The Frontal Cortex

Primo Levi on Carbon

While we are on the theme of consilience, here’s a pretty perfect paragraph of prose that captures the kind of Third Culture I fantasize about. It’s from Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table:

Carbon is again among us, in a glass of milk. It is inserted in a very complex, long chain, yet such that almost all of its links are acceptable to the human body. It is swallowed, and since every living structure harbors a savage distrust toward every contribution of any material of living origin, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected. One, the one that concerns us, crosses the intestinal threshold and enters the bloodstream: it migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the 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 yesses 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.

That is how the book ends, with a sentence so sublime it gives me goosebumps every time…And isn’t that a lovely description of the brain: “a labyrinthine tangle of yesses and nos,” “a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described”?

Have a great weekend!