Vizio di forma – Science Meets Literature in Five Encounters

Published by Einaudi in 1971, Vizio di forma [Structural Defect] is the second collection of fantasy stories by Primo Levi

His stories belong to a specific literary genre, “fanta-technology” or “fanta-biology.” Each of these stories describes the consequences of inventions that are as extraordinary as they are subtly threatening – new devices, new chemical substances, and, at times, new ritual practices that bring on unprecedented ethical dilemmas or, better, that introduce a distortion in the world that we are living in.

In an interview he gave on RAI (the national broadcast network) in spring 1971, Levi explained the ironic intent of his title, Vizio di forma, which, in truth, alludes to a very much more profound “substantial error… a great run in the historical fabric that occurred in our civilization, a failure of technology as a factor in progress,” one that was serious but perhaps not irreversible. Levi went on to underline the importance of the science-fiction model – the conception of visionary inventions based on vast technical and scientific knowledge -- as a model that is especially appropriate for facing present-day sociological problems.

Vizio di forma is Primo Levi’s least known work, with a language that is as abrasive as the dark but splendid paint of his inventions. It distances itself from everyday life to test the very structure of our life as well as our own moral backbone. We cannot find any direct references to the tumultuous changes across the breath of society – in the economy, politics, and public morality that characterized the Italy of those years – no references to student protests, labor battles, sexual liberation, or fears of a reactionary coup d’état. We cannot even find references to his personal experience as an ex-detainee at Auschwitz. Nevertheless, exactly because of its distance from the current events of those years, Vizio di forma has a lot in store for us – a lot to say to us directly and suggest indirectly.

The International Primo Levi Studies Center is offering a series of five encounters between science and literature, starting off from this work that is little known but nonetheless has all the powers to surprise and hence win over new readers. Each encounter calls for the development of a scientific dialogue about a short story from Vizio di forma that is accessible to the general public. First, there will be a reading by an actor and then a talk by a scholar involving the scientific topic of the story, which will be applied to current-day issues. This talk will proceed as an interview conducted by a scientific journalist.

Two encounters, one at the beginning and one at the end, will serve to “frame” the series. The first and preliminary one pertains to the overall worth of the story collection, Vizio di forma, and will proceed as a dialogue between two Italian literature experts with scientific interests. The concluding encounter calls for the reading of a text that is not from Vizio di forma but from the Racconti e saggi [stories and essays], an anthology published by Primo Levi in fall 1986. This last story will lead us to take on the controversial issue of patents – i.e. the connection between imagination and invention, between the legal protection of ideas and industrial innovation, or between innovation and production.

Program of encounters from October 8 to November 12 2014 at the Circolo dei Lettori, Via Bogino 8, Turin:

  • Vizio di Forma / Structural Defect
  • I Sintetici / The Synthetics
  • Protezione / Protection
  • Ottima è l'acqua / Excellent is the Water
  • Scacco al Tempo / Time-mate


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Torino, 8 Oct 2014 Vizio di forma
Torino, 15 Oct 2014 I Sintetici
Torino, 22 Oct 2014 Protezione
Torino, 29 Oct 2014 Ottima è l'acqua
Torino, 12 Nov 2014 Scacco al Tempo