Primo Levi


This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain,

This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.


Not that he [Uzbek] rejected Mendel’s proposals or

Not that he [Uzbek] rejected Mendel’s proposals or rebelled against his decisions; but he exercised a subtle, passive abrasion against every active thrust: like dust in a watch, Mendel thought to himself. He’s got dust in him, even though he is young. It’s stupid to say the young are strong. You understand many things better at thirty than at twenty and you can also bear them better.


He was a physicist, more precisely an

He was a physicist, more precisely an astrophysicist, diligent and eager but without illusions: the Truth lay beyond, inaccessible to our telescopes, accessible to the initiates. This was a long road which he was traveling with effort, wonderment, and profound joy. Physics was prose: elegant gymnastics for the mind, mirror of Creation, the key to man’s dominion over the planet; but what is the stature of Creation, of man and the planet? His road was long and he had barely started up it, but I was his disciple: did I want to follow him?


The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the

The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return of barbarism.


In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be

In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.

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Logic and morality made it impossible to accept an

Logic and morality made it impossible to accept an illogical and immoral reality; they engendered a rejection of reality which as a rule led the cultivated man rapidly to despair. But the varieties of the man-animal are innumerable, and I saw and have described men of refined culture, especially if young, throw all this overboard, simplify and barbarize themselves, and survive. A simple man, accustomed not to ask questions of himself, was beyond the reach of the useless torment of asking himself why.The harsher the oppression, the more widespread among the oppressed is the willingness, with all its infinite nuances and motivations, to collaborate: terror, ideological seduction, servile imitation of the victor, myopic desire for any power whatsoever… Certainly, the greatest responsibility lies with the system, the very structure of the totalitarian state; the concurrent guilt on the part of individual big and small collaborators is always difficult to evaluate… they are the vectors and instruments of the system’s guilt… the room for choices (especially moral choices) was reduced to zero


…better not to do than to do, better to meditate

…better not to do than to do, better to meditate than to act, better his astrophysics, the threshold of the Unknowable, than my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions and small futile mysteries. I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened_, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. the difference can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.


The librarian, whom I had never seen before,

The librarian, whom I had never seen before, presided over the library like a watchdog, one of those poor dogs who are deliberately made vicious by being chained up and given little to eat; ot better, like the old, toothless cobra, pale because of centuries of darkness, who guards the king’s treasure in the Jungle Book. Paglietta, poor woman, was little less than a lusus naturae: she was small, without breasts or hips, waxen, wilted, and monstrously myopic; she wore glasses so thick and concave that, looking at her head-on, her eyes, light blue, almost white, seemed very far away, stuck at the back of her cranium. She gave the impression of never having been young, although she was certainly not more than thirty, and of having been born there, in the shadows, in that vague odor of mildew and stale air.


…the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and,

…the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head…

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