In his wonderful La chiave a stella (The Wrench) published in 1978, Primo Levi shares with us an exchange of stories told by Faussone, the itinerant Piedmontese rigger, and a narrator who, like Levi himself, is an industrial chemist at the point of becoming a full-time writer. The various tales all invite us to consider the meaning of human labour without any lecturing or moralising. The combination of knowledge, skill and experience required to do good work and the satisfaction of a job well done are celebrated but not eulogised.
The stories in ‘The Wrench’ provide a range of perspectives on the very human desire to solve problems and bring some order to a chaotic world; whether by rigging a derrick which will withstand the forces it will be subjected to, or ‘rigging’ the molecular structure of a paint which will perform to the required specifications, or even ‘rigging’ a story which can move its readers.
In the chapter ‘Beating Copper’, Faussone recalls his father, a coppersmith, who never did anything but beat copper and who understood the properties of his material intimately. This leads the narrator into a disquisition on the properties of copper when it is hammered, bent, stretched and compressed, making it hard, tough and hostile; rather like human beings who may have been treated the same way. This comparison of humans and materials leads Levi to reflect on the use of similes, which “may be poetic but don’t prove much.”
Should the educator take as their model the smith, who roughly pounds the iron and gives it shape and nobility, or the vintner who achieves the same result with wine, separating themselves from it and shutting it up in the darkness of a cellar? … Is quenching a better didactic system than the tempering that follows it? Beware of analogies: for millennia they corrupted medicine, and it may be their fault that today’s pedagogical systems are so numerous, and that after three thousand years of debate we still don’t know which is best.
Educators today are still involved in debates of the didactic ‘pounding’ versus child-centred ‘fermentation’ type. Do we yet know whether the sudden shock of high-stakes ‘quenching’ is better than a more gradual ‘tempering’ process as a technique for strengthening learners?
In another passage in the same chapter, Levi also shares his own philosophy of work:
Loving one’s work, unfortunately the privilege of a few, represents the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth. But this is a truth not many know…In exalting labour in official ceremonies, an insidious rhetoric is displayed based on the idea that eulogies or medals cost less than a pay rise and are also more worthy. There also exists the rhetoric on the opposite side, however, not cynical but profoundly stupid, which tends to denigrate labour; to depict it as base, as if labour, our own or others’, was something we could do without…
It is sadly true that many jobs are not lovable, but it does no good to approach work charged with preconceived hatred. Those who do this sentence themselves for life to hating not only work, but also themselves and the world. We can and must fight to see that the fruit of labour remains in the hands of those who work and that work does not turn into punishment. Love or hatred of work is an inner legacy which depends greatly on the story of the individual and less than we think on the productive structures within which the work is done.
Levi is certainly writing in praise of purposeful human labour but he avoids overstating his case by attributing to it some special dignity. We live to work, and both enforced idleness and meaningless drudgery are to be avoided. We need to aim for a system where everyone’s ‘individual story’ can lead them to find work as satisfying and rewarding as do Faussone the rigger and his interlocutor the chemist-writer.
Education without metaphors? (November 2014)
‘Useful work v. useless toil’ by William Morris (December 2014)
Science in poetry (April 2014)