In the celebrated ‘Canto of Ulysses’ chapter of If This is a Man Levi wrote one of the greatest hymns to the human spirit. In it, Levi relates how he struggled at Auschwitz to remember lines from Dante’s pilgrimage-poem The Divine Comedy. He and a French prisoner, Jean Samuel, had set out to collect the soup ration one day in 1944, when canto 26 of the ‘Inferno’ came back to memory. The classical Greek mariner-hero Ulysses is addressing his ship’s crew as they embark on their final voyage before the sea sucks them under: ‘Think on why you were created: not to live as brutes merely,  but to follow after knowledge and good.’ In the hell of Auschwitz, anus mundi, Ulysses’ commendation to know and understand radiates a sublime dignity. Dante’s vision of human knowledge and endeavour lay at the heart of the Italian Renaissance (indeed, The Divine Comedy might be seen as the first great step from Gothic darkness into the light of the pre-Renaissance). So Primo Levi and Jean Samuel are not Untermenschen (sub-humans) as the Nazi race scientists had declared Jews to be; they were made ‘men’ in order to pursue knowledge. Of course the counterpoint of poetic beauty in such a vile place as Auschwitz might suggest the artifice of afterthought; yet Levi was among the last generation of Italians to be taught largely by rote; every one of those words from the Ulysses canto (and more) was committed to his memory.


Levi was not the only Italian writer who worked in a chemical industry (the novelist Italo Svevo, author of The Confessions of Zeno, had specialized in anti-corrosive paints for ships), yet Levi  alone encouraged an image of himself as a man caught between the exigencies of the factory and the typewriter. Much of The Periodic Table was influenced by an immersion in the work of Latin poet Lucretius. Lucretius’s long philosophical poem “On the Nature of Things” had been disapproved of by the Fascist regime owing to its “whiff of impiety”, yet Levi found in it an alternative theology that necessarily recognized no God (there was no holy scripture in the classical world) but which anticipated scientific innovators such as Mendeleev and Darwin. With uncanny prescience, Lucretius wrote of how rivers, foliage and pastures are “transformed” into cattle, and how these cattle are consumed by humans, who in turn provide sustenance for predators. Lucretius did not know it but he was writing about the quintessential atom of life – carbon – at a time when atomic theory did not exist. The more Levi read into Lucretius, he said, the more he was awed by its quasi-religious celebration of the mysteries of the natural world. For all that, chemistry remained an ambivalent science for Levi. Even Levi’s adored H.G.Wells, with his uncanny gift of scientific foresight, could not have predicted the industrialized killing of Treblinka. We are still learning to understand the human catastrophe to which Primo Levi, the most important scientist-writer of our time, was witness.


This article originally appeared in The Tablet, 16 March 2019



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