Primo Levi, The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, translated and with an Introduction by Peter Forbes, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2001, $29.99 Hb
In April 1980, Italian editor Guilio Borlatti asked several prominent Italian writers, Primo Levi among them, if they were interested in compiling an anthology of what would be, for them, essential reading. Borlatti seems to have left what “essential reading” meant to the writers he asked: cultural building blocks, seminal texts, personal favourites.
Among the writers asked, only Levi produced an anthology. The project, given his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, was likely of natural interest to him. He responded quickly, and the book was published by Einaudi in Turin the next year. One reason no others in the proposed series followed was that Levi’s selection of texts and the cosmology he drew from it makes it hard to imagine anyone else, in Italy or beyond, coming up with anything that wouldn’t have seemed fluffy and fatuous by comparison. During his life Levi wrote three books without which the 20th century cannot be understood: Survival in Auschwitz, The Periodic Table, and The Drowned and the Saved. The Search for Roots may well be a fourth.
The 30 texts Levi selected are as wide-ranging as you’d expect. There are excerpts from the Book of Job, The Odyssey of Homer, Gulliver’s Travels, Melville’s Moby Dick and The Travels of Marco Polo. Rabelais makes an appearance, as do Lucretius, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, Isaac Babel, Antoine de Saint Exupery, T.S. Eliot and Arthur C. Clark, along with lesser-known Italian writers like Mario Rigoni Stern, Carlo Porta, and Guiseppe Parini. Levi’s interest in science brought him to select Charles Darwin’s luminous “Why are Animals Beautiful?”, William Bragg’s “To See Atoms”, and Kip Thorne’s “We Are Alone,” which is an essay on black holes that appeared in the December 1974 Scientific American. Along with those he includes an American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) 1955 Tentative Method of Test for “susceptibility of Dry Adhesive Films to Attack by Roach”, under the heading of “The Measure of All Things”. He offered the following explanation for its inclusion: “In the 1700s, in his celebrated experiments on the infusorians, Lazzaro Spallanzani measured time in credos, that is to say as a unit of duration he used the time it takes to recite a Creed. Today we measure time based on the atomic emissions of the caesium clock, and an error of a second in a century seems intolerable. It is a necessary progression: the foundations of our civilization must be based on measurement and precise determination…”
All of his texts are worth reading in themselves, but the recommendation of a great writer, particularly when he provides a brief explanation of why he selected each one, focuses and illuminates the reading. Still, what makes this book important rather than simply interesting is Levi’s six-page preface, in which he outlines the cosmological basis upon which he wrote and lived his life, and provides a diagram to elucidate it. In the diagram, he proposes a cosmology that is at once rooted in his career as a research scientist and in his wider life experience, which no one should forget included a yearlong incarceration in the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz.
At the top of the diagram, he places the Book of Job, and at the bottom, black holes. Between those, he draws four curved paths, which he names, respectively, salvation through laughter, man suffers unjustly, the stature of man and salvation through knowledge. Along the paths, he lists 17 of the authors selected in the anthology. Rabelais, for instance, appears under “salvation through laughter”; Paul Celan under “man suffers unjustly”; and Marco Polo and Darwin under, respectively, “the stature of man” and “salvation through knowledge”.
What he’s suggesting is a cosmology that takes human suffering (The Book of Job) and the indifferent indeterminacy of the universe (of which black holes are a dramatic proof) as its two absolutes, and between those unpromising beginnings, posits that it is our job to construct meaning. There’s no divine hand in this cosmology, no gold at the end of the rainbow, no carrot on a string coaxing us to be nice in order to get a payoff in the great beyond or even at Rotary club luncheons. It has absolute darkness and compressed chaos on one end, and the inevitability of pain and suffering on the other. Between, there lies the respite we call human life, and the necessity to keep chaos and suffering at bay by constructing meaning.
Some readers will no doubt find Levi’s existential cosmology depressing. As a secular humanist I found it exhilarating, as if a shoe that had been hanging in the air most my life suddenly dropped and I’d been freed to admit what history, rationality and empirical observation have been telling me. It wasn’t just that the structure he proposes is authenticated by Levi’s competence as a scientist and by his intimacy with the subject of human suffering. It was that it offered a rational and humane alternative to arbitrary faith and to the nihilism and selfish hedonism that is often secular humanism’s preferred program once it declares divine order illusory. It doesn’t, in other words, offer up the pious sectarianisms of religion, by which believers elevate themselves above unbelievers, nor does it recommend that we all collapse into the moral and political condition of dogs eating dogs.
The universe may or may not show evidence of divine design. But if it does, human history, along with the archaeological record from fossils on up, demonstrate that the design contains only the barest traces of retributive justice, and is without generosity or mercy: the Nazi death camps alone provide conclusive empirical proof, and if that doesn’t suffice, there are nearly a hundred million other unjustified deaths during the 20th century to account for. Justice, mercy and the avoidance of cruelty and violence, Levi implies, are human projects that the development of intelligent life leads toward as surely as those based on arbitrary, exclusive sectarianisms lead to ignorance and violence. Levi’s own life is proof positive that the project of intelligence is viable, although not reliable and inevitable. In his hands, the construction of meaning is not a religious project, and doesn’t require faith or the suspension of rational judgment. It accepts the empirical ground of modern understanding and it accepts the historical record unflinchingly, and then suggests that their interpretation offer us choices within which the exercise of curiosity and the pursuit of social justice, ameliorated by laughter and kindness, are the only sane choices.
Which is precisely what Primo Levi practiced, and which was the defining contributor to his greatness.
July 21, 2003// 1100 w.