From charlesreid1

Title: Six Memos for the Next Millennium: Lightness

Author: Italio Calvino




These lectures are dense, rigorous, and seemingly full of contradiction. The first is a paean to lightness (though “light like a bird,” as Paul Valéry wrote, “and not like a feather”). Lightness is followed by quickness (without “presum[ing] to deny the pleasures of lingering”), exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. The perfect antidote to writerly laziness.

With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.

The relationship between Perseus and the Gorgon is a complex one and does not end with the beheading of the monster. Medusa's blood gives birth to a winged horse, Pegasus - the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite. (Even the winged sandals, incidentally, come from the world of monsters, for Perseus obtained them from Medusa's sisters, the Graiae, who had one tooth and one eye among them).

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don't mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that i have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future...

Then we have computer science. It is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines that exist only as functions of hte software and evolve so that htey 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.

Lucretius set out to write the poem of physical matter, but he warns us at the outset that this matter is made up of invisible particles. He is the poet of physical concreteness, viewed in its permanent and immutable substance, but the first thing he tells us is that emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies. Lucretius' chief concern is to prevent the weight of matter from crushing us. Even while laying down the rigorous mechanical laws that determine every event, he feels the need to allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line, thereby ensuring freedom both to atoms and to human beings.

From what I have said so far, I think the concept of lightness is beginning to take shape. Above all I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.

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.


Literature has worked out various techniques for slowing down the course of time. I have already mentioned repetition, and now I will say a word about digression.

In practical life, time is a form of wealth with which we are stingy. In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment. We don't have to be first past a predetermined finish line. On the contrary, saving time is a good thing because the more time we save, the more we can afford to lose.

Laurence Sterne's great invention was the novel that is completely composed of digressions, an example followed by Diderot.

If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows - perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, festina lente, hurry slowly.

The idea that came to Borges was to pretend that the book he wanted to write had already been written by someone else, some unknown hypothetical author - an author in a different language, of a different culture - and that his task was to describe and review this invented book...

In the same way, critics of Borges feel bound to observe that each of his texts doubles or multiplies its own space through the medium of other books belonging to a real or imaginary library, whether they be classical, erudite, or merely invented.

What I particularly wish to stress is how Borges achieves his approaches to the infinite without the least congestion, in the most crystalline, sober, and airy style. In the same way, his synthetic, sidelong manner of narration brings with it a language that is everywhere concrete and precise... Borges has created a literature raised to the second power and, at the same time, a literature that is like the extraction of the square root of itself.

Conciseness is only one aspect of hte subject I want to deal with, and I will confine myself to telling you that I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram. In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought.

Borges and Bioy Casares put together an anthology of short extraordinary tales (Cuentos breves y extraordinarios, 1955). I would like to edit a collection of tales consisting of one sentence only, or even a single line. But so far I haven't found any to match the one by the Guatemalan writer Augosto Monterroso: "When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there."

André Virel's Historie de noitre image (1965): Merceury and Vulcan represent hte two inseparable and complementary functions of life: Mercury represents syntony, or participation in the world around us; Vulcan, focalization or constructive concentration. Mercury and Vulcan are both sons of Jupiter, whose realm is that of the consciousness, individual and social.

But on his mother's side Mercury is a descendant of Uranus, whose kingdom was that of hte "cyclophrenic" age of undifferentiated continuity. And Vulcan is descended from Saturn, whose realm was that of the "schizophrenic" era of egocentric isolation.

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' of office acquire their forms: lyres or tridents, spears or diadems.

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.


The point at which Musil comes closest to a possible solution is when he mentios the fact that mathematical probvlems do not admit of a general solution, but that particular solutions, taken all together, can lead to a general solution. He thinks that this method might be applied to human life

Many years later another writer, Roland Barthes, in whose mind the demon of exactitude lived side by side with the demon of sensitivity, asked himself if it would not be posible to conceive of a science of the qunique and unrepeatable: "Why couldn't there be, in some way, a new science for every object? A mathesis singularis, and no longer universalis?"