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Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. A Search for Patterns in Times Past

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Essays
Chemistry in Literature
Primo Levis The Periodic Table. A Search for Patterns
in Times Past
Amir H. Hoveyda*
Keywords:
chemistry in literature · Levi, Primo
“
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (Canto Three)
”
He is not recognized for any contributions to science. He did not receive
any scientific accolades, nor was he a
university professor. Yet it is likely that
Primo Levi will be remembered as a
singularly influential chemist of the
twentieth century.
A survivor of the world of concentration camps, Levi was trained as a
chemist but is admired as a writer and an
artist. Levi did not write because he felt
that his life would be the stuff of drama
that satisfies common curiosities. It was
not a wooly relative, a wild whim, or a
wily editor, tongue stained with tribal
praise that urged him to author books.
Writing for Levi was not a distraction
from the everyday life—it was life
itself.[+]
[*] Prof. Dr. A. H. Hoveyda
Department of Chemistry
Merkert Chemistry Center
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3860 (USA)
Fax: (+ 1) 617-552-1442
E-mail: amir.hoveyda@bc.edu
[+]
Quotations in this essay are from: Primo
Levi, The Periodic Table (translation by R.
Rosenthal), Everyman’s Library, New York,
1995.
6592
“I had returned from captivity … was
living badly. The things I had seen and
suffered were burning inside me; I felt
closer to the dead than the living, and felt
guilty at being a man, because men had
built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had
gulped down millions of human beings,
and many of my friends, and a woman
who was dear to my heart. It seemed that
I would be purified if I told its story. …
[By] writing I found peace for a while
and felt myself become a man again, a
person like everyone else, neither a
martyr nor debased nor a saint …”
In his creation The Periodic Table,
Levi, with touching thoughtfulness,
sketched the magic of the elements that
make up this world. As with all enduring
works of art, The Periodic Table is open
to numerous interpretations—it rewards
us with new vistas upon every re-reading. Levi portrayed the periodic table as
a mirror for reflection, through which
we might steal a glimpse at the meaning
of our existence. Elements in The Periodic Table conjure memories, offering
fresh notions meant to guide us, at a
conscious as well as a subconscious
level, in our search to understand Time
and the scars that its tyranny leaves on
our psyche. Through such meditative
explorations we escape the prison of the
hours and extend our consciousness
beyond the oppressive cage of the
immediate present.
The attributes of an element are
used by Levi as a metaphor for his
discussion in a particular essay; an
element can be a nugget hiding a
thought or an event that we are made
privy to. For Levi, each element is the
objects and sensations that cast their
mysterious shadows in the writings of
Proust: the celebrated Madeleine dipped in a tisane offered by Aunt Leonie
or the musty smell in uncle Adolphe.s
study. In The Periodic Table earthly
elements hold ghosts of the past awaiting release initiated by an unexpected
meeting, at an unforeseen date, at an
unknown location. Reading The Periodic Table makes us wonder what do
different elements mean to us. What
mental reactions do they initiate in our
subconscious? What fresh slices of the
past have been faithfully sealed for us?
We may have been taught as young
students, and may now be convinced
that Lithium, Europium, Vanadium and
Iodine do not belong to the same family
in the periodic table. The Periodic Table
leads us to reconsider. We are encouraged to look again; Ar, Mo and Ir might
well be connected in the land of dreams.
On the visible plane, the letter “K”
represents potassium. But for Levi, this
eleventh letter of our alphabet, unleashed anxieties, fears, sounds and smells of
that frightful day when he nearly set his
laboratory on fire. Unable to find pieces
of sodium, as advised by the procedure
that he was to follow for purification of
benzene, Levi decided to substitute
potassium. He was taught that potassium is
“sodium(s twin, but it reacts with air
and water even with greater energy. … So
I handled my *half-pea( [of potassium]
like a holy relic: I placed it on a piece of
dry filter paper, wrapped it up in it, went
down into the institute(s courtyard, dug
out a tiny grave, and buried the little
bedeviled corpse …
I took now the empty flask, put it
under a faucet, and turned on the water. I
heard a rapid thump and from the neck
of the flask came a flash of flame directed
at the window that was next to the
washbasin and the curtain around it
caught fire. While I was stumbling
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200460464
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 6592 –6594
2004 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
Angewandte
Chemie
around looking for some even primitive
means to extinguish it, the panels of the
shutter began to blister and the room was
now full of smoke. I managed to push
over a chair and tear down the curtains; I
threw them on the floor and stomped
furiously on them, while the smoke half
blinded me and my blood was throbbing
violently in my temples.
… In a way it served me right: these
are the things that happen to the profane,
to those who dawdle and play before the
portals of the temple instead of going
inside. … [The flask] must have contained, if nothing else the vapor of the
benzene, beside of course the air that
came in through its neck. But one has
never seen the vapor of benzene, when
cold, catch fire by itself: only the potassium could have set fire to the mixture,
and I had taken out the potassium. All of
it?
… I thought of another moral, … and
I believe that every militant chemist can
confirm it: that one must mistrust almostthe-same (sodium is almost the same as
potassium, but with sodium nothing
would have happened), the practically
identical, the approximate, the or-even,
all surrogates, and all patchwork.“
Potassium, the over-eager alkali
metal represented to Levi the precariousness of life in a world of approximations. After all, one crucial thread that
connects arts and sciences is the significance of subtleties. The importance of
details is again brought forth in the
chapter entitled Vanadium. Here, in a
letter that Levi receives in response to
his queries regarding the quality of a
recent shipment of resin that his company had purchased from a German
firm, he notices a misspelling. The
correspondent, a Dr. L. M;ller, writes
“beta-naptylamin” in his letter instead
of “beta-naphthylamine.” Two h.s missing; shaped like walking sticks, they lead
Levi to a past that he did not necessarily
wish to revisit.
“There was a M3ller in my previous
incarnation, but M3ller is a very common name in Germany. … Why continue
to think about it? And yet, … I could not
quiet a doubt, a kind that refuses to be
pushed aside and rasps slightly within
you, like termites. Oh, come now, there
must be two hundred thousand M3llers
in Germany, forget it and think about the
varnish …”
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 6592 –6594
Like all dedicated chemists, Levi
followed his instinct. He was not about
to trust his theory. “… [T]here is trouble
in store for anyone who surrenders to the
temptation of mistaking an elegant hypothesis for a certainty: the readers of
detective stories know this quite well.”
After some deliberation, Levi managed
to write to M;ller, asking whether he
was the man who was his “supervisor” at
Auschwitz. M;ller was the same man.
His written response to Levi set free
memories awaiting the right time, the
right place to release and render lucid
emotions that go far and deep in defining us as individuals. But it was not just
memories that emerged from their shell.
“The M3ller character was *entpuppt(, he had come out of his chrysalis,
he was sharply defined, in perfect focus.
Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or
bad faith there remained a typically gray
human specimen, one of the not so few
one-eyed men in the kingdom of the
blind.”
Much of what we label as the “real
world” is the fruit of our imagination;
reality frequently coincides with the
imaginary world. Our senses become
excited about the events that we can
only imagine will take place in the
future. When we recall the past, what
we voluntarily remember, rarely remains unmodified by imagination. It is
perhaps natural that once a set of events
has occurred, imagination begins to alter
memories, and gradually they grow to
reflect who we are more than actually
what happened. Memories, with time,
are molded and remolded like pieces of
clay in the hands of a sculptor. Unpleasant visits to relatives are remembered as
touching experiences. We renew such
visits, and by experiencing the original
reality in its refreshed form, we realize
the alteration that the persistent force of
imagination has imposed on our past. It
is for such reasons that an autobiography might be more the fruit of a writer.s
imagination than an impartial chronicle
of events. In reading about Levi.s past
and his memories as he recalls and
relates them, we gain insight about the
unique contours of his imaginary world.
The Periodic Table shows that remembering and searching for meaningful
patterns in our past can prove to be a
www.angewandte.org
promising gateway that can lead to a
better understanding of who we are.
In a few segments such as Lead and
Mercury, Levi speaks to us purely
through the magic lantern of his imaginary world. In these stories Levi shows
us that truth can be discovered anywhere, in any land, guided by imagination and invention. Through the story in
Lead Levi deals with the symbiotic
relationship between fiction and reality,
observation and theory. While reading
Levi.s stories one wonders: What is the
relationship between us the reader and
Levi the storyteller? “The crew chief
came from Kriti and was a big liar: he
told stories about a country where there
lived men called Big Ears …” If one who
tells tales is a liar, then who is the Levi
who tells us the story of the crew chief ?
May we not also find some truth in
Levi.s other tales? If so, is only what we
call “reality” the source of truth? Or can
truth be found in our imagination and in
our theories, in our stories? Is creativity
how we see and interpret the world? Is
there only one reality, one truth, one
theory?
Levi, like many great artists, viewed
everything through myriad dimensions.
He cherished the unique power of
imagination, but also recognized the
freshness that rests within unspoiled
facts. Facts were a source of inspiration
to Levi. To be able to relate actual
events in their original state, however,
requires that we keep imagination at
bay. Levi wanted his readers to see how
“the boredom of repetitious work was
being transformed into nervous gaiety, as
when as children you play hide and seek
and discover your opponent clumsily
squatting behind a bush.” A frank account of struggles to decipher the mysteries of nature had its own unique
poetry for Levi; it allowed him to see
himself and nature in its own reality,
clear from the fog and shifting images of
an imaginary world. In the chapter
Silver Levi confesses:
“… [T]he inadequacy of our preparation, and the need to make up for it
with luck, intuition, stratagems and a
river of patience. … I wanted to put on
display … the strong and bitter flavor of
our trade, which is only … a more
strenuous version of the business of
living. … [T]he stories of solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foot, at the measure
2004 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
6593
Essays
of man … the chemistry of the founders,
who did not work in teams but alone,
surrounded by indifference of their time,
generally without profit …”
The Periodic Table may make one
appreciate that to a large extent scientific papers represent the investigator.s
account of how a discovery is made. The
manner in which we toil as scientists
seldom coincides with our ideal world, a
world where a total synthesis transpires
exactly as we had originally planned it,
or where we design that perfect catalyst
on a first attempt. Renditions of reality
reported by an investigator emanate
from processed memory, which in turn
is colored by the chronicler.s ideals (his
dream world). In scientific papers it is
the data, it is only the uncompromising
hard facts that bear no allegiance to, and
remain unaltered by, a researcher.s
imagination.
One of the more prophetic chapters
in The Periodic Table is Zinc; here, Levi
reflected on a subject that is a perennial
topic of interest to chemists: impurities.
In thinking about this late transition
metal, one that “… they make tubs out of
… for laundry, not a veteran covered
with glory like copper …” Levi recalls an
early attempt, when as a student he
attempted to purify zinc sulfate. The
procedure called for sulfuric acid; the
acid was first to be diluted. But, as
always, certain details needed to be
tended to first.
“[A] detail which at first reading had
escaped me, namely, that the so tender
and delicate zinc … behaves … in a
different fashion when it is very pure;
then it obstinately resists attack. One
could draw from the two conflicting
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, which I found more
congenial.”
Levi.s interpretation is poignant on
two levels. It is ironic how as chemists
we have become increasingly aware of
the positive role that impurities can
have on reluctant reactions. Curiously,
once their (often unexpected) positive
attributes are discovered, such impurities are referred to as additives. Combinatorial chemistry has turned our atten-
6594
tion to the wonders of the chemistry of
mixtures. Inorganic and organometallic
chemists, in spite of an undying zeal for
inert conditions, have provided us with
reactive and colorfully impure alloys.
Water and air, primordial necessities of
life for all creatures on earth, and yet the
angel of death to many of our fragile
molecular creations, can prove at times
to be the indispensable ingredients that
push reluctant molecules forward over
otherwise indomitable energy barriers.
On a more sublime but sobering
level, Levi expanded his journey of selfdiscovery to include the role of impurities in the larger world, the one outside
science:
“In order for the wheel to turn, for
life to be lived, impurities are needed,
and impurities of impurities in the soil,
too, as is known, if it is to be fertile.
Dissention, diversity, the grain of salt and
mustard are needed: Fascism does not
want them, forbids them, … it wants
everybody to be the same …”
It was in the same laboratory that
young Levi saw a “small zinc bridge”
that he would negotiate to reach Rita
while dispensing with his “masculine
solitude.” Rita was a quiet, thin, pale
and sad but confident fellow student
who happened to be “cooking [his] same
dish.” But Levi was to discover that all
objects of desire, upon familiarity, lay
bare their blemishes at which time the
pleasures of imagination are reduced to
their unimpressive, but still lovable,
earthly dimensions.
Rita “got through exams with good
marks, but without the genuine appetite
that I felt,” Levi explains. She read
Mann.s Magic Mountain only to discover “how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped
the fascinating (for me) … metaphysical
discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha.”
Levi was disappointed; “[I]t could even
become an essential and fundamental
discussion, because I too am Jewish, and
she is not …” Mundane zinc took Levi
on a journey of self-discovery. “I am the
impurity that makes zinc react, I am the
grain of salt or mustard.”
But impurities do not rejuvenate by
being exclusionary. Impurities are not
impurities if they only cling to other
impurities.
2004 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
“… I soon realized that Rita was
different from me: she was not a grain of
mustard. … For her university was not at
all the temple of knowledge: it was a
thorny and difficult path which led to a
degree, to a job. … All this did not put a
distance between us; on the contrary, I
found it admirable …
[T]rembling with emotion, I slipped
my arm under hers. … I fell into step with
her, and felt exhilarated and victorious. It
seemed to me that I had won a small but
decisive battle against the darkness, the
emptiness, and the hostile years that lay
ahead.“
Through conceiving and writing The
Periodic Table, Levi explored his personal reality. Levi aimed to unravel
mysteries of human behavior and of
nature, mysteries that test the limits of
our reasoning and imagination. Levi.s
masterpiece bears tales of his struggles
to understand the meaning of his existence and the world surrounding it. In a
chapter entitled Lead Levi writes:
“This is a difficult thing to explain,
but it has already happened more than
once that someone, who knows when,
coming from who knows where, at some
remote time, perhaps before the Flood,
finds a vein, does not say anything to
anyone, tries by himself to dig out the
rock, leaves his bones there, and the
centuries pass. My father told me that in
whatever tunnel or cave you may dig you
find the bones of the dead.”
Levi.s writing encourages us to
search the world in our own way and
in our own time. It inspires us to see
nature through our eyes, to try and take
pleasure in solving her puzzles, anagrams and acrostics. Levi examined—
voraciously—ideas, symbols, peoples,
eras and kingdoms, songs, anecdotes,
mirrored images, revelations, wonders,
ruses, incredible tales, endless sufferings.
The Periodic Table invites us to
travel the road that, however long and
arduous, may be the only means through
which we might catch a glimpse of the
flicker of light that shines from the
depth of a dark abyss. It is an infinite
number of small steps, each taken by an
instance of recognition that leads us
towards the bottom of this unfathomable darkness. Perhaps, it is there that
rests the answer to the meaning of it all.
Published Online: November 2, 2004
www.angewandte.org
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 6592 –6594
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