On Primo Levi's 'Gold'

At an event we called “7 Up on Gold” — featuring seven people speaking for seven minutes each about gold, the color or the element — I chose to speak about the chapter entitled “Gold” in Primo Levi’s brilliant book, The Periodic Table. I’ve taught the book a number of times in my course on the Holocaust. My “7 Up on Gold” talk about the chapter was recorded in audio. You can go here and see the link to the audio (downloadable MP3 file). I was once asked to write a paragraph about a book I’ve read and reread many times. I chose Levi’s The Periodic Table, and here is what I wrote:

By now I have read Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table a dozen times. It defies categories. It is partly a scientific treatise, partly post-Holocaust ethics, and partly a modernist prose-poem of fragments. For me the book always bears rereading, inspiring me toward true interdisciplinarity and an ethical modernism. Neither at Auschwitz nor during most of the years afterward did Levi fit well as a person. His writing, certainly at first, similarly fell between categorical cracks. He dared to see in organic chemistry, the “lesser” of the chemistries, a powerfully figurative organicism. In this very special case, organicism — usually thought to be about wholes rather than fragements — served to enact a modernist sensibility in the very leaves of a book telling autobiographically but non-narratively of the dangers of inertness, and, finally, of the wonderful possibilities of the shifting present discernible in the marks we put here and now on the page.

This last point (“here and now on the page”) refers to the stunning ending of the final chapter, “Carbon.” Oh, blog-readers, read that!