I would like to be Mercutio. Among his virtues, I admire above all his lightness, in a world full of brutality, his dreaming imagination- as the poet of Queen Mab- and at the same time his wisdom, as the voice of reason amid the fanatical hatreds of Capulets and Montagues. He sticks to the old code of chivalry at the price of his life perhaps just for the sake of style but he is a modern man, sceptical and ironic: a Don Quixote who knows very well what dreams are and what reality is, and he lives both with open eyes.
Italo Calvino, A Hermit in Paris.
My debt to Italo Calvino, my shameless plagiarising of his device, will be obvious to anyone who has read The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Over the years, I’ve borrowed many things from him, not least my stock response on dates and parties to nerd ice-breakers such as who is your favourite Shakespeare character? and Don’t you wish some sidekicks would kick their principals off-page? What’s good for Calvino is certainly good enough for me, despite (or perhaps because of) my own lack of opinion/knowledge when it comes to the Grand Bard of Almighty Lit.
I read Castle to write a college-application essay back in high school, and it was my silver lining across a shabby six months. I was supposed to read If on a winter’s night.., which I gave up speedily enough. Castle I could begin to fathom, and I read the book like a talisman across the exam-onslaught that is 12th standard. The only chemistry I remember is my attempted synthesis of the periodic table and sundry arcana.
It was much later I read his description of the calculation behind that collection; in Memos he calls it a “fantastic iconography”, his use of the tarot-imagery within it a “machine for multiplying narratives”. What struck me then was the dexterity of the text, how every story could fold into any other, creating new polarities, new points of tension, alternate realities.
In years since, I continue to drift to him when I need someone to remind me of literature’s redemptive power.
I’ve dipped into most of his books, but the only ones I claim to understand are Castle and (hopefully) Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
I don’t think I’ll ever “finish” reading Calvino. I don’t think I ever want to.
The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realising. What we experience by living is another world, answering to other forms of order and disorder. The layers of words that accumulate on the page, like the layers of paint on canvas, are yet another world, so infinite but more easily controlled, less refractory to formulation. The link between the three worlds is the indefinable spoken of by Balzac; or, rather, I would call it the undecidable, the paradox of an infinite whole that contains other infinite wholes. A writer- and I am speaking of a writer with infinite ambitions, like Balzac- carries out operations that involve the infinity of his imagination or the infinity of the contingency that may be attempted, or both, by means of the infinity of linguistic possibilities in writing.
“Visibility”, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino’s final book, is a catalogue of virtues he would like to see preserved in our millennium. It was intended to be a manual for future generations about the nature of writing: as a skill, a vocation, an enterprise. Hold steady to these questions, he tells us, keep faith in the maelstrom of your world; if these should die the world shall be a fell place indeed. He completed five of the planned six lectures: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Of the last, Consistency, we have only the hints he buried across the span of his literary career. Calvino was a prolific writer, and fans will know that the concept of “masterpiece” is redundant when it comes to this master of the fable. Calvino’s gift is the vignette, his best work evokes snatches of illustrated tapestry. This is the Calvino of Italian Folktales and Cosmicomics: ironic, precise, detached. Calvino, in his fiction, is an avatar of the weaver Arachne, announced with a faint cackle and the crinkle of old paper in the background.
The virtues he launches upon are couched in multiple metaphors and matched with a million myths. Every nuance is awarded its own indelible image and its paradox. For the first of the lectures, Lightness, he evokes flight, earth giving way to sky. Pegasus, born of a dying gorgon’s blood; the poet Cavalcanti, vaulting on nimble legs over a tombstone. Later, in Exactitude, consider the perfect cohesion of crystal and the goddess Maat, who balances the weight of souls against herself. Calvino carves at his virtues with a chisel attuned to shadowy detail: between the void and the universe, as he writes, lies only the balance of literature. If you must write, children, you must negotiate every contradictory impulse.
When praising the velocity of stories, the economy of emotion that makes them sing, how can you ignore the stories that stop time altogether? Which would you emphasise in the rhythm of your story: a single, perfect moment, or the bustle of a lifetime? Poetry, it is true, must strain towards precision, yet isn’t the imagination a pursuit of the infinite? How does one tap into the network of All Things? By submerging oneself into the galaxy of convergent causes that shape every outcome? By dissecting and dissembling until every cause of every event is laid bare; each in-step, all leading toward the grand cosmic equation? Does the universe tend towards immense complexity or an elegant simplicity? Is existence a perfectly balanced crystal; or a wild, ravenous fire? Is writing the perpetual pursuit of things, a perpetual adjustment to their infinite variety, or silly defiance in the face of inevitability? The best way to defeat mortality might be to construct one’s own legend; but its price is usually the one life we are all guaranteed.
Memos belongs to Hermes, sacred to writers, for he invented the alphabet itself, to enable the world to question itself. This Calvino, always ‘astute, agile, adaptable’ is the one you will meet in his autobiography (A Hermit in Paris) and in his first novel (Path to the Spiders’ Nest) where he wrote about war and growing up in Fascist Italy. His essays on literature, and the elusive Invisible Cities, demonstrate yet another facet of his delicate imaginary. In these he is the spawn of Chronos, Titan of space-time, who swallowed his progeny and was made pregnant with the universe. In Memos, which is perhaps the only book where the three worlds of Calvino’s imagination collide, Calvino references Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths and its multiple dimensions of time: present time, as experienced, century after century; willed time, the future as shaped by causation; multifold time, in which every present perforce forks out upon alternate destinies. It is an allusion that cuts to the hidden heart of Calvino’s own writing.
Like most of his contemporaries in mid-century Europe’s literati, Calvino was deeply concerned by the erosion of truth from the world, by postmodern philosophy’s willingness to fragment in the face of paradox. The 20th century was, after all, a time of great paradox; in a few generations, the multiplicity of things was replaced by a multitude of them. Everything was made contingent and disposable, and history rendered immune to evolution’s laws of creative selection. The unceasing flood- of information, of resources, of images- looked poised to fatally undermine the personal imagination, that true undecidable that fashions the artist. Without this capacity to dream of things that might have been and never were, would anyone retain the ability to wonder? About enchanted flutes and feathered ogres? Calvino, who delved into myths calculated to endure and evolve, was alarmed by this new transience in human thought. Memos was his plea for old literary values- levity, brevity, accuracy, diversity, memory- in a prefabricated, instantaneous world. Literature alone, Calvino insists, can create antibodies to fight the plague of language.
Six Poems for a Quarter Century
… in honour of guns, who taught me about most of them, and loves poetry with a deeper passion than I have ever managed. She will probably be spending her quarter century kicking back in office with google reader, so this is to make that transition slightly more entertaining. Absence is a gift, my love, but it is not the one I would most willingly give. At fifty, hopefully, we shall celebrate our birthdays whingeing in Kasauli; doing what we do best- the ample pursuit of drama- much to the consternation of our many and annoying progeny. Happy 25, my love. Seeing how I am usually several weeks and months late when I do these posts, I thought it best to begin the year’s birthdays jumping the gun, as it were. Ok, terrible pun.
(from the website of Fintan Taite. )
This slow spider dragging itself towards the light of the moon and that same moonlight, and you and I whispering in the gateway, whispering of eternal things, have we not already coincided? Nietzsche
Fame is my tawdry goal, and I despise
My heart for harbouring that crimson yearning-
For well I know that it will bring no burning
Beauty before the burning windows of my eyes
For I, unknown, am spun with mysteries
And all the firmament of stars, my awning-
And yet I have a love of parrot cries.
And cry o’ nights for fame, that spangled thing
And only on grey evening of clear thought
I know that there is nothing sold or bought
That alters with the selling or the buying
Yet now when I am painting, or am trying
To launch a frigate line of cargo’d thought
The foul red lips of Fame begin to sing.
—– Mervyn Peake
What made me supplement the endless series
of symbols with one more? Why add in vain
to the knotty skein always unraveling
another cause and effect, with not one gain?
–The Golem, Borges.
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love.
—- Mercutio’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet.
You are not
the others, and you see your feet have brought
you to the centre of a maze their tread
Your matter is time, its unchecked and unreckoned
passing. You are each solitary second.
The memory of time
Is full of swords and ships
and the dust of empires
and the rumble of hexameters
and the high horses of war
and shouts and shakespeare
I want to recall that kiss, the kiss
you allowed me in Iceland.
(An edited version appeared on mylaw.net. )