Monday, May 20, 2013

Margot Singer on Relics, Alchemy, and Primo Levi’s “Chromium”

Primo Levi’s essay “Chromium,” from The Periodic Table (1975), begins with a dinner party: “The entrée was fish, but the wine was red.” Why does white wine go best with fish? Nobody can say. “Old man Cometto added that life is full of customs whose roots can no longer be traced: the color of sugar paper, the buttoning from different sides for men and women, the shape of a gondola’s prow….” These questions set the essay in motion. What other things do we do habitually, blindly, unthinkingly, for reasons that have been forgotten or are obsolete?
     The essay proceeds, associatively, to examine other sorts of senseless relics: outdated metaphors in language, the coccyx bone (“the remains of a vanished tail”). The industrial chemists seated around the dinner table tell stories. Levi recalls a manufacturing formula that stipulated adding a slice of onion to boiling linseed oil—once a crude temperature gauge, now a pointless step. Old man Cometto tells of a factory that made varnish from phenolic resins using the same unnecessarily toxic process once required for insoluble copal gums. Bruni mentions a baffling recipe for anti-rust paint that called for ammonium chloride, an ingredient “much more apt to corrode iron than preserve it from rust.” Why did no one question these nonsensical practices? We are talking here about fascist and post-fascist Italy, of course—but most organizations operate the same way. No one was willing to challenge accepted practice, to speak up.
     The remainder of “Chromium” is part detective story, part memoir. Levi, it turns out, was the one responsible, twenty years earlier, for introducing the mysterious ammonium chloride to the formula for anti-rust paint. Working as a chemist in Bruni’s factory in the mid-1940s, right after the war, Levi was charged with determining what had caused a fatal “livering” of the paint. The factory yard was piled high with rejected orange blocks of gelatinous, liver-like paint—the result, Levi eventually determined, of a simple transcription error in the formula, the substitution of “23” for “2 or 3” drops of reagent added to the chromate. The chemical analyst, the laboratory chief, the technical director, and the general director of the factory had all signed off on a long string of dubious lab tests showing that the chromate was too basic without ever questioning the results. The antidote was ammonium chloride, and twenty years later, the stocks of too-basic chromate long since used up, the now-useless additive was still being mixed into the formula, for reasons no one could recall.
     I love this idea of the useless vestiges we carry with us—in language, in our bodies, in our daily work—detached from reason, decoupled from memory. I love the way the essay’s layers of story and images accumulate, resonate, connect. I love the way the scientific details blossom into metaphor, an investigation into a faulty chemical formula uncovering so much more than the causes of “livered” paint. Almost in passing, Levi links his quest to solve the mystery of the paint to two other significant events: his falling in love with the woman who would become his wife, and the writing of his first book, Survival in Auschwitz (1947, tr. If This Is a Man). Speaking the truth about his past—like uncovering the true cause of the tainted chromate—becomes a vital act of resistance and survival. “I was ready,” Levi writes, “to challenge everything and everyone, in the same way that I had challenged and defeated Auschwitz and loneliness.” The ammonium chloride turns the jelly-like paint “fluid and smooth, completely normal, born again from its ashes like the Phoenix.” In the same way, Levi, too, is reborn from the ashes of Auschwitz in the act of asking why.
     Recently, I assigned “Chromium” to a class of undergraduate writers, and to my dismay, it was unanimously disliked. The students struggled to articulate or respond to its themes, although none could say exactly why. Perhaps they were put off by the scientific details, I thought, or by Levi’s complex periodic sentences, or by the fact that the narrative wasn’t packaged in short segments like many of the contemporary essays we read. But I wonder now whether the problem was less a matter of reading comprehension than a generational  gap. These are students, after all, who seem to want the formula, the recipe, to be told what they need to do to get an “A.” Few are accustomed to challenging received wisdom, to taking that kind of risk. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a generation so far removed from the Holocaust had a hard time making the connection between resisting compliance with a faulty formula and resisting fascism, between redeeming a batch of “livered” paint and redeeming a human life from the atrocities of the past.
     With The Periodic Table, Levi invented a new genre, a hybrid of science and literature, a blend of essay, allegory, fiction, memoir. Each of the book’s twenty-one chapters bears the name of an element: “Argon,” “Hydrogen,” “Zinc,” etc. (“Chromium” is the twelfth), each element evoking stories and memories of the past. Britain’s Royal Institution voted The Periodic Table the “best science book ever written.” It is surely the first (and only) work of literature to take the form of (to borrow Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s term) a “hermit crab,” the periodic table a kind of “protective shell.” Levi half-jokingly called Mendeleev’s table of elements a “poem”; as he explained to Gabriel Motola in a Paris Review interview (published posthumously in 1995): “You have lines, every one ending with a kind of element, like a rhyme.… there is something really poetic about science and chemistry in understanding matter.” Levi’s great alchemy is to transform the elements of the material world into poetry, into metaphor, into art.
     The Periodic Table is a beautiful and ultimately profoundly life-affirming book. But “Chromium” ends with an image not of remembrance but of forgetfulness and futility. “My ammonium chloride,” Levi writes, “twin of a happy love and a liberating book, by now completely useless and probably a bit harmful, is religiously ground into the chromate anti-rust paint on the shore of that lake and nobody knows why anymore.” Levi died in 1987, after falling, or jumping, from the third floor landing of the circular staircase in the apartment building in which he had lived since he was born. No one knows exactly what happened in that stairwell, on that day, but we do know that Levi worried that the lessons of the Holocaust would be forgotten, and struggled terribly with the burden of remembering and bearing witness to the past. And so I hope that someday my students will again pick up “Chromium”—perhaps having forgotten why or when they’d read it, back in college, long before—and in the reading bring the memory of Primo Levi and his wisdom and the goodness of his heart fully and magically back to life.


Margot Singer is the co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) and the author of the short story collection The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007). Her essays and fiction have appeared, most recently, in the New Ohio Review, The Normal School, Conjunctions, and The Kenyon Review. She holds the Dominick Consolo endowed professorship at Denison University, where she directs the creative writing program and the Reynolds Young Writers Workshop.

1 comment:

  1. A short essay worthy of its subject.
    Who asks why any more?