MARCH 2, 2020
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25
The backstory is this: Italo Calvino was the builder of Invisible Cities, a novel. His other novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, as well as his stories Cosmicomics and his journalism, made him a popular and well-loved writer, a sought-after speaker, and an international celebrity. In 1985, he was asked to deliver six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Calvino chose the title for the sixth, “Consistency,” but died before he wrote it. The lectures, published posthumously, were called, famously, Six Memos for the Millennium, but there are only five in the book. Martha Cooley, a novelist who lives in Italy, had the idea of asking some writers to compose what would have been Italo Calvino’s last address for the Harvard Eliot lectures. I wrote mine in the voice of Calvino, Martha copyedited it, but the project fell through. Here it is, direct from Castiglione della Pescaia.
To gain or to lose immortality to the vicissitudes of history is possible anywhere but more difficult in Italy. I am neither an admirer nor an adversary of the extravagant poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, governor of the utopian pirate island of Fiume, though I could have been a part-time resident. I would certainly not have eaten most of the dishes in Marinetti’s Futurist cookbook. But I will always think of them as inevitably and consistently Italian. The Crucifixion is consistently and inevitably Italian, too, first as inherited from the Romans, beautified by Renaissance art, and experienced collectively in the recent war. “Consistent” and “memorable” are the two faces of the coin I carry in my name. Here are no dead writers — if they are talented and lucky. To be lucky means to stay in print or on the tip of a discerning reader’s tongue for a long time. It also means that the writer must have a mellifluous and memorable name, like mine, Italo Calvino, meaning Italy and the Crucifixion. This might look like onomastic luck, but Italian luck mixed with the Crucifixion is like Borges’s “Lottery in Babylon”: you might win the Rialto Bridge or be decimated in the grand Roman tradition.
In this post-mortem “memo” on the subject of consistency, I must tell you that I might have never gained the immortality that makes possible such an address to you if I hadn’t been part of a history that carried my people to the extremes of beauty, the borders of grotesquery, the adventures of Marco Polo, and the Decameron garden near Florence, and then to an age when fascism, poverty, and war made it necessary to fight the seduction of that gilded past. The poet Salvatore Quasimodo, a near-contemporary of mine, worked against the musicality of our mellifluous and poetic language, to discover something hard and truthful under layers of aesthetic history. He found:
Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di Sole:
ed è subito sera.
Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world
pierced by a ray of sunlight,
and suddenly it is evening.
It may be hard for a speaker of English to see what effort it took for this poem to be born: it is spare, unadorned, elemental, solitary. And still, it cannot escape beauty — “ed è subito ser,” is a magnificent line of poetry in Italian.
After the Second Word War, I was a communist and wrote realist novels. Had I stayed faithful to the Party, Togliatti’s Stalin-flavored communism would have made it easy for me to be successful in postwar Italy, where neo-realist cinema and its portraiture of everyday life was rich fodder for an observer attentive to paradox, economy, and the class struggle. But the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 made my decision for me. I left the Party and neo-realism. It was not a difficult decision. I was feeling constrained by so-called reality and it was clear that I didn’t have the appetite or the ability to improve it with words that rode with tanks.
I returned to my first love: folk tales, myths, legends, fantastic travels. I realized that the great intellectual and creative revolt of the 20th century had been precisely against realism. The reality of imagination was a greater force than realism, which at its ideological extreme, in the Soviet Union, had become propaganda. It was as if my imagination had been under lock and key until Raymond Queneau, Jorge Luis Borges, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar opened the doors. As soon as I resigned from the Party, I overcame grim postwar existentialism, communist prudishness, and Italian provincialism. Italy, my provider of myth and beauty, was also a fountain of misery, superstition, bad politics, and regional vendettas. Neorealism had shown us in this latter light, but I champed at the bit, as your horses say in English.
It was a fairly long exit. I won’t bore you with the details of my disentanglement. By the time I was in the clear, as it were, I wrote If on a winter’s night a traveler, published in 1979. This book was consistent with all that I loved in my childhood and youth about literature: the beginnings of fantastical stories, suspense, magic, and the questioning of the notion of “you,” the reader. This “you,” is someone real, someone like the “you” (or “ye”) in Dante’s Purgatorio when Virgil answers the traveler seeking direction,
forse che siamo esperti d’esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.
Perchance that we have knowledge of this place,
But we are strangers even as yourselves.
(translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1867)
If on a winter’s night is storytelling, philosophy, and love song. It is also a love letter that follows Shakespeare’s advice: You are a lover, borrow Cupid’s wings / and soar with them above a common bound. It’s a love letter to creative intoxication.
A historian might wonder why André Breton, Philippe Soupault, or Salvador Dalí were not as radically life-changing for me as Raymond Queneau, Jacques Lacan, or Jorge Luis Borges. All were near-contemporaries and drew much of their juice from prewar surrealism and other creative avant-gardes. My response is that the Second World War created a number of irreparable fissures. The radical and audience-averse prewar movements rejected everything, especially fiction. Our own Futurist founder, Filippo Marinetti, despite his wildly creative ideas about cooking, design, poetry, and art, still found Mussolini quite sympathetic, and violence aesthetic.
Postwar survivors of those avant-gardes turned their attention back to creative materials themselves. For writers, this meant going back to language — written and oral histories, beginning with the oldest stories. Above all, writers sought to free human beings to delight in all the senses, in reading and making.
You might say I partook of an attenuated surrealism, a friendlier and lighter play in the meadows or skies of fantastical imagery. You might even say a certain dilution, if not an outright rejection of violence enabled a postwar return to myth and classical poetry. You could say, too (who’s there to stop you?), that the imagination of prewar avant-gardes dug a deep trench between their practices and art that still explored myth and religion. Some admirable prewar writers had unfortunately subscribed to mystical nationalism with the same fervor I did to communism, but you might as well blame the history of Europe for both. Art, despite the military nomenclatures of avant-garde, tradition, arriere-garde, and futurism, did not follow the rituals of war. We had pedestrian writers, but they were not infantry. All pilots were not Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and all horse lovers were not cavalry. (Though some of them might have been centaurs.) One cannot be simultaneously free and bound when the polis demands it. Art must have its playpen no matter in what perilous position it finds itself, on what edge of the abyss it perches, what nightmares it risks. Imagination is a thief: it can appropriate anything that inspires it, and must escape from anything that polices it.
Several things then — Jacques Lacan’s new writings on human psychology, and the liberty of using the word for the well-being and childlike wonder of the reader, as in the games of OULIPO — came to be associated for me with essential pleasure. I felt relieved of the necessity to make conventional literary bridges because writing, like life, could exist in fragments, as Montaigne and Nietzsche had already shown. Our literary zeitgeist no longer required leading the reader by the hand because, miraculously, the reader supplied the missing links. Indeed, a new kind of reader had come into being — a reader who could leap from one energy field to another, a storytelling reader.
Consistency, insofar as it is a subject, is both inevitable and impossible. In the course of writing my Six Memos on “the values or qualities or peculiarities of literature” I hold dear, I resorted to oracular means of finding support for this theme. When speaking of lightness, for instance, I looked to writers who’d lifted off the ground in their fictions and poetry; yet I also looked at dense texts not known for verbal uplift. Opening a novel by Henry James, I read a random passage that was not exactly “light” in the sense I had intended. I had to hack my way through a psychological thicket to arrive at the gossamer feeling that James’s female protagonist experiences. James’s prose suggested to me that density and lightness aren’t opposed. By simply opening his novel to answer my question, I had the thrill of collaborating with the author through an act of willful interpretation. In any case, whether done directly or after a bit of critical ingenuity, oracular reading is helpful and fun. A reader, not unlike a writer, will generate consistency from the directions of chance, giving the fictional world the shape of reality — which is anything but consistent. There is no inherent imperative for consistency; it is a creative whim. Without worrying about the atomic and quantum motion I describe in my “memo” on lightness (with the help of Ovid and modern physics), I trust that any literary work will be consistent if it is freely imagined and conceived.
I like lists of three. My favorite triads are “myth, beauty and art,” “predecessors, contemporaries, and heirs,” “paradox, economy, and class struggle,” “storytelling, philosophy, and love song.” Storytelling, the first item in that last triad, is what all humans do. But the writing of a story, unlike any “telling,” has the advantage of being fully empowered by the imagination to employ language in the best way the writer sees fit. At the same time, writers must recognize that words are inhabited by the ghosts of those who’ve used them best.
Writers are by default philosophers. Yet ever since Heraclitus, philosophers have found that to make credible arguments, they need the literary devices of fragmentation and chance. All literature, whether intentionally fabulist or faithful to a “scientific” language, finds itself part of a torn parchment or a broken clay tablet. Attempts to tell stories of “being” in the language of philosophy cannot be free of the weight of the world until they adopt the freedom of storytelling — especially of the fairy tale. Words can never be completely free of the weight of the world, but the opportunity to test the lightness of dreams against that inevitable weight is a miracle. As for “love song,” the last of the triad, it is literature’s best employed power, the force that drives language to the “you” that is invariably the beloved.
“Stories” are but one story, a single story inside of which are a myriad of stories directed to that “you”: reader, lover, listener, subject of the story. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, books are accidentally mixed up so that we can read only the beginning or parts of their stories. We are given the beginning of a story that unfolds to a point of great suspense; the reader can’t wait to learn what happens next. But instead, the reader is captured by another story that also moves to a moment of great suspense, at which point yet another story begins. This is how Sheherezade saved her life for 1001 nights: instead of being killed by the cruel king who murders all his wives at dawn, she breaks off her story at that moment of unbearable suspense. Each night a new story is born and interrupted before its climax, and the king has no choice but to postpone Sheherazade’s murder.
The archetype of Sheherezade’s stories-within-stories is the story of humanity. The writer who tells a story (rather, parts of stories) is fishing in the unending river of Sheherezade’s stories and is thus, like her, partly responsible for the fate of humanity. Indeed, the writer is always inspired by Sheherezade. (One need only think of Balzac’s unsuccessful attempts at novel-writing until he wrote Les Chouans, or of someone closer in time to us, my compatriot Umberto Eco, whose Name of the Rose is another update from Sheherezade.)
Consistency, then, might be renamed “1001,” a symbolic number that signifies human time from the birth of language and storytelling to the end of humanity. From “1001” on, human beings will have to communicate with numbers instead of words. What will happen to the imagination when the preprogrammed images issued by technology reorganize storytelling? The answer is that human RAM will surrender to the infinite memory of the machine. Or is that really the answer?
In consensual “reality,” consistency is an approximation in the sense of “habitual.” A consistent writer is one of whom we have come to expect something familiar. A writer who breaks her or his own rules is often thought of as “inconsistent,” and here, inconsistency is seen as a defect, not a quality. No reader, though, should expect anything familiar from a serious writer. (All the more so from a comic or serio-comic writer.) The pleasure of literature, both for writer and reader, lies in its surprises, its inconsistencies. The work with the greatest inconsistencies is thus the most surprising and, by extension, the most delightful. The writer finds secrets he or she lets the reader in on, and these secrets germinate surprises, fruits of the Tree of Inconsistency. And yet, language preserves humanity’s stories even as it allows us to create new ones. Language is consistent.
It is my curse and blessing that I am well versed in classical literature. From it, I have come to expect certain consistent (if I may say so) pleasures of the ear and journeys of the mind. There are surprises here, too, revealed by rereading for a purpose — for example, to delve into the subject of consistency. Here is Sextus Propertius:
Quo fugis a demens? Nula est fuga: tu licet usque
ad Tanain fugias, usque sequetur Amor.
Non si Pegaseo uecteris in aere dorso,
nec tibi si Persei mouerit ala pedes;
uel si te sectae talaribus aurae,
nil tibi Mercurii proderit alta uia.
“Where do you think you’re going? There’s no escape: you can run
to the Tanais, Love follows all the way.
Not if you ride on the air on a Pegasean back,
not if Perseus’ wings propel your feet,
not if breezes cut by winged sandals take you,
Mercury’s high path would do you no good.”
(Translation by Vincent Katz, II.xxx. a, from The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, Princeton University Press, 2004)
In my “memo” on lightness, I note that Perseus is the only hero capable of cutting off Medusa’s head. But after he does, he must always carry it with him, careful not to look on it but only at its reflection. He also uses her head to turn his enemies into statues, only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues of themselves [italics mine]. I note, too, and not without evident self-irony, that the myth is “certainly telling me something,” but I abstain from speculating on what that something is. I would like to reprise this here, in my sixth and final “memo,” by adding that in addition to the danger of auto-hagiography, I am haunted by the perilous ease with which my imagination lets me enter a magical world, an invisible city, a dream castle.
As per Sextus Propertius, there is no escape from love (or stories of it), even astride winged Pegasus, wearing Mercury’s sandals, and carrying that most frightful weapon ever devised, Medusa’s head. One can escape from one’s imaginary world into another imaginary world. And from that one into another. One might even, while making worlds, arrive in one’s childhood. Can one change the world one has escaped from by powers gained in imaginary worlds? I think so. Imagination contains the yeast of world-making. If so, this is consistency.
One more thing: the seeming task of the creator of an imaginary world that begins “once upon a time … when there was no time” is to abolish time. But as fairy tales remind us, returning to the world of time means certain death. Make no mistake, this is the fate that the writer, like you, reader, will face when the book is closed. Arachne’s gossamer thread is woven through every story and her web ensnares us. But when Athena, the goddess of wisdom, changed Arachne into a spider she also doomed us to be enraptured by the threads of her web. Arachne’s weaving harbors a secret, namely the possibility that one of the threads will lead back to the world others made for one — when one thought he was a realist. That wish may be called “consistency.”
Perhaps I have been consistent despite myself. I promised to write six “memos” for the coming millennium; I wrote five, thinking I’d outfoxed the new millennium by leaving one unwritten. Evidently, this wasn’t up to me. The sixth, written in the new millennium, retroactively threads itself to the five written in the last. The new millennium is thus (consistently) taking care to finish the business of the last.