Lightness: Italo Calvino’s hope for the future of literature

Gio Clairval is an Italian-born refugee who lives in Paris and writes in English, also translating stories from several languages she has forgotten to a language (this one) she has never really known. She’s published here and there and can be spotted, when she thinks you’re not looking, at Kosmochlor, first place in the internets (evar) to showcase Umberto Eco’s “rules for writing well” in the tongue Inglès. Being late at the wake is considered chic where she comes from.

The idea of this post came to me from the image of a floating city, a poster by French artist Stephan Muntaner (not the artwork displayed here), to be inserted in the forthcoming Bible of Steampunk brought to you by the master of this blog. The poster depicts an industrial city yanked away from earth along with a cushion of soil. An aerial impossibility.

Steampunk is often—not always, but often—set during the industrial revolution, a time that revolves around the heaviness of steel. A weighty century, indeed. Too-heavy ships crossed the oceans. Eiffel’s tower represented Man’s victory over iron. The ponderous consciousness of matter—inevitable—dominated until the late eighties. Asimov imagined immense computers. Arthur C. Clarke let enormous steles fall from the sky.

But today, what fascinates us most in Steampunk? Airships pulled upward by light gasses. Impossibly floating cities.

Calvino’s working method for writing

Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988) is based on a series of lessons by Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. We only have five of the planned lectures because Calvino never completed the sixth. He died before leaving Italy.

In the first of the five memos, Calvino says about his writing: “[…] my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.

Calvino describes “lightness” as a “lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency.”

Our current world invites us to lightness.

Today every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities, such as the messages of DNA, the impulses of neurons, and quarks, and neutrinos wandering through space since the beginning of time . . . . .

Then we have computer science. […] 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.

Modern science goes beyond the idea of gravity

According to Erik Verlinde, a respected string theorist and professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, gravity is an illusion. In a recent paper (January 2010), titled “On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton,” he affirms that gravity is a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases. His point of view, he says, explains the existence of the dark matter that is supposed to hold galaxies together (from an article by Dennis Overbye for the New York Times).

Verlinde’s view: Your hair frizzles in the heat and humidity, because there are more ways for your hair to be curled than to be straight, and nature likes options. So it takes a force to pull hair straight and eliminate nature’s options. The force we call gravity since Isaac Newton is simply a by-product of nature’s propensity to maximize disorder. For Verlinde, gravity is an “entropic force.”

A few scientists disagree; others say that Verlinde is stating what we already know after the works of Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland.

Before Jacobson, Jacob Bekenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, among others, described a mysterious connection between black holes and thermodynamics, culminating in Dr. Hawking’s discovery in 1974 that when quantum effects are taken into account black holes would glow and eventually explode.

Black holes, in effect, are holograms. All the information about what has been lost inside them is encoded on their surfaces.

Physicists have been wondering whether we are all maybe just shadows on a distant wall. Like in Plato’s famous metaphor of the cavern.

What are shadows if not a substance made of lightness?

The Irresistible Lightness of Metaphors

Going back to Calvino’s lesson: “For Ovid […] everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world. […] He tells how a woman realizes that she is changing into a lotus tree: her feet are rooted to the earth, a soft bark creeps up little by little and enfolds her groin; she makes a movement to tear her hair and finds her hands full of leaves. Or he speaks of Arachne’s fingers, expert at winding or unraveling wool, turning the spindle, plying the needle in embroidery, fingers that at a certain point we see lengthening into slender spiders’ legs and beginning to weave a web.

“In […] Ovid, lightness is a way of looking at the world based on philosophy and science: the doctrines of Epicurus and those of Pythagoras for Ovid (a Pythagoras who, as presented by Ovid, greatly resembles the Buddha). In both cases the lightness is also something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.”

In one classic story I recently translated, a man becomes an axolotl, a silent being that remains stock still at the bottom of its aquarium but can move with incomparable nimbleness (Julio Cortazar, “Axolotl”). In another, which I haven’t translated, a woman is metamorphosed into a salamander (Mercé Rodoreda, “The Salamander”).

The first protagonist is a foreigner, an alien (a South-American) who lives in Paris. The story compares the axolotls of the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle to the Aztec, whose civilization is destroyed, its members enslaved and forgotten. The man becomes one of them, an Axolotl. In the second story, a woman who loves a married man is accused of witchery and burnt at the stake but escapes death by transforming into a creature that walks through the fire. In both cases, the outsiders refuse assimilation and become different. Lighter.

Both stories dress metaphors in robes of sensory details.

For Calvino, the metaphor is a vehicle of lightness against verbosity. As Ryan Werner puts it: “As most descriptive power comes from the truest metaphor, Calvino ends up echoing the Aristotelian idea that the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations. Because word-soup won’t do, metaphor will have to.”

Lightness as a program

Calvino states that unless it is avoided, weightiness will be present—always. Therefore, the writer must seek out lightness. Lightness is a subtraction of weight rather than the pursuit of a pre-existing quality of lightness.

One must chisel away the weightiness.

The ultimate goal is to portray a message in its simplest form while still maintaining emotion, clarity, personality, and above all a world of lightness.

Calvino likens heaviness to the stare of Medusa, which turns us into stone. Perseus of the winged sandals, a creature of the air, defeats the monster of stone and uses Medusa’s head with its terrible, petrifying stare, to overcome his enemies. Lightness dominates gravity.

For Calvino, language is made up of “a fine dust of atoms, like everything else that goes to make up the ultimate substance of the multiplicity of things.

Nothing new, maybe, but I wonder whether our century is heeding the advice. Simple ideas need to be reminded from time to time.

I’m not saying that I always follow Calvino’s invitation to lightness, but I would like to try.

10 comments on “Lightness: Italo Calvino’s hope for the future of literature

  1. Gio Clairval says:

    Where did the picture go? I did upload it, didn’t I?

  2. Sam says:

    Agree, lovely; I hope you are right, for lightness in story would be a good thing to see more of. (Also, the link to your blog isn’t quite right.)

  3. Graeme Robertson says:

    A beautiful metaphor, and a conclusion I agree with wholeheartedly. Uplifting, in the gravity-defeating sense. See you up there. ;)

  4. C. C. Benn says:

    I invite the lightness. I remain constantly teachable.

  5. danielepase says:

    Really nice. Now I’m waiting for a post based on every Calvino’s memo ;-)

  6. Gio Clairval says:

    I was afraid someone would remind me that there are four more memos. I will post the comments to my blog–one memo every month.

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