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Transgressive Legacies of Memory : The Concept of Techné in Primo Levi's 'Periodic Table'

2012, Botez, Catalina

This chapter is looking at Italian writer Primo Levi’s most original work Il sistema periodico (1975), translated in English as The Periodic Table (1995), which engages in a fascinating manner with the overlapping spheres of (auto)biography, memoir, poetical myth and fiction. This compelling literary hybrid mingles landmarks of personal pre- and post-WWII experience with significant fictitious tales, mapped around elements of Mendeleev’s periodic table.
The concept that binds all twenty one stories together is ‘work,’ understood on the one hand as physical, hands-on work in either the concentration camp, chemical laboratory or paint factory, and on the other hand as intellectual effort of narrating, writing and making sense of a particular traumatic (hi)story. This analysis explores the potential of integrous work to restore human rectitude and alleviate the memory of offence, seen here as transgressive memory. By hypostatizing the Holocaust survivor and writer as homo faber and homo scribendus, combined under the notion of technological man in the historico-philosophical understanding of the term, I suggest that P. Levi re-works and re-writes experience into a discourse of identity rehabilitation through research. Thus, personal experience and scientific research, along with fiction writing, gain ethical meanings.
From Argon to Carbon, going through Phosphorous, Lead and Cerium (three chemical components most intricately related to Levi’s camp experience), the reader is borne through the circle of life itself, incomplete without the occurrence of death. This organicist view on and evaluation of life does not erase individual responsibility -and therefore human probity-, just as it does not avert thoughts and ethical dilemmas regarding the significance of technologically perpetrated genocide and the role of work and (historical or scientific) research in inflicting, preventing and recovering from it.


Contiguous spaces of remembrance in identity writing : chemistry, fiction and the autobiographic question in Primo Levi's 'The Periodic Table'

2012, Botez, Catalina

In this paper the author draws on Primo Levi's problematic use of biographic narrative techniques by means of a systematic and symbolic co-ordination of a selection of 21 inorganic elements pertaining to Mendeleyev's periodic table. By exploring the mechanisms of remembrance and trauma in conjunction with chemistry and the necessities of testimony, the author argues that Primo Levi's collection of vignettes both reaffirms and challenges modern conceptions of autobiography. The author applies the Greek concept of techné to notions of biographic authorship, and shows how work as narrative/linguistic skill, on the one hand, and laboratory work as scientific engagement with material elements, on the other, are combined in the figure of the Holocaust survivor cum writer-scientist in order to negotiate and restore human integrity. The author sustains that Levi's decade-long attempts to alleviate personal trauma are conditioned by this reinstatement of human dignity through science and intellect; essentially, Levi strives to rehabilitate the concept of life itself, so damaged by the event of the Holocaust and equally central to (auto)biographic literature and the domain of chemistry.