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On Nature and Humanity

Literary sampler by Primo Levi, a modern-day Renaissance man

THE SIXTH DAY AND OTHER TALES, By Primo Levi. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal New York & London: Summit Books. 222 pp., $18.95 IT would not be amiss to describe the Italian writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) as a modern-day Renaissance man. His accomplishments - in the realms of chemistry, his first vocation, and literature, his later love - may not have rivaled those of a Leonardo da Vinci, but like the keenest minds of the Renaissance, Levi's ranged freely over many fields.

He, too, was a synthesizer, working toward a coherent vision of the world that would incorporate the various truths of chemistry, biology, cybernetics, psychology, religion, philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and whatever might be left under the heading of human nature that did not fall into any convenient category.

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Convinced as a young chemist that the ``hard truths'' of science were the best possible antidote to the lies and bluster of politics, Levi later joined the resistance when he realized that scientific objectivity alone was not enough to counter the force and fraud of fascism. When the Nazis occupied his native northern Italy, Levi was arrested, and in 1944, deported to Auschwitz.

There he experienced firsthand one of the most monstrous and inexplicable manifestations of evil that a century - until then characterized by scientific progressivism - had to reveal.

Levi wrote two memoirs about his wartime experiences, ``Survival in Auschwitz'' and ``The Reawakening,'' as well as other works on the subject, including ``Moments of Reprieve'' and ``The Drowned and the Saved.'' He also wrote many essays, articles, poems, and stories on diverse subjects, including two volumes of tales: ``Storie naturali'' and ``Vizio di forma,'' published in Italy in 1966 and 1977 and now being issued in English in one volume of 23 stories, ``The Sixth Day and Other Tales.''

Levi's writings are the products of a fruitful, if sometimes awkward, tension between his need to bear witness to the events he experienced and his inclination to explore the uses of fantasy and fable, as so many of his literary compatriots and contemporaries were doing.

His straightforward autobiographical writing is low-key, dispassionate, and oddly impersonal. It bears the stamp of truth: unretouched, undramatized, but almost too carefully objective and reserved. This cool manner, however, serves him well when he writes as a fabulist, supplying the matter-of-fact tone upon which the credibility of fantasy depends.

The tales in this collection, written over a period of years but left undated by the current publisher, are short, gem-like narratives that encapsulate complex concepts within their simple structures.

The title story, presented in the form of a script, takes us into a kind of corporate headquarters where experts from various fields - anatomy, chemistry, thermodynamics, psychology - are planning to introduce a new model: Man. As these well-prepared individuals debate the merits of a terrestrial vs. a marine Man, Man as a reptile vs. Man as a bird, outside the boardroom, beyond their ken, the actual first man is being born, quite haphazardly, without the dubious benefits of their expertise.

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Other tales also focus on the clash between mankind's ability to control things and the equally strong need to resist control. In one tale, the very trees are on the point of mutiny against man's dominion. In another story, an unborn soul refuses a tempting guarantee of being born a healthy, privileged, white male whose life will not only be free from privation, but also be filled with opportunities to put his good qualities to work fighting human suffering. He opts, instead, to be born ``at random, like everyone else:'' in short, to make his own way in the world, whatever the risks.

Several tales involve the inventions of a high-tech company that keeps coming up with better and better artificial substitutes for reality. First, there's a ``mimer'' which doesn't just copy a surface, but duplicates the object itself, atom by atom. The problem, as Levi sees it, is not that the research firm is evil or even irresponsible, but that technological abuses are almost inevitable, as when purchasers of the ``mimer'' begin counterfeiting money and, sooner or later, duplicating their wives.

The company also comes up with a meter to measure beauty, a scheme to employ bees, ants, and dragonflies, and a machine that can provide its users with the sensory equivalent of any experience, from a barroom brawl to a sunset to a love affair, without them having to leave the room.

Naturally, this machine is not only addictive, but debilitating. Playing its tapes, the user ``experiences no boredom during fruition, but he is oppressed by a boredom as vast as the sea, as heavy as the world, when the tape ends: then nothing is left to him but to start another one ... without the Torec he would be lost, with the Torec he is equally lost. He has aged 20 years in six months, he is a shadow of his former self.''

Although Levi, even in his most openly autobiographical works, like ``The Periodic Table,'' is anything but a confessional writer, the reader may well be tempted to search these understated, elegantly written tales for clues to the character and temperament of a courageous man who survived the horrors of Auschwitz only to die an apparent suicide in his 68th year. Levi's writings do not provide easy answers to such a question.

Yet the sensitive reader will find in these tales not only food for thought about technology, ecology, and the relationship between Nature and human nature, but also evidence of an underlying emotional tension between Levi's sympathy for mankind's passionate attachment to the joys and struggles of life and his no less tender sympathy for those who, like the Amazon villagers portrayed in his tale ``Westward,'' ``prefer freedom to drugs and death to illusion.''

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