Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Six memos

Italo Calvino, the famed Italian storyteller, died in 1985, just before he was to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. He had writen five of the six lectures he proposed to give. The title of the series: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Each lecture was devoted to one of the qualities Calvino believed literature should aspire to. Lightness. Quickness. Exactitude. Visibility. Multiplicity. Consistency.

Qualities, perhaps, we could all aspire to.

Lightness. The opposite of the heaviness that tries to drag us all down. Wit. A spring in one's step. Playfulness. Not taking oneself too seriously.

Quickness. A certain deftness in combining thought and action. Nimbleness. Agility. Mercury with winged feet who outpaces gloomy Saturn.

Exactitude. A concern for precise, apt expression. Clarity. Simplicity. Respect for facts.

Visibility. The visible imagination as an instrument for knowing the world and oneself. By extension, honoring the senses as a way of discovering the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Description as revelation.

Multiplicity. The infinite possibilities of language. But also the infinite contingencies of the universe itself. The way every little thing contains the whole. The way everything is related to everything else. The artist seeks to contain the infinite in the finite -- an impossibility, of course, but to the extent that the artist succeeds, we are lifted by the art.

Consistency. We can only guess what Calvino had in mind.

He concludes with an observation about literature and science: "Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world."

(Tomorrow: On Mr. Palomar's infinite lawn.)