Primo Levi as Chemist and Writer
Science, especially chemistry, was always very important in the life and works of Primo Levi. He enrolled in Turin University in 1937, where he pursued a degree in chemistry. He graduated in 1941 with a thesis entitled L’inversione di Walden(The Walden Inversion). After coming back from the war and his deportation to Auschwitz, he decided to work and keep on working at a paint factory, even when his fame as writer made him well known in Italy and abroad. All his life he never failed to keep up on the latest scientific theories, reading the articles in Scientific American, especially. He would serve up the latest research findings in many of his stories with a more strictly scientific approach.
Primo Levi was a concrete person. What he loved about chemistry was the reassuring vigor it applied to the study of nature, reaching for its deepest essence, as well as its wealth of tools that were useful for understanding the world and life itself. Being a chemist also meant that he was able to use the extraordinary resources that chemistry made available for him to put his memories into some order. Thus he could write about his memories, his own experiences, and the real conditions of human beings in general. Levi never made any clear-cut distinction between his activities as a writer and as a chemist. Indeed, he always made an effort to underline that the scientific training that he chose to undergo when he was young offered him original points of view and extraordinarily original tools for his work as a writer.
The outlook Primo Levi had upon the world was always filtered through science. This outlook left a profound mark upon his work and also explains the great interest that the scientific world has in Levi. For this reason, the International Primo-Levi-Studies Center is focusing special attention on this and has begun a systematic project of collecting and studying material as we become aware of it. Scientific articles, acts of conventions, reviews, and writings of various nature are being made available to readers in this section of the site. This material is a primary contribution of information, complied thanks to the valuable collaboration of scholars and scientists from a vast range of disciplines who are interested in the works of Primo Levi. On the other hand, the breadth and the range of approaches that emerge from the material that we have collected are so impressive that our newly begun research efforts are turning into a constant challenge that, for this reason, is involving us more and more. The reaches of these branches of knowledge go in many directions and are found in journals of general interest and very specialized scientific publications. For us to continue our work it is therefore essential that we be able to count on the support of the scientific community and on the network of valuable contacts that we are building. If any of you from the public want to make your skills available, you are kindly asked to collaborate.
"We had no doubts: we would be chemists, but our expectations and hopes were quite different. Enrico asked chemistry, quite reasonably, for the tools to earn his living and have a secure life. I asked for something entirely different; for me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery 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. I was fed up with books, which I still continued to gulp down with indiscreet voracity, and searched for another key to the highest truths; there must be a key, and I was certain that, owing to some monstrous conspiracy to my detriment and the world's, I would not get it in school. In school they loaded me with tons of notions which I diligently digested, but which did not warm the blood in my veins. I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: 'I will understand this, too, I will understand everything, but not the way they want me to. I will find a shortcut, I will make a lock-pick, I will push open the doors'." [P. Levi, The Periodic Table, Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Penguin, 2000, p.19]
"We began studying physics together, and Sandro was surprised when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev's Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed!" [P. Levi, The Periodic Table, Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Penguin, 2000, pp. 34-35]
"Chemistry is the art of separating, weighing, and distinguishing: these are three useful exercises also for the person who sets out to describe events or give body to his own imagination. Moreover, there is an immense patrimony of metaphors that the writer can take from the chemistry of today and yesterday which those who have not frequented the laboratory and factory know only approximately." [P. Levi, Other People’s Trades, Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Abacus-sphere, 1991, p.175]