Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Perche Possiamo Scopare

At the time of his death in 1985, Italo Calvino was working on a series of lectures that were to be given at Harvard later that year and which were later published as Six Memos for the Next Millenium. They're supposed to be commentaries on or advocacy of particular literary values Calvino thinks ought to have been borne in mind as we moved towards the end of the last millenium. The first covers lightness, which Calvino thinks of as quick and abstract, often playful. Its value is in how it deals with what Calvino sees as concrete, sometimes almost leaden particulars, dissolving them into increasingly small parts, ephemeral and inconsequential, no longer bearing anything like the same weight. For him, writing like this is both a way of reconciling ourselves to a world that can confront us with choices we find too freighted with significance, reminding ourselves that it is ultimately made up of infinitely small, indistinguishable and so meaningless, parts, and also of showing respect to its contingency, the role that chance plays in how it comes to bear that weight.

Some of the examples he chooses to illustrate the virtues of lightness are quite wonderful: the Cavalcanti lyric he analyzes at length, and particularly the line 'e bianca neve scender senza venti', is almost totally without weight, floating in a space above and beyond ours. However, some of the others, along with some of the points he tries to make with and about them, lack that delicacy, are evasive or just foolish, and, particularly in the case of the Emily Dickinson lyric he quotes, mistake niavety for simplicity and purity of touch. He wants to condemn interpretation, presumably having in mind the byzantine, rococo over-elaborations of Theory with a capital T, but of course he cannot avoid it - and indeed does it very well with Cavalcanti.

The problem is, that in wanting to see writing, and with it our movement through the world it describes, as quick and easy, a flight that touches only the points it chooses, he cannot see why those are the points it makes sense to choose to touch. The grace he wants matters because we are not creatures to whom grace comes naturally; we are too often gross and gauche, messy, carnal beings limited by needs and forces with imperatives quite different from those we would choose absent those constraints. Pretending to dissolve ourselves into the ether does not break them but simply leaves our grip insubstantial, without purchase and so unable to gauge the structure of our paths through the world, at least as we find them much of the time. Lightness is a virtue for angels, and whilst we and the world we make are sometimes angelic, often what moves us is not a delicate adjustment that catches a shift in the wind beneath us but the stubborn facts the world confronts us with. We need that contrast, that switch between the easy grace we sometimes slip into and the the more familiar fleshy, needy selves we more often find, to see the worth of either. More crudely, it's because we can fuck that we can make love, and Calvino has forgotten that.