Sunday With Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos For The New Millennium, Part II: Quickness

Emblem by Paolo Giovio, 16th Century: Festina Lente

Emblem by Paolo Giovio, 16th Century: Festina Lente

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly. Perhaps what attracted me, even more than the words and the idea, was the suggestiveness of its emblems. You may recall that the great Venetian humanist publisher, Aldus Manutius, on all his title pages symbolized the motto Festina Lente by a dolphin in a sinuous curve around an anchor. The intensity and constancy of intellectual work are represented in that elegant graphic trademark, which Erasmus of Rotterdam commented on in some memorable pages. But both dolphin and anchor belong to the same world of marine emblems, and l have always preferred emblems that throw together incongruous and enigmatic figures, as in a rebus. Such are the butterfly and crab that illustrate festina lente in the sixteenth-century collection of emblems by Paolo Giovio. Butterfly and crab are both bizarre, both symmetrical in shape, and between them establish an unexpected kind of harmony

Hello, I am Zin, and it is time for the “Quickness” chapter of Six Memos! Again I will be looking at “Millennium House” by Richard Osgood to see how these ideas were incorporated (my first post on Lightness has an introduction if this does not make sense to you).

The art above is the butterfly-and-crab motif by Paolo Giovio that Calvino is talking about in that opening quote! The motif was surprisingly hard to find (the dolphin and anchor is much more common) but I finally located it, along with the dolphin-and-anchor and a rabbit-and-snail-shell, on the blog of calligrapher/correspondence artist Mara Zepeda in a post including the above paragraph from the Memo on Quickness!

This is something I am discovering: artists in many media are very fond of these Six Memos! In the Lightness post, I included a listing by an artist of qualities associated with Lightness and Heaviness; and now I am finding that visual artists all over are using these Memos! For example:

Susan Fell-McLean did an ArtCloth exhibition inspired by the five qualities at the Shepparton Gallery in Victoria, Australia!

Illinois artist Timothy Campbell came across the Memos as recommended reading while researching architecture (which is so cool, just like Richard!) and made a signpost after finding them useful in his work: “I found that keeping his lecture topics—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency—on a slip of paper in front of me when I wrote helped me immensely. Whenever I would get stuck on an idea I would refer to the topics and evaluate what I had written. My intention is for this little painting to function as a helpful signpost for an artist of any medium.”

Sarah Tripp from Glasgow has created gnommero, “an ongoing publication” that “presents artists’ and writers’ responses to Italo Calvino’s series of published lectures…” Is this cool or what? I only see three so far, Lightness, Quickness, and Exactitude, but I hope more are forthcoming!

And composer Christopher Trapani wrote a “collaborative multimedia work for six instruments, live electronics, and live video, inspired by Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium” including long distance collaborators live video duo Things Happen from Madrid, which premiered at the Columbia University program “Ghost in the Instrument: Festival of Musical Interactivity.” A brief (2 minute) preview is on YouTube! Or you can read more about the process at the Festival website (Scroll down about half way).

So the Memos inspire all manner of artists!

I will get on with “Quickness”! Quickly! I see four main ideas: rhythm, economy, manipulation of time, and the combination of Hurry Slowly.

First, rhythm. Calvino starts the lecture with a legend of Charlemagne and other folk tales and fairy tales to illustrate his value of Quickness. It is easy to follow and to explain it here would be to copy it all.

Once again, sometimes it is hard to see how to incorporate some of the ideas into most stories. Like the idea of magical objects, which fairy tales have narrative function: “the plot can be described in terms of the change of ownership of a certain number of objects.” I am not sure why this is part of Quickness, but I can see how it works in his examples, and it is obvious how it worked in “Millennium House” – the house itself is a magic object! And the change of ownership from builder to the man who asked for the house in the first place moves the plot, is the turning point!

Rhythm and repetition of events also function as elements of Quickness: “]ust as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.” I love this idea: I think of it as symmetry or parallel structure, maybe. In fairy tales, the hero tries and fails twice then succeeds on the third try, that is rhythm! It sets up a familiar structure so you know where you are in the story! In fact, one of my complaints when I saw the movie Hugo was that in two cases (getting the key and getting the old man to enjoy movies again), the kid tried to do something and failed, then tried again and succeeded; I was so annoyed that first of all it was too symmetrical, two and two, and second, that only two attempts were needed! Maybe three would have been too cliché, but the way it was, it just felt phony to me, just wrong! But the point is, events can be rhythmic, similar events rhyme whether they turn out the same or not, there is a sense of completion when it is done right!

In “Millennium House,” I see a great deal of rhythm in the prose – the words and sentences themselves, it is poetic to read. Go ahead, read it aloud, it is very impressive! I had not thought of the events rhyming. There is the request, a brief emphatic statement of narration, two paragraphs of fulfillment, and the transfer. I am not sure I see rhyme in those events, as opposed to the prose, but I do not understand this concept as well as Richard, and I may just not be able to see it!

The second element of Quickness I got from this lecture is economy! We all know those books and stories, especially the old ones we were forced to read in high school, that go on forever in places describing the grass and the sky and how the air felt on his arm hairs! And superfluous background, exposition that goes back to the beginning of time! Part of the current Code is: stay in scene, describe every sensation a character is having in an intense moment! Sometimes that too gets a bit too much! Maybe that is because it is not always handled well, but everything described should have some importance! I love a great metaphor as much as anyone, but I tend to skip over long descriptive paragraphs, and that is not good reading!

I can see all that is left out of “Millennium House.” Who is the friend who recommended the friend, does he know the builder does strange things? What kind of expression does the guy have on his face when he sees the house? I would have wanted to write a three-page dialogue with all kinds of metaphors. I am sure some people would have written this as a twelve-page story – but it is so wonderful as less than a page! That is economy! That is Quickness! This is something I need to learn!

Now, Calvino also balances Quickness as he talks about narrative time and reading time, and about manipulating these, about expanding the narrative time with techniques like nested stories (Scheherazade, that is so cool, I never thought of that, though I saw it once in a New Yorker story) and digression (my favorite hobby!). I still remember the advice Steve Almond gave in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey: “Slow down where it hurts.” He is speaking of traditional pacing methods, the rate at which new information is revealed, or forward motion of narrative, and those are also methods of manipulating time!

I just read an example of this in the Wigleaf Top 50 Online Flashes for 2012, “Thrill of Fire” by Ryan Griffith in Night Train. It is a one-paragraph, one-sentence story that takes place in that moment the car goes over the edge of the road but before it crashes into the gully below – that is a long moment! It is a wonderful use of a second of time that stretches on forever, and the one-sentence structure elongates and quickens it at the same time! I think this is a good example of Quickness! The structure fits the content perfectly!

Digression also has value: “The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight.” I am so glad, because I am all about digression! That is usually a problem, since I overdo it, but I can see how it would expand a moment in a story. I remember a Ben Marcus story which took place with him walking to the coffee cart from his desk at work! I hated that story! That was serious digression! David Foster Wallace played digression for all it was worth and I usually like that, because it is really cool digression! I need to learn more about digression, how to use it well, not how to stop using it!

In “Millennium House” I think the digression (I am not sure it can be called that) is in the description of the house, all the images brought to mind. It is almost as if we are floating in this amazing house, with milk-breath and “the incessant tick-tick of foul play” wandering around timelessly, discovering! Does this take place in two seconds, two minutes, two years? Who knows? But each metaphor has an image that is important, that adds to the image of the house – milk-breath makes me think of babies, children, the next generation, and the next and next, and tick-tock brings up time itself, eternity!

Calvino again brings in the gods of Roman mythology to illustrate this balance:

Mercury, with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between the gods and men, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects… Ever since antiquity it has been thought that the saturnine temperament is the one proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words….My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.

But he prefers to combine Vulcan and Mercury:

Vulcan’s concentration and craftsmanship are needed to record Mercury’s adventures and metamorphoses. Mercury’s swiftness and mobility are needed to make Vulcan’s endless labors become bearers of meaning. And from the formless mineral matrix, the gods’ symbols of office acquire their forms: lyres or tridents, spears or diadems.”

Ah, the hardware-software combination again!

This balance is all part of “hurry slowly” where we began:

A writer’s work has to take account of many rhythms: Vulcan’s and Mercury’s, a message of urgency obtained by dint of patient and meticulous adjustments and an intuition so instantaneous that, when formulated, it acquires the finality of something that could never have been otherwise. But it is also the rhythm of time that passes with no other aim than to let feelings and thoughts settle down, mature, and shed all impatience or ephemeral contingency.

I keep thinking of the flash fiction, how long it takes to write a perfect tiny story – and it is appropriate (though coincidental – do you not just love that god of coincidence?) that this post follows the one on the Wigleaf 2012 Top 50 Online Flash Fictions! I become very angry with someone who thinks of Flash, or micro-fiction, as easier because it is shorter. It is because it is shorter that it is difficult! Paring things down to the essentials, that takes great time! Take for example the folk tale Calvino uses to end the Memo:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It does not take him an instant to draw the crab, it takes him his lifetime! All the experience and training and study! I remember seeing a gymnast at the Olympics, she was there to do a vault for the team competition, and that is all she did, it took fifteen seconds, but it really took enormous amounts of time and training from a very young age to do those fifteen seconds!

I also remember a story I heard many years ago, it is used in many contexts from business to art. A woman went to a famous milliner to have a hat made. He picked up a length of ribbon, turned, and his hands flew, and he turned back again and he had made a magnificent hat out of the ribbon! It was perfect! She loved it! He told her it would cost $500 and she was shocked! So much money for a piece of simple ribbon and a few seconds of his time? So he pulled one part of the hat, and it fell into a mass of ribbon again. He handed it to her: “You may have the ribbon for free.”

Do not be deceived by tiny stories, or the ephemeral. Much time, in experience and effort and learning, goes into them!

So I have learned that Quickness means economy, stripping things down to what is necessary and what serves the narrative; and it means using time, both story time and narrative time, appropriately, which may include stretching things out with various techniques. It does not mean simply speed for the sake of speed, but the quickness which is possible by much work over time.

Hurry slowly!

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One response to “Sunday With Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos For The New Millennium, Part II: Quickness

  1. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part III: Exactitude « A Just Recompense

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