Italo Calvino: The Cloven Viscount (1952)

Still from the video “The Cloven Viscount” by Maria Felix Korporal

There is never a moonlit night but wicked ideas in evil souls writhe like serpents in nests, and charitable ones sprout lilies of renunciation and dedication. So Medardo’s two halves wandered, tormented by opposing furies, amid the crags of Terralba.

What is the relationship between good and evil? Do they both exist, or is one the absence of the other? Religious theologies use a variety of concepts: evil as the absence of good; one as the default until usurped by the other; or a constant battle between two opposing forces.

Calvino looks at the question by dividing his titular Viscount in half. The fable is set in feudal medieval Italy and begins in a time of war “between Christendom and the Turks”. It was published in 1952 (and a decade later included in his heraldic trilogy Our Ancestors) when Calvino was just 30 years old, and is considered born of his experiences in fascist Italy during WWII, and of the artistic tumult afterwards.

Our unnamed narrator is a child, the Viscount’s nephew, though we later learn he’s from a less than honorable branch of the family, more of an adopted stepchild. In most interpretations (and I’ll get into one in depth) he’s considered to be a symbol of Calvino, and of his view of the Modernist role art in the world.

The story begins when the Viscount goes to war.

Art by Naomi Bardoff

Art by Naomi Bardoff

“Why all the storks?” Medardo asked Kurt. “Where are they flying?”
…”They’re flying to the battlefields,” said the squire glumly. “They’ll be with us all the way.”
The Viscount Medardo had heard that in those parts of flight of storks was thought a good omen, and he wanted to seem pleased at the sight. But in spite of himself he felt worried.
“What can draw such birds to a battlefield, Kurt?” he asked.
“They eat human flesh too, nowadays,” replied the squire, “since the fields have been stripped by famine and the rivers dried by drought. Vultures and crows have now given way to storks and flamingos and cranes.”

The initial chapter is loaded with grisly details of the horrors of war, painted as matter-of-factly as possible by the Viscount’s Squire. The Viscount is made a Lieutenant, in spite of his lack of military knowledge, on the basis of his social status. That very inexperience leads to him walking in front of a cannon, something even I, who have never been near a battlefield, would know enough not to do, and he’s literally blown in two; but, in an artful play of plot, Calvino temporarily convinces us only half survived.

He returns to his fiefdom a half a man – the right half, in an interesting twist on the usual symbolism of right and left – but it becomes evident it’s the “evil” half. He imposes death sentences for petty crimes, he destroys property, and he banishes Sebastiana, the village Nurse, a woman who took care of him (and the rest of the village) all his life, to a leper colony.

She knew that her fate was sealed; she must take the road to Pratofungo. Leaving the room where she had been kept till then, she found the passages and stairs deserted. Down she went, across the courtyard, out into the country; all was deserted, everyone at her passage withdrew and hid. She heard a hunting horn sound a low call on two notes only. On the path ahead of her was Galateo with the mouthpiece of his instrument raised to the sky. With slow steps the nurse advanced. The path went towards the setting sun. Galateo moved far ahead of her. Every now and then he stopped as if gazing at the bumble bees amid the leaves, raised his horn and played a sad note. The nurse looked at the flowers and banks that she was leaving, sensed behind hedges the presence of the people avoiding her, and walked on. Alone, Galateo a long way behind, she reached Pratofungo, and as the village gates closed behind her harps and violins began to play.

Some of the Viscount’s evil deeds are downright ingenious, reminding me a bit of the way Seth Fried created a “list of massacres” for his magnificent story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”; I wonder if Calvino made such a list. Late in the story we discover his other half, the “good” half, did in fact survive, though the two halves were unaware of each other until the “good” half arrives in the village; they coexist for a time until a duel over a woman leads to reunification; then everyone lives happily ever after, except for our narrator, whose fate it is to tell this story.

That’s just the surface mechanism, though; the story is far more interesting than that on both thematic and storytelling levels.

It turns out that being too “good” isn’t always appreciated either. Although this aspect is mentioned in every source I’ve checked, I think the story makes a very weak case against the “good” half. Sure, he scolds the lepers for their licentious partying, and it’s true that the Hugenot farming community, the very picture of corrupted religion (they’ve turned it into oppression and exploitation), gets annoyed at the suggestion that they lower the prices they charge for their grain so the starving may eat (tell me this doesn’t bring to mind the recent reaction to the Pope’s comments about capitalism). Still, those brief incidents don’t seem terribly compelling to me as an indictment against the “good” viscount, given the lengthy, varied, and highly detailed account of the “bad” one’s behavior.

Perhaps the true problem with the “good” half is the painful awakening of conscience in the town. Pietrochiodo, saddle-maker turned execution expert, is a fascinating character; I kept thinking of Robert Oppenheimer; in the same way he was torn between scientific curiosity and horror over his development of a new kind of weapon, Pietrochiodo marvels at the increasingly elaborate gibbets he designs and builds, yet is distraught that they are used against the innocent. The “good” viscount only exacerbates this conflict.

The carpenter was beginning to doubt whether building good machines was not beyond human possibility when the only ones which could function really practically and exactly seemed to be gibbets and racks. In fact as soon as the Bad ‘Un explained to Pietrochiodo an idea for a new mechanism, the carpenter found a way of doing it occurring to him immediately; and he would sit to work and would find every detail coming out perfect and irreplaceable, and the instrument when finished a masterpiece of ingenious technique.
The torturing thought came to the carpenter, “Can it be in my soul, this evil which makes only my cruel machines work?” But he went on inventing other tortures with great zeal and ability.

And there is a core issue: the “good” Medardo runs around repairing damage done by the “bad” Medardo as best he can, but he is restricted by his own code of kindness from harming anyone, including the embodiment of pure evil; thus he lets it go on, infuriating the villagers who bear the brunt of it with his empathy for the most evil man on earth. It’s an honorable thing to be a pacifist, to view all life as sacred, but are there perhaps circumstances when a little violence is called for? Who gets to decide, and how?

The evil the Bad ‘Un does goes beyond the surface effects. Of course it’s horrible that he tries to poison his nephew with mushrooms, and that he capriciously executes prisoners. But it’s more than that: he makes his victims, and the bystanders, complicit in his crimes. Dr. Trelawney, for example. Originally a doctor on Captain Cook’s ship, he was left behind after a shipwreck. Some doubt is cast on his actual expertise in medicine, as he shows no interest in the illnesses of patients or in healing – he avoids such things, in fact, unless forced – but prefers to study will-‘o-the-wisps, the mysterious lights that appear above wet, swampy ground. As it happens, the graveyard of the fiefdom provides the best opportunity for his study, and when the lights run short, the “bad” viscount does him the favor of executing more innocents to aid his studies. Like Pietrochiodo, Dr. Trelawney feels bad about this, but continues his studies nonetheless. Again, I can’t help but make connections with WWII, and the doctors enlisted by concentration camps… and doctors enlisted recently to help with the Guantanamo hunger strike, something all American citizens are complicit in, since it is done by our government and thus in our name. Chew on that next time you think politics doesn’t have anything to do with you. For Dr. Trelawney, the “good” Viscount provides something of a path back to medicine, and he becomes a healer again; redemption is possible.

Pamela, the love interest of both halves of the Viscount, makes another interesting character; while she’s not given to deep thought, she’s perhaps the most brilliant character overall: she refuses to be implicated into evil. Her scenes are hilarious as first one half, then the other, woos her, but neither provide any evidence of, um, what they have to offer a wife. Calvino hints at, but does not mention, the issue of just how physically “split” the Viscount is (a terrific writer’s choice; my speculation on the practical ramifications of their respective half-penises was far more amusing than any concrete rendering could have been). Pamela does not suffer fools in any way, shape, or form. It is Pamela, in fact, who sets up the solution to the entire situation in a deceitful plot worthy of the finest Italian opera: she offers to marry both separately, then waits to see who shows up.

It’s almost cinematic comedy, in a Princess Bride sort of way, with Pamela adding her perfect last word:

Just then from the end of the nave, supporting himself on his crutch, entered the Viscount, his new velvet suit slashed, dripping and torn. And he said,” I am Medardo of Terralba and Pamela is my wife.”
The Good ‘Un staggered up face-to-face with him. “I am the Medardo whom Pamela has married.”
The Bad ‘Un flung away his crutch and put his hand to his sword. The Good ‘Un had no option but to do the same.
The Bad ‘Un threw himself into a lunge, The Good ‘Un went into defense, but both of them were soon rolling on the floor.
They agreed that it was impossible to fight balanced on one leg. The duel must be put off to be better prepared.
“Do you know what I’ll do?” said Pamela. “I’m going back to the woods.” And the way she ran from the church, with no pages any longer holding her train. On the bridge she found the goat and the duck waiting, and they trotted along beside her.

But eventually they do meet in a duel, after the saddle-maker-turned-gibbet-maker-turned-adaptive-engineer Pietrochiodo fashions “a kind of leg in the shape of a compass” for both the men. They are both wounded along their missing sides, and Dr. Trelawney uses his recently rediscovered medical expertise to sew them back together. The header art above, created by video artist Maria Felix Korporal for a Calvino exhibit in Rome in the summer of 2012, was inspired by that very concept: “I made a first version of the video but I was not satisfied with it, and I was about to leave the project, when at the last moment I got the solution of the red thread, with which I am really happy.” Me, too; I’m delighted to share her work, and a video she sent of this part of the exhibit, which begins with the performance of a poem by Efisio Cadoni. It’s in Italian, but it’s easy to get the idea from the repeated droning of “Bene Male Bene Male” throughout.

It’s interesting that both Medardos see their halving as a good thing. As the Bad ‘Un explains to his nephew, and the Good ‘Un to Pamela:

“If only I could have every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying facedown on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind. If you ever become a half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you will understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole. You will have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious. And you too would find yourself wanting everything to be have to like yourself, because beauty and knowledge and justice only exists in what has been cut to shreds.” Then the good Medardo said, “Oh, Pamela, that’s the good thing about being halved. One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness. I was whole and did not understand, and moved about deaf and unfeeling amidst the pain and sorrow all around us, in places where as a whole person one would least think to find it. It’s not only me, Pamela, who am a split being, but you and everyone else too. Now I have a fellowship which I did not understand, did not know before, when whole, a fellowship with all the mutilated and incomplete things in the world. If you come with me, Pamela, you will learn to suffer with everyone’s ills, and tend to your own by tending theirs.”

The writing occasionally gets a bit funky – at one point the narrator refers to himself as having been “a small child” when Medardo was a boy, yet he’s 7 or 8 when Medardo returns from the war; I’m not sure if that’s a translation issue or a differing view of age and what constitutes small-childhood. There’s a section ending in Chapter 7 that puzzles me greatly; it seems to just end in the middle of a conversation with Sebastiana regarding the lepers among whom she lives. I can’t imagine material was omitted, but it reads oddly. Those minor quirks, however, don’t detract from how much fun this is to read, and how much meaning there is to it, once you suspend disbelief and let the story take you where it goes.

Both viscounts employ a kind of bizarre symbolic language system in the village, and somehow, both manage to communicate perfectly well with it. The Bad ‘Un” (as he’s eventually called in the text) woos Pamela with these messages:

A cock was tied on a branch by its wings and was being devoured by a great hairy blue caterpillar; a nest of evil insects that live on pines have settled right at the top.
This was another of the Viscount’s ghastly messages, of course. Pamela’s interpretation was: “Tomorrow at dawn in the wood.”

That wouldn’t be my reaction, but Pamela is a special kind of girl. And later, the town communicates with The Good ‘Un in similar symbolic fashion:

We would go around the country lanes and find the signs of my uncle having preceded us. My good uncle, I mean, the one who every morning not only went the rounds of the sick, but also of the poor, the old, or who ever needed help.
In Bacciccia’s orchard the ripe pomegranates were each tied round with a piece of rag. From this we understood that Bacciccia had a toothache. My uncle had wrapped up the pomegranates lest they fall off and be squashed, now that their owners ills were preventing him from coming out and picking them himself but it was also a signal for Dr. Trelawney to pay the sick man of visit and bring his pincers.

In one instance, there’s a mere phrase that had me dancing around in delight: “Medardo leapt to his foot” – how wonderful is that! Calvino resisted for the most part the urge to turn this into an outright farce, but he couldn’t resist that little twist of phrase (assuming it’s not an artefact of translation).

I’m sure all of the characters are symbolic of various aspects of WWII: not only the scientists who built the atom bomb, but the industries that profited from conventional warplanes and tanks, the workers that made the munitions, the partisans who hid out in the woods, the Church that stood by and watched. I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge (particularly of wartime Italy) to pull off a specific one-to-one correlation, but these characters stand out as representatives of various facets. The overall issue of the coexistence of good and evil, however, strikes me as more universal; perhaps it’s made more manifest in certain times, but it’s always there, every time we read a news story, cast a vote, leave a tip in a coffee shop, do our taxes: what are the limits of our conscience? When does loyalty to the whole of humanity supersede self-interest? Is it a matter of “good” and “evil” at all, or more of where we allow that limit to fall? And I come back to where I was a couple of weeks ago: the Dow has hit new record highs, and the minimum wage doesn’t support survival so we’ve cut food stamps to families with children to keep tax breaks for job creators; why is it again we are we not rioting in the streets?

One of the joys of reading Calvino is the wealth of material it’s generated in response. In addition to the art already listed, I found a marvelous commentary on the novella in the form of a comparison between it and the 1998 Brazilian play Partido by Cacá Brandão. In his 2001 paper “Calvino’s Cloven Viscount from Page to Stage”, Professor of Comparative Literature Julio Jeha describes the play (using Dante’s “fourfold” methodology, a lesson in itself: “For the purposes of this essay, I will say that the literal level gives us what happened; the allegorical refers to a character or concept taken symbolically; the tropological provides a moral truth, and the anagogical indicates a level ‘above’.”) as not merely translating the fable to stage, but reconceptualizing it for a new era: Brandão converted Calvino’s fable from “the epistemological perspective that characterizes modernism” to “the ontological bias that marks postmodernism.” I’ve been wrestling with the distinction between Modern and Post-Modern for much of the past year, and I’m still not completely clear about it, but with Jeha’s help I can see how the difference is rendered in the narrative point of view, and the symbolic referents:

Calvino’s novel turns out to be a Bildungsroman for the narrator who, ultimately, would stand for the Italian artists and intellectuals during the national rebuilding. Brandão’s play, conversely, brings the Viscount, who would take the place of a contemporary audience in its need to learn about its condition, to a central position. Both texts lead us to examine the means by which we experience the world and the role that we, shattered and incomplete, can have in it and in its constitution.

Ah, so Calvino focused on the story the nephew would tell, as a parable for post-WWII artists – the tellers; the play looks at the unification of the divided self from a subjective position, allowing the audience – the be-ers – to participate more directly in the Viscount’s experience. Maybe? I’m going to be chewing on this a while.

I’d always planned to check out Calvino’s fiction after our read of Six Memos for the New Millenium last year, but way leads on to way and I never got back. I’d expected it to be If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler (I’ve always been too intimidated by Invisible Cities) given my fondness for structural play. But that was before I took my latest Philosophy MOOC.

One of the side benefits of taking MOOCs has been the ability to hang out under some pretty fancy banquet tables and catch the crumbs as they fall from some very smart people (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course; I should watch that, there are those who would start spreading rumors that MOOCs involve weird dining rituals). It’s amazing what you can pick up just by paying attention to very educated people talking / posting / tweeting about things they love to talk / post / twitter about. So when Alasdair Richmond, the stand-out star professor of my recent Introduction to Philosophy course out of the University of Edinburgh, mentioned a wish to teach this particular novella with RLS’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had to check it out. I’ll have to put the Stevenson on my list as well; it’s been so horribly popularlized I preferred to start with the less well-known Calvino. But I’ll get there. And when I do, I’ll find more wonders, I’m sure of it.

The book ends with a little tidying up of loose ends, mostly in happily-ever-after mode: Medardo has many children (presumably with Pamela), Pietrochiodo builds mills instead of gibbets, Dr. Trelawney ignores will-‘o-the-wisps for easing the pains of humanity. The only down side is the narrator, still unnamed. He finds his calling telling himself stories in the woods, but is at the same time ashamed of this. One day while he’s storytelling, Captain Cook’s ship returns to the shores and takes away Dr. Trelawney:

I had seen nothing. I was deep in the wood telling myself stories. When I heard later, I began running towards the seashore crying, “Doctor! Doctor Trelawney! Take me with you! Doctor, you can’t leave me here!”
But already the ships were vanishing over the horizon and I was left behind, in this world of ours full of responsibilities and will-‘o-the-wisps.

I know exactly how he feels, every time I close the cover of a good book.

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4 responses to “Italo Calvino: The Cloven Viscount (1952)

  1. was absolutely alternately fascinated and horrified by your tale of the book; of course that means that I have to go read it now. You covered so much and brought in so many interesting details that I find that I am immediately going to have to start a List for Books that i want to read on my new blog. I only have one photo up so far, though. but i am definitely going to subscribe to your blog, for it is highly entertaining and informative. I shall feast off the crumbs from your table for a long, long time….Speaking of which, Professor Alasdair was absolutely amazing, wasn’t he? Now where is that Tardis when we need it?

    • Joan, is that you, hi! I had a blast with this little book, go ahead & read it, it’s short. And a lot of fun. I’ve got to fit more Calvino in my life, as well as more Borges.

      Blogging’s a lot of fun, and for me it’s a great way to go beyond just reading into absorbing and looking at what else is out there; I confess, I love research. Took a while to figure out what I wanted to blog – I deleted my first two attempts, still consider deleting some stuff but have decided it’s always good to remember how much room there is to grow from wherever you are.

      • Yep, it’s me. just started a blog, got some bits and bobs of poetry and some photos up so far, and still I am trying to figure out just how to work with the darned thing..I think that I am in over my head….*grin* :)oh, well, it is a good way to keep my brain working other than all the online course that I have signed up for and also a great way to keep in touch with some of the friends, such as yourself that I have made through the courses.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2014: Craig Davidson, “Medium Tough” from AGNI #77 | A Just Recompense

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