Distinctive Primo Levi by Berel Lang

There would undoubtedly be disagreement among Levi’s readers if they were asked to rank his best or most original or most compelling writings, and it would be difficult to achieve a consensus on what criteria to apply even in attempting such a judgment. There would be much less dispute, however, about which among Levi’s writings were distinctively his - that is, that would have been unlikely, certainly less likely, to have been written by anybody else. Even if that standard may not be very informative, it seems relatively uncontroversial that  The Periodic Table would stand foremost in this respect.

Other writers, including some with greater standing than Levi as scientists, have brought scientific analysis and narrative to life, with Darwin a ready example here. But the imaginative structure that finds the table of physical elements informative about the reach of personal history has few if any predecessors or competitors in the literary or scientific or historical worlds. The Periodic Table is clearly a literary work, not one primarily of either science or history; literary not only in the sense that the narrative voice has a significant presence in the exposition (as it often does even in writing that purports to block it, a common feature of standard scientific writing) but that the voice is also a subject of the writing. This is a common feature of the memoir as a genre, but it would be difficult to mistake The Periodic Table for a memoir; the inventiveness of the narrator’s voice reveals it not as “remembered” but as a feature of the literary present.

It is difficult to find precedents or competitors for a work in which science and history, used as grist for a personal literary narrative, yield The Periodic Table’s combination of adventure and moral instruction.  It is not only that a few readers and authors would even think of the possibilities inherent in the qualities of the elements: that “Distilling is beautiful” (“Potassium”) or that zinc is a “boring” element – or that argon, one of the inert, noble and rare gases, bears a striking resemblance through those qualities to Levi’s Piedmont Jewish ancestors. But readers also learn more about those ancestors to support the claim of resemblance, with some striking asides about the individual ancestors and others about the Hebrew inlay in the Piedmiontese dialect that produces such charms, among the clothing merchants, as na vesta a kinim for a polka-dot dress: kinim being a reference to the lice memorably known as one of the Ten Plagues inflicted on the Egyptians to pressure Pharaoh to permit the Exodus.

The constant moral presence in Levi’s writing does not rely on implication, since Levi speaks of it explicitly, in broad as well as limited strokes. He writes in “Potassium,” for example, about the periodic table, chemistry more generally, and his reasons for placing himself close to them: “Chemistry led to the heart of Matter, and Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy.” The background to such a claim, like its justification, was taken for granted by Levi. Fascism had looked to the tradition of philosophical idealism for its rationale, to thinkers like Gionvanni Gentile and the early Benedetto Croce for whom “mere” science and its assumed materialism were subordinate to the reach of the ideal or spirit that, in their view, was not only prior but a source and in effect a lawgiver. The horrific consequences of its actions make it easy to forget that fascism had looked to philosophical idealism as its conceptual forebear: not only to non-materialism, but to anti-materialism, an applied form of practical and conceptual reasoning that provoked Levi’s lifelong opposition.

Primo Levi; The Matter of a Life by Berel Lang

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