Levi: viewing the world through a chemist's beaker

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books. 240 pp. $16.95. We had no doubts: We would be chemists, but our expectations and hopes were quite different. Enrico asked chemistry . . . for the tools to earn his living and have a secure life. . . . [F]or me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by firey flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world.

(from ``Hydrogen'')

``The Periodic Table'' is not a full-scale autobiography, but a series of stories and recollections, each crystallized around an experience involving chemistry. Most are based on incidents from the author's life; some are flights of fancy. Each chapter bears the name of an element from the periodic table.

Primo Levi's youthful dream of chemistry as the key to all the secrets of the universe was gradually replaced by a more cautious and skeptical view of the scientific enterprise. But he was never to lose his feeling for the romance of chemistry or his faith in the importance of the search for verifiable truths.

Born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, Levi grew up in a country permeated by fascism. Although Mussolini's Italy was considerably less repressive and certainly less horrifying than Hitler's Germany (or Stalin's Russia), the atmosphere was charged with an artificially induced ultranationalism with overtones of racism. To be Jewish, as Levi soon learned, was to be dangerously different. Meditating on a chemical reaction which required a certain degree of impurity in order to occur, the young chemist was moved to ponder two ``philosophical conclusions'':

The praise of purity which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life, I discarded the first, disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered to consider the second. . . . In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed . . . in the soil, too . . . if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that's why you're not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.

(from ``Zinc'')

As this and many another of Levi's ingenious analogies would indicate, there are sermons to be read in stones, but which sermons we choose to read will depend not on the stones, but on the moral values of the person who does the reading.

Levi cherished more specific hopes that chemistry and physics were themselves ``the antidote to Fascism . . . because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers.'' Against the false ``spirituality'' of fascism (imposed, largely, by gangs of highly unspiritual thugs) the chemist might pose the verifiable truths of matter.

As a student, Levi struggled with the elements of the periodic table in the lab, where procedures outlined in textbooks did not always work out as predicted in theory. He also had the chance to struggle with the elements of nature in still more intractable form on mountaineering expeditions with a friend. Working with the dumb passivity of matter, its mute resistances, became a way of testing his own strengths and limits. Exposure to the elements of nature bred a certain stoicism that would later serve him well.

From the passive alienation of his youth, when to sneer at fascism seemed resistance enough, Levi turned to a more active resistance, joining the partisan underground. Captured when the Nazis occupied northern Italy, he was deported to Auschwitz. Fortunately, he lived to write about his experiences in his books, ``If This Is a Man'' (American title: ``Survival in Auschwitz'') and ``The Truce'' (American title: ``The Reawakening''). Returning to his native Italy, he continued to work as a chemist, and also became known and much esteemed as a poet and essayist.

The product of a mind and imagination that function analogically as well as logically, ``The Periodic Table'' has as much to say about words, values, and human relationships as about chemistry. It also succeeds in accomplishing the plan Levi described to one of his colleagues: ``To convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavor of our trade'': not the glory of prizewinning discoveries, but the quieter satisfactions of those who grapple with the elements to discover some principle of order in the daily problems presented by their jobs. Most of all, it succeeds in conveying the poetry of chemistry. Levi's closing story, the odyssey of an atom of carbon from limestone to the human brain, is a meditation on the durability and improbability of life. It is also an answer, of sorts, to Emerson's powerful rhetorical question: ``Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements?''

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor. -- 30 --

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