What if we discovered another face of Primo Levi, who could inspire us, while we are in the midst of the sanitarian crisis?
A few days ago, we commemorated the anniversary of Primo Levi's death. This column is dedicated to him because his thinking is impressively topical. But that's not the author of "If This Is a Man," I want to talk to you about today. He is a scientist, a chemist, who ran a factory for several decades, he is also a writer, author of novels, short stories and poems. A Primo Levi that we know less and who has a lot to teach us, today, in the time of Covid-19.
"I am a centaur," that phrase, the one who said it, was Primo Levi. He said very exactly: “I am an amphibian, a centaur (…). I am divided into two halves: one is the factory half, I am a technician, a chemist. The other is the one I'm writing with ".
Chemist and writer. "Being a chemist in the eyes of the world and feeling the blood of a writer flowing through my veins gives me the feeling of having two souls in the same body (...). I have remained an impurity, an anomaly as a maverick writer, not from the world of letters or academia, but from that of industry". Primo Levi, because he was both a chemist and a writer, was in two worlds and between two worlds, eternal stranger, eternal translator, that is the hallmark of all centaurs.
In his interviews, Primo Levi returns on numerous occasions to this duality, this “hybridism” which characterizes his destiny, to use his words. It tells how the skills of the chemist, especially clarity and precision, nourish those of the writer. And vice versa. It is fascinating to read how he transfers skills from one world to another. Today, we are facing a sanitarian crisis, which deeply calls into question our work, and beyond our professions. Rather than being locked into a single activity, Primo Levi shows us that we should not hesitate to mix up worlds, to build bridges between radically different activities, and in so doing, to increase each of them. There is here a form of generous and courageous transgression which takes us out of our little boxes. By being a chemist-writer or a writer-chemist, Primo Levi inspires us with another form of freedom.
Be an architect-gardener, singer-mathematician, politician-couturier, baker-actor. Don't hesitate to have two souls, three souls, a thousand souls!