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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.

Montaigne and Modernity


Montaigne’s essay, “On Vehicles,” contains, latent in it, a critique of fledgling modernity. In classic Montaignian rhythm, the work meanders hesitatingly between precepts for rulers, a recollection of the great Roman spectacles and a brief interlude into the frailty of human understanding, all culminating in an exposition of European conquest of the Americas. But with Montaigne, despite the eclecticism, there is always a thread; to find it, one simply needs to look for the frayed edge. While this essay hinges on an implicit comparison between the New World and the Old, one must interrogate the source of the tension  that leads Montaigne to say, “I very much fear that we shall have greatly hastened the decline and ruin of this other hemisphere by our contact, and that we shall have made it pay very dearly for our arts” (277). Montaigne sees a toxic seed that has taken root in the European world. This informs both his antiquarianism and his Rousseauvian views on the people, and notably the monarchs, of the New World. The titular theme — vehicles — become symbolic of modernity, an outward manifestation of the distinction between the old and new.

The essay begins with a brief exposition on causes and the difficulty of settling on a single “fundamental” explanation given the myriad of potential factors (264). Quoting Lucretius, he writes: “It is not sufficient to state a cause, We should state many one of which will prove to be true” (264). This provides us our starting thread. Montaigne is in search of a cause; he seeks an explanation for the decline of the the Old World through a comparison with the Americas. Nothing about his inquiry is methodical – perhaps why it’s so easy to overlook. However, Montaigne is genuinely perplexed the fallen state of West and this essay is his attempt to “pile up” causes to see if the reason can be found among them (264).

After a false start on Hungarian war vehicles, Montaigne transitions toward the concept of liberality, a willingness to to give or spend freely. While a virtue among private citizens, the liberality of monarch’s — despite convention — should not be considered a royal virtue. A monarch’s generosity with his subjects is false, for it comes at their expense. But the truly insidious nature of this type of royal largess can be seen when kings try to purchase loyalty through their beneficence. This transactional allegiance is entirely precarious. The monarch degrades his connection to his citizens; he “exhausts himself in giving” (271). The natural obligation of subjects to their sovereign is tempered into a purely commercial relationship: “do you want your subjects to look on you as their purse-bearer, not as their king?” (272).

Even half a millennia ago, Montaigne felt the tremors of the tremendous discontinuity to come. It is easy to compress history while reading Montaigne today. On the modern ear, his discussion of proper princely behavior is flattened; the chronology is muddied. Both the exemplary and the warning cases are shunted together from the modern perspective. The anecdote about Cyrus equated, at least subconsciously, with the rulers of Montaigne’s era. After all, both are history to us today. This flattening deemphasizes Montaigne’s antiquarianism. However, he is drawing on the great rulers of the past to provide advice for the princes of his era. He writes to serve his contemporaries, “the kings of today” (271). He sees something has been lost: the “inestimable treasure” of loyal subjects has been replaced by a false coin of “mercenary men” who do not hold the ruler in any special regard (272).

While a subtle point that can be lost in the Montaigne’s wondering prose, this conception of transactional commerce as a deracinating, brutalizing force appears again with respect to the European treatment of the New World. Indeed, if anything this motif is sharpened by the comparison: “So many towns razed to the ground, so many nations exterminated, so many millions put to the sword, and the richest fairest part of the world turned upside down for the benefit of the pearl and paper trades” (279). Here, Montaigne offers the first inchoate, yet simultaneously prototypical, indictment of modernity, and thus brings the concept into being — for the idea of modernity truly begins with its first critics. He observes the tremendous exertion of human energy and violence for such a mundane end. One cannot help but be struck by the sacrifices demanded in order to ensure “mere commercial victories” (271). Economic self-interest is substituted for natural obligation or loyalty: “nothing goes so naturally with greed as ingratitude” (271). And so, greed comes to replace virtue as the impetus for all human activity.

There is an implicit comparison between the European monarchs and those recently deposed rulers of the new world — and the latter come away looking much better. To Montaigne, the “last representatives of the two most powerful monarchies in that world” embody the virtuous, yet abandoned, precedent set by the occident’s early rules. The king of Peru is described by Montaigne as “a frank, generous, steadfast spirit, also of a clear and orderly mind” (280). And the story of the torture and execution of the Mexican king conveys a deep courage and nobility, when even after being humiliated and subjected to sadistic treatment at the hands of his captors, he maintains his composure. The royal virtue of these kings is always exemplary. “The use of the coin being entirely unknown to them,” the loyalty of their subjects is not of the cheap and counterfeit kind that Montaigne sees prevalent in Europe (283).

Their extraordinary wealth —  the motivation for the Spaniard’s brutality — was solely ornamental, not the wellspring of their power. It was only “an object for show and parade,” not a instrumental implement of commerce, “to be divide[d] and converte[d] into a thousand shapes,” as in Europe (283). These vast gold deposits were merely “piece[s] of furniture that had been preserved from father to son by many powerful kings” (284). This is a telling line because it recalls the earlier dictum offered by Isocrates: “be sumptuous on furniture …  but avoid all such magnificence as would drop out of use and memory” (268). In this parallelism, Montaigne suggests the New World realizes the ancient wisdom that fallen out of practice in the West. Yet this realization contains an element of tragedy: by excelling the West in its purported virtues, “they ruined, sold, and betrayed themselves” (277).

From this tension between old and new, the horse takes on a symbolic significance in the work. The idea of the vehicle is affixed to Montaigne’s conception of modernity. Horses, being unknown and alien in the “infant world” of the Americas, demarcate the European conquistadors from the natives (277). The horse, the vehicle, becomes the emblem of modernity. The mode of a man’s transportation becomes an outward sign of his ‘historical age.’  When the Spaniards received their ransom from the last king of Peru, they ensured “their horses were never shod with anything but solid gold.” (280). Here, quite literally, the instrumentality of a dominating modernity are venerated at the expense of the old ideals of virtue. The horse allowed the European, “these strangers mounted on great, unfamiliar monsters,” to impose himself on the New World (278).

And in the end, when the Peruvian king falls in battle, he is not brought down on equal terms. Sitting in his golden litter, he surveys the battle; his subjects willingly sacrificing their lives to keep their king abreast “by the sheer strength to their arms” (284). When the last great monarch, this exemplar of Montaignian virtue, is finally wrested from his litter, it is by a man on horseback. Locomotion becomes a manifestation of modern advantage, while simultaneously juxtaposing the old ideals against the new.

On Language and All That Is Lost in Transit


Is there anything more than those ideas and thoughts that can be put into words? Can you think something that is unable to be expressed, something that cannot be mechanically translated from the ‘pre-lingual’ notion in your head into a collectively understood syntax? Is there ‘thought’ before language? This is the question that remains to be answered.

In a highly scientific age, such as our own, the habitual response is to make thought a universal feature in nature; to flatten thinking, until it is ubiquitous. Clearly, the brain operates before language is acquired. Infants ‘think’ in this colloquial sense – that is, they exhibit the outer signs of life, they have some sensory experience. They smile back at the face of their mother. They cry when they feel pain. Animals could be said to ‘think’ in this way as well. The lion intends to hunt for it is hungry. The sparrow builds its nest and feeds its young. The outworks of intent are present. These ‘thinking’ creatures respond to stimuli and mere “sensations are enough to guide them automatically” (Durkheim 338). Thought understood like this – as a feature of sentience, undifferentiated – is a reflection of our modern, scientific ethos, which urges us to imagine ourselves as indistinct from nature. Of course, the scientists are right. Each of us is part of nature. We are composed of the same material and have a shared physiognomy: we are animals. Yet, it seems to me that the drive to entirely untether thought from anything specifically human is misguided. Schopenhauer said somewhere that “the mere addition of thought gives rise to the vast and lofty structure of human happiness and misery from the same basic sensations of pain and pleasure, which are experienced by every animal.” (Schopenhauer, 17). He captures a subtlety that has been lost in modern discourse. We can embrace our animal nature, while simultaneously understanding mankind as somehow distinct, and that thought is the demarcation. It seems, however, we are still in desperate need of a definition of thought. To settle on one, we must seek out that which separates man from animal because that is thought.

Vision once seemed to me to be the most objective sense. However, a recent visit to an optometrist disabused me of this notion. Regardless, I think the intuition is quite common. Unlike smell or taste, which are challenging to describe in language, the experience of sight seems so easily communicable. I am now convinced that, in actuality, vision is the most deceptive, precisely for the apparent effortlessness of its transliteration into words. If I were to attempt to describe a sensation, I could convey the abstract concept, but none of the feeling: “it is impossible for me to pass a sensation of my consciousness along to some else’s consciousness; it has the stamp of my body and my personality and cannot be detached from me” (Durkheim 329). Indeed, I have no way of knowing that the subjective experience of the other has any true correspondence to my own. The general concordance gives no reason to be suspicious, all the while the actual texture of the experience is abraded by language.

Thus, for accurate measurement to occur, one must be removed from reality and introduced to an entirely artificial environment: a well lit, alabaster white room. The depth and color of the world constitute the first sacrifice: a reduction of dimensionality and a desaturation of vividness. I sat, as one does, in the chair opposite the eye chart. The rows of letters descended into oblivion, marching down the wall until they were impossible to resolve. Through the precision of the vision test, I was reminded of just how much reality is sacrificed to construct perception. So much of everyday experience can not be as it appears. If overlaying a convex pane of glass in front of my eyes, suddenly sharpens the world and brings it into focus, then what reality was I living in before? It didn’t feel blurry. Few considers the particularity of their own perspective until it scrutinized relative to others. The limits of perception are all but imperceptible to any single individual. We can only know ourselves through comparison for “each is furthest from himself – with respect to ourselves, we are not ‘knowers'” (Nietzsche, Genealogy, 1). The artifice of seeing is taken for granted. 

Conditions, pathologies and abnormalities of all types have an interesting power to illuminate the unspoken definitions of normalcy. What does life look like when realized in bodies which betray the absence of things that other hold in common? Just as no one considers oxygen, until they are short of breath, we need the counterfactual to recognize the function of the mundane and the ubiquitous. Otherwise, all these things held in common recede from view and they are so overtly present as to become part of the background.

Insanity has a revelatory character precisely because the extent of the normal is defined by what is considered deviation. I find that insanity is best understood as a breakdown in communication, where an individual slips out of mutual intelligibility and their thought processes takes on a ‘irrational’ character. It is more a social label than a medial diagnosis. It is a decline from a previous state of mental health. I had two brushes with insanity over the summer. The first I no longer remember. The second prompted this reflection. “Who is more sick, the man who bellows out incoherent cries, which slip the bonds of language and communicate something more primal: anguish; or the man – the men, women and children – who listen to that anguish, that insensate shriek, and pretend to hear nothing. Who is mad in this exchange? One has lost his grip on reality, the other willfully rejects it. The former has nothing to hide; he could not lie even if he wished to mask his suffering. The latter, however, feigns ignorance – he pretends to an immaculate conscience. He is pierced by the scream, yet he does not react outwardly. Perhaps, at most, a head is lifted from a screen, a gaze averted, an eyebrow raised. But even this is unusual. The normal response is a peculiar type of unseeing. An incomplete blindness where one observes, but does not feel. A dispassionate affect that is most disconcerting, especially when I came to recognize it in myself. Everyone, for an instant, is an actor. Each is compelled to play the role, for if the mask were to slip, even if just for the briefest second, the illusion would disintegrate. The crowd –  the cast of this lifeless tableaux – would be forced to acknowledge the oh-so-tenous order of our streets, of our relations with other men and of the mind itself. Insanity is studiously ignored in order to foreclose this reckoning. We don’t avert our eyes and muzzle our reactions for their sake, but for the maintenance of a shared illusion.”

To return to my subject, it seems to me that genuine incoherence, an inability to communicate, is where thought ends. The contrapositive gives us a definition of thought: thinking begins with mutual coherence, the capacity to formulate an idea in such a way that it can be conceptually revitalized in the mind of another. To think is to enter communion with other minds. Durkheim says bluntly that lacking this capacity, man “would be inseparable from animal.” True abnormality in thought is not the realm of heretics or contrarians who, despite their pretense of nonconformity, are indistinguishable from the normal in comparison to the unarticulatable foreignness of someone who has never known language.

Languaglessness of this sort is not conjectural. Particularly before the rise of mandatory childhood education, when it was not rare for the pre-lingually deaf to go unexposed to anyone besides their immediate family for decades. For instance, in 18th century France, Jean Massieu was without language until the age of seventeen (Sacks 35). Born deaf, his sole mode of communication until his teenage years was a invented form of sign language, so rudimentary that it lacked any sort of grammar. A human being is not mindless or mentally deficient without language, but he is severely restricted in the range of his ideas. “It is not that he lacked a mind, but that he was not using his mind fully” (Sacks 34). Language is more than a simple substrate. It is not just strings of symbols on a page or successive utterances, vibrations in the air produced in response to breath pushed out over the larynx. Rather, it exerts an active force on our thoughts. In a concrete way, Wittgenstein is entirely right in saying that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” particularly with respect to language’s absence. The essential function of language is not to merely to enable the mechanical act of communication, but produce the shared conceptual understandings that make communication possible. Unexposed to language’s symbolic inheritance, people are largely restricted to a world of immediate sensation, devoid of any abstract, communal concepts. These isolated souls are perhaps the only true individuals.

Though I have no direct experience with deafness, I have always had the vague idea that others possessed an ability that I did not. At various times, I’ve attempted to analogize it as a lack of “social proprioception” – proprioception being the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It is another one of those sedimented capacities that is invisible until absent. It allows you to move quickly and freely without having to consciously think about where you are in space. Some people lose the ability or are born lacking it. They are still entirely mobile, yet each motion must be deliberate and conscious which results in a wooden, uncanny movement.

While I can move my limbs intuitively, conversation has always demanded a concerted effort. My attempts are clumsy and awkward. I sound uncoordinated as if my tongue is decoupled from the thoughts it articulates. My words lurch out either in a rapid staccato or languid, hesitating drawl, interrupted by long pauses. I am fortunate to look the way that I do and so my ineptitude is charitably mistaken for aloofness or disinterest. I wonder what I would have been diagnosed with if I appeared differently or if I wasn’t adept enough to compensate for my lack of social intuition with rote stories, each practiced until the artificiality of the performance had been erased.

I am excruciatingly aware that the concepts and grammars that sustain communication across distinct and fundamentally isolated consciousnesses are not without their costs. Damage had to be done to facilitate this communication. Nietzsche says that “the history of language is the history of a process of abbreviation.” (Nietzsche, Beyond, 216). I’ve described already the cost of maintaining the shared illusion, which is the lie that each of us can truly speak and be heard. We compress ourselves and make ourselves similar, common. Still, when we talk to each other, though we speak in the same language, it has been subtly particularized. If language is mere abbreviation, then the dictionary is imprecise – contingent upon various experiences and individual interpretations.   

I am struck by how much is lost in that vertiginous space between consciousnesses, an intellectual Sargasso littered with the wrecks of ill fated voyages from one mind to another. Or perhaps this distance better conveyed as a desert that must be traversed: a dry and barren plain, whose unyielding sands overwhelm all but the most equipped caravans that attempt a crossing. I imagine a vast expanse, like those depicted by Dali. Wastelands studded with heaps of broken images, jettisoned or abandoned in transit.

Language enables the journey, but the delicate, and entirely personal, structure of an idea is denatured in the transition from one mind to the next. The cost of thinking is the sacrifice of specificity. To convey an idea, one must express themselves in stable, universal concepts, which are the work of the collective. For my part, I prefer for my ideas to remain in my head. Language has a way of dulling them. The damaging conversion to thought is one to be avoided if it can be helped. My attempts to communicate an idea are almost always an exercise in mediocrity. I feel that my language doesn’t have the expressive capacity to present anything beyond the most tenuous contours of an idea, the most hazy depiction, always in an autumnal hue, never with the vibrance of a living thought. “We immortalize what can live and fly no longer – only weary, mellow things! And it is only your afternoon, you, my written and painted thoughts … but nobody will guess how you looked in the morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude.” (Nietzsche, Beyond, 327).


Durkheim, Emile. Elementary Form of Religious Life

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms

Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices

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