A Chemist’s Eye for Difference

The Periodic Table can be viewed as an interrogation of difference. Primo Levi’s writing is animated by polarity. He recognizes division everywhere, questioning both the mechanisms by which it is enforced and the veracity of its claims. From the obvious division between Jews and gentiles, a number of other smaller dualisms emerge, either as allegory for this primordial separation or in opposition to it, destabilizing and complicating the narrative of estrangement.  Levi’s ambivalence towards difference is clear. However, he never openly advocates bridging the divide. For him, the will to unity is fascistic at its core. Throughout the book, there is a rhythmic oscillation between the general and the specific, similarity and difference, which never reaches a stable conclusion. This lack of finality is the point: to erase difference is to lapse unthinkingly into Fascism, but to elevate it is to reinforce traditional delineations, which demand a stereotyped similarity of their own. Ultimately, Levi delivers a hagiography of nuance against blind abstraction, finding a precarious balance that acknowledges the generalized differences across groups, while simultaneously preserving the individuality of the various members.

Judaism is the first difference, it proceeds all others and casts its shadow over the rest. This division is introduced as timeless, as an ancient “wall of suspicion, of undefined hostility and mockery” that transcends any individual (4). The division is based on generalities and stereotypes. It is the work of the collective. So, an entire essay, “Argon,” is dedicated to committing to paper the idiosyncrasies of specific Piedmontese Jews relative to their gentile counterparts. In this opening explication of difference, Levi threatens the clarity of the separation. By examining its human element, he deflates the logic of religious tension. For example, when discussing his father, Levi characterizes him as “superstitious rather than religious,” describing in detail his weakness for prosciutto, a meat prohibited by Talmudic dietary restrictions (19).  That the man’s love for prosciutto would so regularly overpower his adherence to the tenets of his faith humorously subverts the stereotyped division. While the ancient tension is felt in the world of Levi’s youth as “the myth of a god-killing people dies hard,”  he reminds the reader that ‘the Jew’ is not a monolith, nor the stereotype (11). By instantiating the Jewish faith in individuals, he humanizes it.

Yet to destabilize stereotypes is not to suggest that differences do not exist. Indeed, for Levi, to valorize uniformity is Fascistic: “it wants everybody to be the same and you are not.” (34). Levi constructs another duality which complicates the notion that differences are a merely an anachronistic religious inheritance, which have no real meaning to individuals. Through experiments with zinc, he explores the relationship between purity, “which protects from impurity like a coat of mail” and impurity, “which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life” (34). Zinc will not react if it is homogenous, it is rendered inert unless a foreign reagent is added. Thus, difference is necessary, Levi proposes, for it enables life to unfold in all of its complexity. The demand for purity, rather than a vitalizing force, as supposed by Fascist ideology, instead results in stasis. In this framing, Levi apparently throws his support behind ‘impurity.’ And he does to some extent, but not entirely.

Levi recoils from the reification of difference, just as much as the compression to uniformity. According to Levi, the Jews’ minority status has been assumed for so long that its mark has infiltrated the language itself.  The dialect of his youth is a “crafty language meant to be employed when speaking about goyim in the presence of goyim” (8). Language, despite its usual communicative function, is here used as a tool to further the separation. The intentional obfuscation helps to build up “symmetrical barriers” of distrust (4). Levi condemns the mutual distancing that occurs as a result of this “atavistic terminology” as something incomprehensible, for the those on either side of the barrier were not as different as they supposed (124). He returns to the theme of language as mechanism of division when he is visited by a Piedmontese customer whose dialect puts him “ill at ease” (170). This misgiving does not reflect any animosity on Levi’s part, but rather the difficulty of constructing a response without suggesting a divide: “it is not good manners to reply in Italian to someone who speaks in dialect, it puts you immediately on the other side of a barrier” (170). Levi seeks to avoid building walls between himself and others. Simple signifiers, like language, offer purchase to old stereotypes. For example, responding in Italian to this customer would have placed Levi on the “side of the aristos, the respectable folk” (170). To answer in such a way would condemn him to be an abstraction in the mind of the other.

One must be careful in embracing generalities. Levi learned this via his mishap with potassium; that seemingly similar elements can possess very different properties. The potassium explodes into flame, while sodium would not have: “the chemist’s trade consists in good part of being aware of these differences” (60). Awareness of individual difference is essential. Levi possesses a rare talent for seeing through abstractions, through cobwebbed stereotypes, to uncover what is genuinely there: the individual behind the type. When Levi writes that “[o]ne must mistrust the almost-the-same … the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork,” he is taking aim at the simple delineations offered by religion or class or any other socially salient divide (60).  As a chemist, he is sensitive to particularities for small differences can lead to radically different outcomes. His hesitation to collapse the similar into the same is productive. Levi asserts the value of difference without allowing the cult of easy demarcation to reduce individuals to a stereotype.

Levi does not yield unflinchingly to abstraction, even in cases where it might offer an easy, moralistic simplification – yet he feels the pull. He truly grapples with the challenges posed by stereotyped abstractions when confronting his Nazi captor: Doktor L. Müller. Do “perfect Germans exist?” Levi asks, “Or perfect Jews?” (216). Just as one Jew is not (and can not be!) interchangeable for any other, one German cannot represent all Germans.  Levi is characteristically much more interested in the particular than the general: “when the interlocutor without contours, ghostly, takes shape before you, gradually or at a single blow” (216).  Yet when Müller presents himself “with all his depths, his tics, his anomalies and incoherences,” Levi cannot help but be frustrated (216). Müller wanted absolution and pins Auschwitz on “Man, without differentiation” (219). He retreats into abstraction for it offers him an easy redemption. Müller slips into “stereotyped phrase” when looking for a means of overcoming the past (222). Levi is prepared to do the same. In his draft, he is ready to say that “every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man,” parroting Müller’s line back at him (223). Yet before the letter can be mailed, Müller calls and asks to meet in person, a setting where he would be more “a man than …. an opponent” (218). Levi agrees, but Müller dies before the meeting, and once again the tension between the general and the specific finds a dubious, unsettled equilibrium.

Levi writes with a keen eye towards difference; he eschews lazy abstraction, instead grappling with individuals as such, a much more challenging task. The Periodic Table scrutinizes the relationship between difference and abstraction, never definitively picking a side. Difference both creates individuality, as when something differs from the stereotype, but also cleavages for division. Abstraction helps create useful categories but can also unfairly paper over the important distinctions between individuals. Levi is careful to balance abstraction with concreteness, difference with similarity and specificity with generality. He has an eye for difference, seeing people in their complexity, rather than reducing them to a category or stereotype.

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