I wanted to share a book review by Edward Mendelson in the New York Times, on ‘The Complete Works of Primo Levi.’ It appeared on November 23, 2015.
Levi was a chemist and writer who survived Auschwitz; a chemist before Auschwitz, and a writer after. Having escaped the horrors of those intervening years, he felt compelled to bear witness, with a uniquely fact-based and scientific voice.
From the book review (all emphases mine):
The core of Nazi barbarism, as Levi saw it, was its reduction of unique human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category — Jews, for example — that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value. The core of Levi’s science, in contrast, was its refusal of generalizations and theories that transcend the realities of particular things. In a chemist’s work, he said, “You must not trust the almost-the-same. . . . The differences may be small but can lead to radically diverse results.” He added a laconic moral: “Not only the chemist’s work.”
Like all great thinkers about science, Levi has a sharp sense of how easily science goes wrong, how readily scientists believe their own hypotheses. His story “Observed from a Distance” is a gentle parable of scientific fallibility, a report made by intelligent beings on the moon of their observations of Earth. They confidently interpret cities as inorganic crystals, ocean liners as migratory sea creatures and soccer stadiums as volcanic craters, but they are puzzled by the pervasive darkness, punctuated by sudden bursts of light, that occurred from 1939 through 1945.
For Levi, any attempt to “understand” or “comprehend” either chemical reactions or Nazi genocide risked the error of generalizing about the “almost-the-same”: “What we commonly mean by the verb ‘to understand’ coincides with ‘to simplify.’… The desire for simplification is justified; simplification itself is not always. It is a working hypothesis that is useful as long as it is recognized for what it is.”
Perhaps, he wrote, Nazi hatred “cannot be comprehended, or rather, shouldn’t be comprehended, because to comprehend is almost to justify.” What is required instead is a recognition of what it is: “If understanding is impossible, recognizing is necessary, because what has happened can happen again, consciences can again be seduced and obscured, even our own.”
You can buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Works-Primo-Levi/dp/0871404567
Read the whole review: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/books/review/the-complete-works-of-primo-levi.html