Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part III: Exactitude

Art by Leo Vilela: “Water Flame”

Crystal and flame: two forms of perfect beauty that we cannot tear our eyes away from, two modes of growth in time, of expenditure of the matter surrounding them, two moral symbols, two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings….I have always considered myself a partisan of the crystal, but the passage just quoted teaches me not to forget the value of the flame as a way of being, as a mode of existence. In the same way, I would like those who think of themselves as disciples of the flame not to lose sight of the tranquil, arduous lesson of the crystal.

Hello, I am Zin! And today we are studying Exactitude!

I have to say this is the hardest of the Memos so far! Not that it is that hard to read, but I am not sure I see where he actually discusses what he says he is setting out to discuss on the first page!
And that is:

First I shall try to define my subject. To my mind exactitude means three things above all:
(1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
(2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images; in Italian we have an adjective that doesn’t exist in English, “icastico,” from the Greek είχαστιχος [eikastikos]; and
(3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.

There is some wonderful material in this Memo! But I am just not sure it all dealt with these points! He goes into commentary about the “plague” of current language use but does not say, “Here is an example, this is poor use!” Now, of course, I know there are many times when I am upset by this very thing – for example, “literally” means literally, it is not an intensifier, so if you “literally hit the ceiling” you climb up on a ladder and physically hit the ceiling; it does not mean you got really, really mad, in which case you are still figuratively hitting the ceiling. It is an age when “OMG” is considered conversation – but I wonder if it is language use to blame, or if we have just become so anesthetized to everything other than our own little lives, we do not really need grand tropes to talk about our unfaithful lover or our boring job or our empty bank account! Then again, maybe it is because language is so undeveloped and the greater world, universe, has been ignored, that we are stuck with such unpleasant circumstances! And most of all I do not know if this is what Calvino means at all!

But back to the three points Calvino uses to define Exactitude:

On the first point I do not think he dwells at all! And it is in direct contrast to the way some writers advocate “just write” and let the character and the story tell you what happens next! Now, I understand, Calvino means in the finished version, there must be a plan, and freewriting is a way to get there. In fact, he makes reference to his own tendency to freewrite this lecture: “This talk is refusing to be led in the direction I set myself. I began by speaking of exactitude, not of the infinite and the cosmos.” But he does not really reference this point directly, maybe because it is self-explanatory. Even if you freewrite, you have to edit! What really interests me is that he goes from exactitude to infinity (the “cosmos”) and decides they are related! So his freewriting had a point after all! Was it a plan? I do not know!

Calvino is not sure about vagueness; after all, “Italian is the only language in which the word vago (vague) also means ‘lovely, attractive’.” He starts to use the notebooks of Leopardi (“Zibaldone di pensieri“) which praise vagueness, but finds it is not as simple as that:

Thus Leopardi, whom I had chosen as the ideal opponent of my argument in favor of exactitude, turns out to be a decisive witness in its favor….the poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude, who is able to grasp the subtlest sensations with eyes and ears and quick, unerring hands….the search for the indefinite becomes the observation of all that is multiple, teeming, composed of countless particles.


In his reflections, two terms are constantly compared: the “indefinite” and the “infinite.” For Leopardi, unhappy hedonist that he was, what is unknown is always more attractive than what is known; hope and imagination are the only consolations for the disappointments and sorrows of experience. Man therefore projects his desire into infinity and feels pleasure only when he is able to imagine that this pleasure has no end. But since the human mind cannot conceive the infinite, and in fact falls back aghast at the very idea of it, it has to make do with what is indefinite, with sensations as they mingle together and create an impression of infinite space, illusory but pleasurable all the same

I am sorry to quote so much but I do not want to misinterpret!

When I read this, I thought of the fractal concept of the infinite coastline! The smaller your yardstick gets, the longer the coastline measurement is (if it is really tiny it gets into the little crevices a larger yardstick misses) and the theory is, if you have an infinitely small measuring device, you have an infinitely long coastline! But of course coastlines are not infinitely large (and yardsticks are not infinitely small). But it is a mathematical and scientific concept that links the definite with the infinite! The more definite the measure, the closer it is to infinite!

He also uses as examples Poe (“Eureka”) –

[“Infinity”] stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception. Man needed a term by which to point out the direction of this effort….Out of this demand arose the word, “Infinity;” which is thus the representative but of the thought of a thought.

(wow, that is way beyond “Annabelle Lee”, yes?)

– and Paul Valery (Monsieur Teste) who “[I]n our century…is the one who has best defined poetry as a straining toward exactitude….putting his Monsieur Teste face to face with pain, and making him combat physical suffering by an exercise in abstract geometry.”

“I feel zones of pain … Some of these flashes are exactly like ideas….When it is about to appear, I find in myself something confused or diffused. Areas that are … hazy occur inside me, wide spaces come into view. Then I choose a question from my memory, any problem at all … I plunge into it. I count grains of sand … But increasing pain forces me to observe it. I think about it! I only await my cry … and as soon as I have heard it—the object, the terrible object, getting smaller, and still smaller, vanishes from my inner sight.”

and Robert Musil (The Man Without Qualities“):

…the logical conclusion is a human being with the paradoxical combination of precision and indefiniteness. He possesses an incorruptible, deliberate cold- bloodedness, the temperament that goes with exactitude; but apart from and beyond this quality, all is indefinite.

I am especially excited to see Musil brought in here, because I have encountered him before! He wrote a very short story, “Rabbit Catastrophe” after which a literary journal is named! I liked the name so much I found a copy of the book from Mainecat and read the story, which in 1938 was prescient of the effect of the Nazis (he was Austrian, his wife was Jewish, his books were banned, they fled to Switzerland and he died in the middle of WWII).

Now, see, just like Calvino, I am having a hard time keeping to the subject, because all these interesting little side-streets keep coming up! Back to Exactitude!

He uses the Crystal and the Flame, quoted above, as symbols of Paiget and Chomsky. Remember in Quickness he was a Saturnalian longing to be Mercurial? Here he is a Crystal who wants to be a flame! I love that there is always a balance of the value he is addressing, and the opposite!

The symbol most associated with Calvino, another that tantalizes him: the city! I have not read Invisible Cities; I glanced at it when I was checking out the Memos, but decided to wait. It is the sort of thing I fear is beyond me. But I can understand why it is so intriguing, all that motion, all that vastness, but all those details!

Now back to Language: words. Words are miracles, yes? He talks about “natural” and formalized language, and I am not sure I understand the difference as he means them (I know something about engineered languages, like computer languages and even Esperanto, but I do not think this is what he means). But I think his point is that words are representative of reality, not reality – language says more than words, but less than experience. I think can see how that relates to exactitude – literature, using the quality of exactitude, attempts to express reality with words?

Then we have Ponge, whom he admires for “reconstructing the physical nature of the world by means of the impalpable, powder-fine dust of words.” This led me to the amazing text from “The Parti Pris of Things: Notes For A Shell.” I am dealing with a user translation – it seems there is no standard published English version –so I am not sure of the accuracy, but it starts with a description of a shell, a monument created by a mere scallop from the effluvium of its own body, and in the space of two paragraphs works its way to this startling conclusion:

The true common secretion of the human mollusc, of that which is most proportionate and suited to his body, and yet the most different from his body, and yet the most different from his form that can be conceived; I mean the Word.

Does that not make the hairs stand up on your arms? In a good way, I mean – awe! Awesome, in the most – ahem – exact sense!

The memo ends (and disappointingly; I wish it had ended with the human mollusc!) with Da Vinci, who struggled with his classic Greek and Roman and thus had trouble communicating with those who would have been the Academics of his day. He made a notation similar to “a picture is worth a thousand words” in one of his anatomy notebooks. This is very true when one is describing the way a tendon attaches to a bone, but not when it comes to expressing the heart.

So I get to the end and again, I am left wondering, how does this relate to writing? And here, other than using precise language (of course) I am not sure! Maybe it is similar to something I once read – instead of interpreting, describe: do not say “I was angry when he did that” but how the stomach churned and the fists clenched and the voice rose (my hero Seth Fried just had a funny essay about Show, Don’t Tell for his Tin House Blog Das Kolumne).

But I can not believe this is what Calvino was getting at. I went googling, and found more architecture – I am still amazed at the connection between Calvino and architects like Richard Osgood whose story “Millennium House” drew me to this study. And since I was getting nowhere fast, I went back to that story, which I loved, to see if I could glimpse Exactitude.

All I can say is that the language is extremely precise, both in concrete terms and as images and metaphors. I still smile when I read about sour milk-breath! It is also vague in that I have no idea what the house looks like! I am not sure it can even exist in normal space-time! But as an image it works so perfectly! Also “bells in sunken towers” – I can see the old English countryside – “and plastic wheels on faded asphalt” – I can hear kids pulling wagons and skating in parking lots and driveways!

I think I have failed this chapter, as hard as I have tried to understand Exactitude, but maybe it is because Exactitude is so inexact! Maybe if I could see some examples of what Calvino called inexact, that would help! Since that is not likely to be forthcoming, I will just continue and hope something further on will bring me back here with better understanding!

3 responses to “Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part III: Exactitude

  1. Zin, you have not failed this chapter. On the contrary, you are summarizing and analyzing these chapters perfectly. I fully intend to participate, to add my two cents, but for the past few weeks I’ve been finalizing my manuscript for the Colgate Writer’s Conference in June. Now that it’s done and off, I hope to join in.


    • Hello, Richard, I am so happy to see you! And I look forward to your two cents (which I think will be worth far more than that!). But I am also happy you are working on writing, and sharing your gifts with more of the world!

  2. Pingback: Just call me Princess SohCahToa « A Just Recompense

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