on re-reading Primo Levi's The Periodic Table
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 re-reading, 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.
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