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.

Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, part V: Multiplicity

"Multiplicity" - Jeffrey Bolinger, Kinley Puzey, Lance Seeman, Kevin Thibault

“Multiplicity” – Jeffrey Bolinger, Kinley Puzey, Lance Seeman, Kevin Thibault

[T]he subject of my lecture… is the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world….
Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.

Hello, I am Zin, and I have taken more liberties than usual with the text above! It is taken from the beginning and end of the fifth Memo, the final one we have to study. I wanted to include a third piece, but I did not feel I could get away with it – so I will include it here as it too is an overall statement of purpose for this memo, for all the Memos:

Among the values I would like passed on to the next millennium, there is this above all: a literature that has absorbed the taste for mental orderliness and exactitude, the intelligence of poetry, but at the same time that of science and of philosophy:

Calvino approaches his explanation of literature-as-encyclopedia by means of several different works which all have different characteristics but still fit in this category. First he starts with That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, an engineer who loved philosophy. He presents the world as a tangled knot to be untied, but this novel, in essence a detective novel, is “left without a solution”! How strange is that! But he loved the unfinished

Then we move to Robert Musil, also an engineer, who played with the tension between the mathematical and precise, and the human and chaotic! I am enjoying all these technical people who write, it is that same thing about exercising opposing muscles maybe. And this he has in common with Gadda: ”their inability to find an ending.”

And of course as soon as you hear the term “encyclopedic novel” you know Proust is around the corner!

Not even Marcel Proust managed to put an end to his encyclopedic novel, though not for lack of design, since the idea for the book came to him all at once, the beginning and end and the general outline. The reason was that the work grew denser and denser from the inside through its own organic vitality. The network that links all things is also Proust’s theme, but in him this net is composed of points in space-time occupied in succession by everyone, which brings about an infinite multiplication of the dimensions of space and time. The world expands until it can no longer be grasped, and knowledge, for Proust, is attained by suffering this intangibility. In this sense a typical experience of knowledge is the jealousy felt by the narrator for Albertine.

How interesting, this suggestion that multiplicity is not easy to wrap up, it keeps going, expanding outward and inward, creating more and more, however the author approaches it! These would never go over well in a world where sitcoms have a half-hour to wrap up all the loose ends and leave everyone happy – but I wonder if someone on the writing staff of The Sopranos read this Memo! And by the way, while pop music lives for the final “money note” jazz often leaves things on 7ths and diminished 9ths and weird chords that hint at more to come! And for that matter atonal music does not have a “home” to end on! Which is probably why most people hate it!

Oh, I must mention the Borges piece, “The Garden of Forking Paths” – “which is presented as a spy story and includes a totally logico-metaphysical story, which in turn contains the description of an endless Chinese novel—and all this concentrated into a dozen pages.” I have not read it – I must! – because Calvino explains this story brings in parallel universes:

the very reason why the protagonist feels authorized to carry out the absurd and abominable crime imposed on him by his spy mission, perfectly sure that this happens only in one of the universes but not in the others; and indeed that, if he commits this crime here and now, in other universes he and his victim will be able to hail each other as friends and brothers.

How wonderful! To think that in some other universe, I am not sitting here wondering where I went wrong!

Calvino goes through many other authors – Flaubert, Valery, with mentions of Joyce and Eliot – but I was taken by a couple of other descriptions of authors completely unfamiliar to me:

There is such a thing as the unified text that is written as the expression of a single voice, but that reveals itself as open to interpretation on several levels. Here the prize for an inventive tour-de-force goes to Alfred Jarry for Uamour absolu (1899), a fifty-page novel that can be read as three completely different stories: (1) the vigil of a condemned man in his cell the night before his execution; (2) the monologue of a man suffering from insomnia, who when half asleep dreams that he has been condemned to death; (3) the story of Christ.

Another multiplicity! This time more vertical than horizontal – the multiplicity is in the possibility of interpretations of a very short novel, what would probably be classified as a novella, rather than an encyclopedic novel!

I was likewise intrigued by his discussion of La vie mode d’emploi (Life, Directions for Use) by Georges Perec. I will not try to copy it here, go read it in the online memo, it is pretty amazing, an apartment building, the kind of careful precision of who is on what floor and what goes on in time, a schedule of themes, and guess what! “This ultra-completed book has an intentional loophole left for incompleteness” – it too is not finished! Because guess what, the universe, life, is not finished! I was pleased to note the mention of Oulipo here: it has been conspicuously absent but this is the place to bring it in!

Oulipo is short for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or “workshop of potential literature.” Some day I will do some posts about it maybe, but for right now I will just say it is about finding new structures and using them as creative inspiration – that is right, structure, restrictions, rules, as inspirations! Because it can get very messy if you do not know what you are doing! But here is that pull between two opposites again, restrictions and freedom, and now we are learning that rules and restrictions can be used to create freedom! Sam Cooney conveys this really well in his post about the Memos on The Rumpus:

Multiplicity works through the abiding of rules. Rules give one boundaries to work in, a set space, even if the space is to be thought of as infinite. Sartre said that writing, properly employed, can be a powerful means of liberating the reader from all kinds of alienation, and by this process, the writer also frees their own self and overcomes their own alienation. Like a system of poetry – a system that could be deemed artificial and mechanical – rules can produce inexhaustible freedom and wealth of invention. And like a single deadline can work as the major driving force for a writer, a large array of directives act as stimulation, as ongoing spurs.

And now I go back to “Millennium House” by Richard Osgood, where I began this Study and ended up each Memo. First, the restrictions of Flash are part of the territory, part of what Richard and other flash writers love. Then, the paragraph describing the house brings in a mini-encyclopedia of images and references to times and places and experiences! The juxtaposition of “part fire code and part free will” still gives me goosebumps! Nothing is more regulated and formal than fire code, and nothing symbolizes chaos like free will! The flash is not unfinished by any means, but there is a definite sense of continuation, ending with a leap into the air! And Richard is, no surprise, an architect, that blend of science and art that balances stresses and tolerances with lines and arcs and creates a combination of the practical and the aesthetic! I keep finding architects in my search for art and comments on these Memos! Like with the art above, which was created as part of an architecture course!

I will be reading some Calvino fiction shortly – probably If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, I am too intimidated by Invisible Cities – but I have another project (hello, Jeanne!) scheduled next!

And I will end the Memos study with this:

Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.

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

Fantasy Sketch - "a little archi-doodle" - by Sketchy-G

Fantasy Sketch – “a little archi-doodle” – by Sketchy-G

What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the “civilization of the image”? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?…We are bombarded today by such a quantity of images that we can no longer distinguish direct experience from what we have seen for a few seconds on television. The memory is littered with bits of pieces of images, like a rubbish dump, and it is more and more unlikely that any one from among so many will succeed in standing out.

If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.

Hello, I am Zin! And we come now to the fourth Memo, Visibility – which concerns itself with the translation from the imagined image of the writer, to words on a page, to the imagined image of the reader! That is a treacherous journey, and it is not surprising that writers vary in ability and techniques to do this!

I see four points of view here: Calvino describes how other writers, based on their work, have accomplished this; he talks about his own writing. Then I will talk about my own writing which is of course a lot less interesting but is how I might learn to do better, and finally I will bring in Richard Osgood and the process he used to write his wonderful story “Millennium House” (which has served as my standard and inspiration for all the Memos)!

Calvino starts out with Dante and the Purgatory of the Divine Comedy; he paraphrases thusly:

O imagination, you who have the power to impose yourself on our faculties and our wills, stealing us away from the outer world and carrying us off into an inner one, so that even if a thousand trumpets were to sound we would not hear them, what is the source of the visual messages that you receive, if they are not formed from sensations deposited in the memory?

Then he brings in a Balzac work that sounds wonderful, I have never heard of it before (not surprising), “The Unknown Masterpiece” which began in 1831 as a story (“the elderly painter Frenhofer’s perfect picture, in which only a woman’s foot emerges from a chaos of color, from a shapeless fog, is both understood and admired by the artist’s two colleagues, Pourbus and Nicholas Poussin”). But Balzac expanded it to a book in which the colleagues do not understand, and Frenhofer “lives for his ideal, but he is condemned to solitude.” In the final 1837 version, “Frenhofer is a madman doomed to lock himself up with his supposed masterpiece, then to burn it and commit suicide.”

What a wonderful and strange and sad progression! “Balzac rejected the literature of fantasy, which for him had meant art as the mystical knowledge of everything, and turned to the minute description of the world as it is, still convinced that he was expressing the secret of life. The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realizing.”

The key work that starts to clarify things for me is not fiction but The Empire of the Imaginary by Jean Starobinski, a historical survey of imaginative literature! That sounds like fun, yes? Here he introduces the difference between Freud and Jung: is imagination internal and isolated, or external and connective? Do we imagine things based on our own knowledge of the world, or do we use it to connect with a “world soul” related to the collective unconscious? As usual, Calvino finds himself in both camps: he thinks he is more internal/Freudian, but realizes he is actually external/Jungian. And he does not stop there!

Still there is another definition in which I recognize myself fully, and that is the imagination as a repertory of what is potential, what is hypothetical, of what does not exist and has never existed, and perhaps will never exist but might have existed.

At this point I begin to wonder: is this Visibility Memo really about Imagination? Maybe both?

He draws on another work, Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, in which the reader is asked to imagine him or her self as seeing God, seeing the Holy Family, being present at the Nativity, in order to comprehend God better.

I find this truly wonderful, not as a religious exercise but because I have tended to do a similar exercise in some of my stories to know what the character is actually seeing and feeling, so I have a better idea of what is actually happening, what the character is going through, not thinking up words to write but actually experiencing in my almost-asleep imagination what is happening to a character! It usually involves almost falling asleep, which is a trick I picked up after reading From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. Butler thinks the best writing could be done in that half-asleep state when conscious control eases up; of course the full power of the awake mind needs to be used later, but it is the creativity of the dream state he loves to capture in early stages of forming a story. I always thought of it as a way of getting inside my own mind, not the Jungian collective unconscious (which to me has always seemed like a lot of hooey, sorry) but who knows? Then again, the story I most used this on was not a screaming success, but I think it did help a great deal with several of the scenes.

This brings in the next work Calvino mentions, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter:

Think, for instance, of a writer who is trying to convey certain ideas which to him are contained in mental images. He isn’t quite sure how those images fit together in his mind, and he experiments around, expressing things first one way and then another, and finally settles on some version. But does he know where it all came from? Only in a vague sense. Much of the source, like an iceberg, is deep underwater, unseen—and he knows that.

He began this kind of imagery early on, by looking at Italian versions of the Katzenjammer Kids and Felix the Cat comic strips before he could read! In fact he says he did not get more out of them once he could read; I am not surprised he was able to imagine better stories than the original captions!

The work I did later in life, extracting stories from the mysterious figures of the tarot and interpreting the same figure in a different way each time, certainly had its roots in my obsessive porings over pages and pages of cartoons when I was a child.

He is talking about “fantastical” literature, but I have often seen a writer claim a Realism story was inspired by a single image – two in this blog come to mind right now, first, “Someone Ought To Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” which began with an image “of a man in uniform carrying a little girl on his shoulders”, and second, “The Rules Are The Rules” by Adam Foulds: “The story began with a single image: a priest who longs to be a father holds an infant for baptism.” These images actually play a fairly small role in the finished story, but creating the moment for them to occur and the aftermath is fundamental, because I think they provide a direction and focus for the story.

The artist Frenhofer from the early Balzac work, then, is able to connect his inner images with others, but in the later versions as Balzac changed his mind, is not, and it brings him to despair! And St. Ignatius used the imagination as a way to connect with the divine, though I would imagine he felt the Divine did a major part of the work in that endeavor! And for Dante, I think he saw it more as going from external to internal, bringing the external world to a more personal, interior understanding!

As for Richard, rather than his story “Millennium House” (which is excellent and should by all means be read! Go ahead, it is flash, very very short, and I will be here when you get back!) it is his experience of writing it, detailed in an interview he was kind enough to do with me for a previous post, that I see relating to this Visibility! Some of his most pertinent observations include his initial image:

It is difficult sometimes to pin down the conception of a story. The idea came about from a discussion of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” by Professor Martin Stone who described the novel and Camus’ intent to be about the absurdity of human existence coupled with the tendency for humans to seek meaning for our absurd condition…. Initially it began as a house for no-man, then as a house for everyman…. This house and this story is about the non-place of place.

…and his thoughts on what is somewhat related to the internal/Freudian vs external/Jungian debate (though it is really more about crossing the enormous boundary between “you” and “other” – until we learn to record and interpret brain waves we can only know what is in another mind by what they do or say to convey it):

Many argue that it’s impossible to conceive anything other than from inside the self, that it’s impossible to escape the individual ego. I believe we have the ability to extend ourselves beyond the capsule of direct experience to a tethered assimilation of indirect experience, thereby establishing a connection outside the self—if by definition the self is a construct of direct experience. Indirect experience consists of the intellectual and emotional connection with worldly interactions of others’ direct experiences. While the act of assimilation is a direct experience, the “connection” with a direct experience of another person long since dead is indirect, and though maybe not completely “outside” the self, it is at least an oblique sidestep from the self such that it is not necessary for the self to be a material participant in the experience.

So I think Richard is more of the Jungian school! I am also fascinated by his process of reading in different chairs depending on the work; this seems to me to be a wonderful way to prime the pump, so to speak, to be receptive to the image that is being conveyed:

I decided to read “The Stranger” by Camus and “Six Memos” by Calvino in the same chair, which is really a bench pushed up against a half wall between the back room and the foyer that leads to the kitchen. I can’t be too comfortable reading Camus and Calvino. The straight-on window from that spot in the room is at such an angle that at any time of day or night, and in any light, all I see in the glass is my reflection. No trees or flowers or songbirds for these guys.

I have learned so much about writing and reading from this short little flash he wrote that is so quintessentially Calvino; I hope others can as well!

On to Multiplicity!

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!

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!

Sunday With Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part I: Lightness

"Leap!" by Judith Green

"Leap!" by Judith Green

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 – 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, (his website is gone now) 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
horror                                                          beauty
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
sadness                                                        melancholy
comedy                                                       humor
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!

Sunday with Zin: Richard Osgood, Tin House Plotto Master!

Richard chasing his wife - 'his momentum like the untwisting of a perpetual knot'

Richard chasing his wife - 'his momentum like the untwisting of a perpetual knot'

Hello, I am Zin! What a special Sunday: Richard Osgood won the first-ever Tin House blog Plotto flash contest Final Round on March 28 with his story “Millennium House” (he won the qualifying round in Week 2 with his entry “Rapid Eye”). Since I know Richard from the Flash Factory at Zoetrope, I asked him a few questions! I want to jump right into his comments, so I will put FMI about the Plotto contest and the Flash Factory at the end!

Hello, Richard, and Congratulations – what a major success, to win this contest! Was the Plotto three-clause method familiar to you, other than through this contest?

No, I had never heard of it before. Also I had never heard of the author, William Wallace Cook, but it is said he was singularly responsible for the deforestation of Canada. He was the author of adventure stories in the form of dime novels and serials. It might be fun one day to read some of his work.

I will admit, the Plotto prompts still do not quite make sense to me! But you seem to get it just fine.

Plotto is a methodology, a mechanical process from which stories can be written. It’s not really a “How To” book because it doesn’t contain anything on character development, creation of setting, story structure, or any of those “tips” and “insights” other authors might profess. The clauses represent three parts to a story: The A Clause establishes the protagonist (in general terms); the B Clause originates and continues the action; and the C Clause continues and resolves the action. A Masterplot (according to William Wallace Cook) “serves as a general theme or summary of the story at its most basic level.” The Plotto Chart contains a matrix of interchangeable clauses in order to mix and match story components, which can lead to what some say is an unlimited array of plots.

How did you go about creating the Master Plot for the final challenge – or did you have the story first?

I allowed the process to do its job and guide the story. First, let me back up a bit. I was confused initially about how Tin House wanted us to proceed using Plotto. The first five weeks (the Plotto Contest weeks) consisted of them providing a Conflict Statement (you can review them on the TH blog) but the Master Challenge required each of us to compose a Master Plot by utilizing the Clause matrix. I decided first to browse the conflict statements, and when I found one that suited my needs, I selected three clauses to match the conflict statement. So I wrote the story from an idea brought to fruition by means of the Plotto exercise. I didn’t have a completed version until a few hours before the deadline, but I had prepared for this story by digging deep into Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium.”

And your protagonist builds a very interesting house! At what point did you start to go that way?

It is difficult sometimes to pin down the conception of a story. The idea came about from a discussion of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” by Professor Martin Stone who described the novel and Camus’ intent to be about the absurdity of human existence coupled with the tendency for humans to seek meaning for our absurd condition. Camus was not an existentialist or a nihilist, rather he recognized the futility of attempting to create meaning from thin air, to use human acceptance of unquantifiable explanations (faith) as wrap-and-bow on the otherwise unexplainable. This was the basic concept I wanted to address in the Master Plotto story. Initially it began as a house for no-man, then as a house for everyman, with the caveat that no matter how hard we as humans attempt to manipulate our environment, no matter how hard we attempt to build something concrete from the perpetually fluid, ultimate possession of the absurd remains elusive. This house and this story is about the non-place of place. I used as building blocks my analysis of Calvino’s “Six Memos,” in particular the basic concepts for each: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency, so in a way it’s Calvino’s house this story represents. I suspect he would feel at home.

I am sure he would, since the Tin House blog describes as “Calvino-esque”! You have inspired me to read the “Six Memos” lectures, but I have just started and am not really able to frame a good question yet. So: just go for it! Tell us about the Six Memos!

Calvino didn’t write these memos to predict the future or speculate about the trajectory of fiction but to reinforce the value of literature in the context of a millennial transition. His intent was to present these as a series of lectures at Harvard in 1985 but a month before the scheduled event he died while still in Italy. He never finished the sixth memo, which was to be on Consistency, so the title “Six Memos” is in fact a bit deceiving. I don’t use this text as instructive but as reinforcement of the tendencies in my writing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them . . .”

“What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the ‘civilization of the image’? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?”

“. . . to represent the world as a knot, a tangled skein of yarn; to represent it without in the least diminishing the inextricable complexity or, to put it better, the simultaneous presence of the most disparate elements that converge to determine every event.”

“Think of what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language . . .”

Many argue that it’s impossible to conceive anything other than from inside the self, that it’s impossible to escape the individual ego. I believe we have the ability to extend ourselves beyond the capsule of direct experience to a tethered assimilation of indirect experience, thereby establishing a connection outside the self—if by definition the self is a construct of direct experience. Indirect experience consists of the intellectual and emotional connection with worldly interactions of others’ direct experiences. While the act of assimilation is a direct experience, the “connection” with a direct experience of another person long since dead is indirect, and though maybe not completely “outside” the self, it is at least an oblique sidestep from the self such that it is not necessary for the self to be a material participant in the experience.

This is my interpretation of Calvino’s quote above, or at least how I hope to benefit from it. I believe, to varying degrees, that this method of indirect “connection” can apply to anything and anyone, from a squirrel on a fencepost to an inmate on death row, but not without the oblique sidestep necessary to indirectly assimilate the direct experience of a squirrel or a death row inmate. Ah, then comes arrogance, the spritely jokester at the edge of our peripheral vision, the single-minded obsession of individual ego to take control, to assume the shape and psyche of all perception, because the individual ego cannot stand the unlimited perspectives of otherness. But we’ve reached an agreement, my ego and me, where I am allowed to create landscapes of life as experience, to include the emotional, psychological, spatial, transcendental, and sensuous details, and like Millennium House, to indirectly connect a reader with the direct experience of (and within) the story.

So he is one of your major influences?

Yes, he’s on the stand next to my Vonnegut chair. You see, I’ve got this room with a half dozen chairs of different yet equal comfiness, each with a straight-on view through a different window, and each with a stack of books from authors I consider stylistically similar. I also have a Kerouac chair, a DeLillo chair, a John Irving chair, a Colum McCann chair, and a Donald Barthelme chair, each with other related authors of similar styles and tendencies. As I suspect most writers do, I read to re-ground myself, to seek refuge from the labyrinth of my wandering ways.

I decided to read “The Stranger” by Camus and “Six Memos” by Calvino in the same chair, which is really a bench pushed up against a half wall between the back room and the foyer that leads to the kitchen. I can’t be too comfortable reading Camus and Calvino. The straight-on window from that spot in the room is at such an angle that at any time of day or night, and in any light, all I see in the glass is my reflection. No trees or flowers or songbirds for these guys. This is also where I read works by John Hawkes and Georges Bataille, which can be quite exhausting, so I am grateful for its close proximity to the kitchen.

You are an Architect, yes? Aha! I love that you combine that with writing! When did you start writing fiction? Did you study writing (formally) at all as an undergrad or outside of college? Or is it purely a natural talent?

Currently I am the Building and Planning Director for a city in the Cincinnati metro area. My undergraduate work at Wesleyan University (in Connecticut) was in studio art with an architecture concentration. My graduate work at the University of Cincinnati was exclusively in architecture with a concentration on history, theory and criticism. I process all my stories in a spatial, architectural context, which I believe helps me create multi-dimensional characters, settings, and story structure. I tend to write from the inside out, or to put it another way, I visualize the story from within, emanating in multi-directional spatiality.

I didn’t start writing fiction (really) until the end of 2006 when I joined Zoe and the Flash Factory. I didn’t study writing–meaning, I never took any creative writing courses–but in building my own architectural “sensibility” I took a lot of philosophy and architectural theory classes, as well as history and of course studio art classes. Natural talent? I don’t know about that. I think it all has to do with perspective, and a back room deal with my ego for a polygamous sort of lifestyle.

How was working with the people at the Tin House blog?

They were wonderful. When “Rapid Eye” won the Week 2 Plotto Contest they sent me a couple e-mails to say how many “reads” the story was getting and that they were very pleased with how the Plotto contest was being received out there. They were very patient with me during the Master Plotto Challenge because I was so thick-headed about the instructions. We had an exchange of three or four e-mails before I finally “got it.” They also said to submit something for Flash Fiction Fridays and they would post it because I am a Plotto winner, which is really cool, but I haven’t sent anything yet. I can’t seem to find anything good enough.

I have known you for several years as the Guy In Charge of the Flash Factory at Zoetrope! How much of your published work comes from the Factory?

Most of my published work comes directly from participation in the Weekly Flash Gigs. I’ve participated in fifty or sixty Factory challenges over the past five years, which given the duration doesn’t amount to much. But I credit the Factory and the workers therein for all my successes, no matter how obscure or minimal. 2011 was a light year (definitely not a light-year) but 2012 has started strong, with 12 acceptances/publications in the first 2 1/2 months.

Why Flash Fiction?

I have always been non-traditional in my art and architecture projects, first at Wesleyan (where I was, in fact, a non-traditional student), and then with my critical and theoretical studies at the University of Cincinnati. Compressed fiction is a non-traditional form, a fusion of prose and poetics, where experimentation and the challenge of boundaries is the modus operandi. Flash Fiction is not pre-school or a training ground for longer fiction. It is a legitimate style worthy of serious consideration.

I am happy Tin House is finally recognizing the value and unique character of compressed fiction. Maybe they are following the lead of National Public Radio who has their own Three Minute Fiction segment, or maybe they have discovered that the quality of Flash Fiction in today’s environment rivals that of the traditional short story, at least in terms of a legitimate style and format.

Thank you, Richard! And again, Congratulations!

The Flash Factory, an office at Zoetrope, has a weekly flash contest (and members also work on their Plotto entries!) and welcomes new members! If you sign up for Zoetrope Virtual Studios, you can send Richard Osgood a z-mail so he can add you to the office member list!

Check out the second Plotto Master Contest of All Plots at the Tin House blog, running right now! Do not be afraid! Get in on the fun!

Learn more about William Wallace Cook’s Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Or win one of the Weekly challenges and Tin House will send you a copy as your prize!

And best of all: Read more flash fiction by Richard online:

“Litchfield to Ashtabula”in apt, April 2012

“Brazil” in kill author Issue Nine Vonnegut, October 2010

“(Please) Don’t Walk On The Wet Floor, Edgar” in Ink Sweat and Tears, April 2010

“Unspoken” in decomP February 2012

“I Make Candy Every Day” in metazen September 2009

“Summer of ’74” in Dogzplot September 2009

“A Beautiful Day for Coop Renner to Play” in Mudluscious 9

“TubeTopia” from Nighttrain

“Urban Thoreau” in Clockwise Cat, October 2009