Primo Levi, Scientist and Writer


Dr Charlotte Ross, University of Birmingham

18 March 2010


For many, the name Primo Levi is synonymous with Holocaust testimony. Imprisoned in the Carpi Fòssoli concentration camp in Italy in 1943 on account of being Jewish, he was deported to Auschwitz in February 1944, where he was a prisoner in the Monowitz Lager (Auschwitz III) until its liberation in January 1945. Levi’s accounts of his experiences include Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This is a Man), which describes his deportation and internment in Monowitz, La tregua (1963; The Truce), an account of his lengthy journey home to Turin, and the much later text, I sommersi e i salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saved), an ethical and philosophical reflection on his experiences. Levi’s particular perspective was also enriched and shaped by his work as a chemist. He studied at the University of Turin, graduating in 1941 despite Italy’s 1938 Racial Laws, and after his return from Auschwitz in 1945 he began his career at SIVA (the Società Industriale Vernici e Affini), a factory which produced paints and varnishes, where he worked from 1948-77. Throughout his employment at SIVA, but particularly afterwards, Levi continued to publish novels, essays, short stories, poems, and articles until his death in 1987. As well as a Holocaust witness, then, he is also a fascinating example of a hybrid scientist-author, whose work and thought straddled and specifically set out to undo the ‘Two Cultures’ divide famously articulated by C.P Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture. Levi’s highly original work, Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table, 1975), is an excellent example of this, as it weaves together autobiography, cultural and political history, fiction, and evolutions in scientific thought, and explores them through the lens of Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table of the elements.

Levi believed that science and literature should be connected, engaged in reciprocally informing dialogue with one another. He was determined to undo the message taught to him in school, the legacy of Italian philosophers Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, that science was inferior to literature or philosophy since it was merely informative, not formative. His goal and achievement in texts like The Periodic Table was to show how our very lives are shaped by scientific processes, as well as how scientific processes are shaped by our personal beliefs. Other, perhaps lesser known works that also engage with the connections between our lives and scientific developments, especially technological progress, include the collections of stories Storie naturali (1966) and Vizio di forma (1971; partially translated as The Sixth Day). These stories can be defined as ethically motivated science fiction; they look into a hypothetical but possible future, and read as cautionary tales about what we might do with technology, and what technology might do to us, if we fail to reflect on the potential consequences of our actions. Levi tackles the ethical implications of cloning, cryogenics and virtual reality, among other subjects. What emerges from Levi’s texts is a complex view of science and technology as formative, but also as formed by human endeavour - and therefore open to being deformed by human action. His thought bears the legacy of Enlightenment reason, a universal, transcendental principle that guides us towards a ‘better’ understanding of the world. However, he is also sceptical of another legacy of the Enlightenment: a potentially uncritical belief in progress and efficiency, that may rationalize and quash our ‘humanness’, in its complicated, contradictory, fallible and unreliable beauty.

Levi’s writings identify and explore the tensions between different ways of understanding the world, as well as the tensions he felt between what he characterized as the different ‘halves’ of himself, the scientist/technician, and the writer. He argues persuasively that science as a discipline is not neutral, and emphasizes the value of knowledge gained through experience, and of challenging apparently unshakeable ‘truths’. In his reflections that weave together his own autobiography with a biography of his generation and of a scientific discipline, he celebrates exceptions to the rule, chemical ‘impurities’ that may be vital to life processes and to our understandings of scientific processes; similarly, he praises perceived ‘impurities’ in society that may enrich our social context. His work can be read as in dialogue with many traditions; from literature to the philosophy of science, and remains relevant to us today as the impact on science and technology on our lives continues to evolve.


Primo Levi in 1943 (photo for false ID papers)

Included in Ian Thomson’s biography  Primo Levi  A Life  (2002)


Select Bibliography

  • Se questo è un uomo (Turin: De Silva, 1947; 2nd edition, Turin: Einaudi, 1958), trans. Stuart Woolf, If This is a Man (London: Orion Press, 1959)
  • La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1963), trans. Stuart Woolf, The Truce (London: Bodley Head, 1965)
  • Storie naturali (Turin: Einaudi, 1966) [until 1979 published under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila], partial trans. Raymond Rosenthal, The Sixth Day (London: Michael Joseph, 1990)
  • Vizio di forma (Turin: Einaudi, 1971), partial trans. Raymond Rosenthal, The Sixth Day (London: Michael Joseph, 1990)
  • Il sistema periodico (Turin: Einaudi, 1975); trans. Raymond Rosenthal, The Periodic Table (New York: Schocken Books, 1984)
  • I sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Einaudi, 1986), trans. Raymond Rosenthal, The Drowned and the Saved (London: Michael Joseph, 1988)