Primo Levi Brings Light

Winter in the West has been harsh and endless but today there is light and warmth. About a week ago I caught a glimpse of hope to come, not in the weather but in the words of Primo Levi. I’m finally reading The Periodic Table, one of Levi’s best-known collections. An Italian chemist, Levi survived Auschwitz and subsequently wrote about his experiences, eventually becoming a world-renowned writer.

The Periodic Table is a group of stories, with each chapter named for an element, like gold, iron, uranium, etc., and offering a story about Levi’s life that relates in some way to the element. “Argon” is the first story; describing it as an inert gas, Levi likens it to the spiritual essence of his ancestors:

But there is no doubt that they were inert in their inner spirits, inclined to disinterested speculation, witty discourses, elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion. It can hardly be by chance that all the deeds attributed to them, though quite various, have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.

How is this hopeful?  For me, with endless rounds of “polar vortexes,” three illnesses in six weeks, and life as a parent in a place that can often feel rather inert, Levi’s words were a faint beam of light, a golden thread to hang onto. He reminded me that there are spirits who care about more than amusement, about more than getting through the day and maintaining the ever-important disinterested stance, who understand not just the difference but the deep chasm between witty conversation and real ideas.

Occasionally we find these spirits in life. More often in books. Either way we are lucky when we do. This is the magic of the best writers. Their words can jolt us out of despair, off the margins and into the center of life’s great river, to find other like-minded spirits.

Read Primo Levi if you haven’t yet. He is wonderfully gifted. Sun or no sun, his words cut through the dense ice that seems to keep everything so very still.