Theresa Levitt in conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil for Elixir

Poster for Theresa Levitt for Elixir
Wednesday, May 10, 2023 - 5:30pm

Please Note: The Date for This Event Has Changed to Wednesday, May 10th

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Let's welcome UM professor Theresa Levitt in conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil for Theresa's new book Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life. Wednesday, May 10th · 5:30 PM @ Off Square Books

About the Book

A story of alchemy in Bohemian Paris, where two scientific outcasts discovered a fundamental distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals that inaugurated an enduring scientific mystery.

For centuries, scientists believed that living matter possessed a special quality--a spirit or essence--that differentiated it from nonliving matter. But by the nineteenth century, the scientific consensus was that the building blocks of one were identical to the building blocks of the other. Elixir tells the story of two young chemists who were not convinced, and how their work rewrote the boundary between life and nonlife.

In the 1830s, Edouard Laugier and Auguste Laurent were working in Laugier Père et Fils, the oldest perfume house in Paris. By day they prepared the perfumery's revitalizing elixirs and rejuvenating eaux, drawing on alchemical traditions that equated a plant's vitality with its aroma. In their spare time they hunted the vital force that promised to reveal the secret to life itself. Their ideas, roundly condemned by established chemists, led to the discovery of structural differences between naturally occurring molecules and their synthetic counterparts, even when the molecules were chemically identical.

Scientists still can't explain this anomaly, but it may point to critical insights concerning the origins of life on Earth. Rich in sparks and smells, brimming with eccentric characters, experimental daring, and the romance of the Bohemian salon, Elixir is a fascinating cultural and scientific history.

About the Author

Theresa Levitt is the author of A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse. She is Professor of History at the University of Mississippi.

About the Host

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems, including, most recently, Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi's MFA program.

Praise for...

If you read this book you will be changed. For those of us who make a living assembling words to describe smells, this book feels like an actual elixir. Absolutely stunning. -Kiese Laymon, MacArthur Fellow and author of Heavy: An American Memoir

Dizzying and fragrant with elegant and riveting sentences, Levitt takes us on a most fascinating journey from the bloody revolutions to the chemistry labs of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, all to glimpse the glorious pursuit of scent. Truly a captivating achievement! -Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

‘Here is where the story begins,’ promises Levitt at the end of her prologue, and though it’s only page four, already we’re hooked. Who knew that the history of perfume would incorporate not only alchemy, botany, and fermentation, but intrigue, secrets, and scandal? This thoroughly researched tale is also thoroughly gripping and thoroughly readable. Elixir is a fabulous accomplishment. -Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi and author of Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs

Elixir is a fascinating tale of discovery, wonder, and revolution. Beautifully written and deeply researched, it shows how the paths to artificial dyes, bottled soda, and Pasteur’s breakthrough all ran through a humble perfume shop. With remarkable historical and literary skill, Levitt reveals how the quest to supply queenly scents and Napoleon’s bathwater ended up interrogating the most profound questions of life and death. -Matthew Stanley, author of Einstein’s War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I

Event address: 
129 Courthouse Square
Oxford, MS 38655
Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life By Theresa Levitt Cover Image
ISBN: 9780674250895
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Harvard University Press - April 25th, 2023