We are in 1985, and barely fifteen years stand between us and the new millennium….I’m not here to talk of futurology, but of literature. The millennium about to end has seen the birth and development of modern languages of the West, and of the literatures that have explored the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities of these languages. It has also been the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call a book take on the form now familiar to us.
… My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it. I would therefore like to devote these lectures to certain values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to my heart, trying to situate them within the perspective of the new millennium.
Hello, I am Zin, and I am finally getting some kind of handle on Italo Calvino!
A few weeks ago I interviewed Richard Osgood about his flash “Millennium House” – it was his work that won the first-ever Tin House Plotto contest – and he explained he used Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino as a guide and inspiration! So I started reading the Memos. You can read them too, online – they are not long, and they are not difficult reading! Monika Fludernik was much harder to read! Trust me! But it is much harder to understand exactly how to turn these qualities into writing!
There are really only five memos: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. The sixth one would have been Consistency but he died before he wrote it down. They were written as a series of lectures he was going to give at Harvard in 1985-1986 but, wow, he died the night before he was to travel to Cambridge, what a sad story!
I am only going to tackle Lightness today; stay tuned for the others!
Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times–noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring–belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.
This is about a section of the Decameron by Boccaccio in which philosopher-poet Cavalcanti is wandering amongst marble tombs and when some smartasses come to pester him, he tells them “You may say anything you want to me in your own home” and leaps over the tombs to avoid them (that may be the hardest thing about these Memos, you may need to read other things first! But that is wonderful, yes, to discover so much that is all related? Maybe I will do a post on the Decameron some day!). Some of the smartasses make fun of him for leaping away, but one gets it: “It is you who are weak in the head, if you have not understood him. He has courteously and in a few words given us the sharpest rebuke in the world. Because, if you consider it properly, these tombs are the homes of the dead, seeing they are laid at rest in them. And these, he says, are our home, meaning to show us that we and other foolish and unlettered men are, compared with him and other men of learning, worse than dead folk. Therefore, being here, we are in our own home.”
The problem I have here is this: I am not sure what this has to do with writing! Except that Richard did it so well with his “Millennium House” which ends with a leap into the air! And it is so perfect in that story! I see how Richard has used Calvino with that leap, but I do not understand how to use that in a story about, say, a man kind of accidentally stumbling into revenge against a faithless lover. Or a woman who is grieving for a dead son who committed a horrible crime when she comes to meet another young man who restores her faith in herself. Or a young woman who finds out her sister is not in jail for killing their father but in foster care because she killed him in self defense. I did write a story about a doodle of wings, flying away and leaving behind the man who drew them. But not every story can have something flying!
Calvino also talks about the myth of Perseus and the Gorgon: Medusa turned anyone who gazed on her to stone (heavy!) and Perseus, wearing winged sandals (light!) killed her by only looking at her (light) reflection in his (heavy) shield! That is pretty clever! Light overcoming heavy! And then he carried her head with him! Not only that, but from her blood comes Pegasus, the winged horse! Using Heavy to make Light! It is like the I Ching: from chaos great stars are born! See, Heaviness is not something to be avoided, but to be used to make Lightness, like Perseus uses his shield or Pegasus the blood!
But I still do not know how to use this when I sit down to write! So I went looking at what some other people thought. I am not sure who these people are, but they make sense to me!
Like Richard Raskin :
“lightness,”… an antidote to “the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world”…. Lightness for Calvino is identified with such properties as mobility, agility of spirit, knowledge of the world, subtlety, multiplicity, the precariousness of things as they are, levitation and freedom. Correspondingly, heaviness is linked to inertia, opacity, petrification, sluggishness, density, solidity and the crushing of life.
…”outcome inevitability” would belong on the side of heaviness, while characters able to shape their own destinies – to rise above the forces weighing them down, to engage in “unpredictable deviations” from the paths laid out for them, and to exploit “infinite unexpected possibilities” – would be situated on the side of lightness….Though Calvino does not explicitly mention this form of inevitability in Six Memos, his positive references to “unpredictable deviations” and “infinite unexpected possibilities” are reasonable indicators as to where he would stand on that issue. A partisan of lightness would favor the empowerment of characters, able to rise above obstacles and to shape their own lives.
This helps me a lot! I sometimes have a tendency to use characters who are stuck, who are what Steve Almond calls the “Character in a Hole” plot fail! And now I find that the Calvino prescription of Lightness may be what I need: empowerment to climb out of the hole, to not be stuck in an inevitable rut!
I already got that sometimes from Thomas Kearnes, who would tell me, “I knew what was going to happen by the second sentence.” I used to get so mad when he said that, but he was right, and I started writing stories with the goal that Thomas would not be able to tell what was going to happen, and they worked better! And here I see this again in Calvino! Unpredictability!
Now, Raskin does talk about “inevitability” which is the thing where the events seem inevitable – but they are also supposed to seem surprising! They only seem inevitable when you think about it later – they should not seem inevitable while you are reading, so you should be surprised, but “aha” kind of satisfied! I know that feeling! And it is wonderful! But very rare! The last time I experienced this I think was Julian “How to Fall In Love Properly” Gough! Things kept happening and I never knew what was going to happen next but once it happened it made perfect sense!
And of course there is the whole “you do not have a plot” thing, which I have also done. No motion, no change. So here are three existing problems I know I have had, and here is Calvino telling me about them! Empowerment, unpredictability, motion/change!
I see these things in “Millennium House” as well – the man who asks for the house is empowered to ask, the but more importantly, the man who builds it is empowered to build the house without conforming to the specs given! And the man who asked for something else is empowered by accepting the house, with a “leap of faith”! The entry is a leap – “part fire code and part free will.” There is empowerment for you! I love this story more every time I read it! It is obviously unpredictable, since I have never read anything like it before, and it has a plot, motion, energy, and change! Lots of change! Everything changes, from the house itself to the man who was expecting something else to the end when the house disappears! Of course, I am looking for Lightness so I am not surprised that I found it everywhere!
I also found something interesting by John Engelbrecht , he is a visual artist who wondered how to incorporate this Lightness into his work, and he came up with this list of contrasts between weight and lightness:
Weight: public/private constrictions Lightness: choice
inertia, opacity of world words
public/private constrictions choice
condemned shifting/fresh perspective
physical matter minute, light, mobile
gravity secret of lightness
human beings sighs, rays of light, optical images
matter non-material impulses & messages
density and concreteness cloud, dust, magnetic impulses
layers of forms and attributes swift lightning flashes
ordered system darting thought
gravity/everything’s own weight moon, suspension
privation suffered levitation desired
I am not sure what he means by some of this – like the difference between “sadness” and “melancholy” though I have a vague idea, maybe like the difference between “nervous” and “anxious” or “angst” – but I think it is a very cool place to start!
Sam Cooney of The Rumpus talks about lightness in terms of removing unnecessary detail from writing, which is also something very important for me to learn (have you noticed?) but I think that is more a function of Quickness so I will bring it in there next time!
And one more special thing from “Lightness” to think about:
It is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is the software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines that exist only as functions of software and evolve so that they can work out ever more complex programs. The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with `bits’ in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.
Physics and art are getting closer together all the time!