“Asserting oneself … doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours.”
“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off,” Italo Calvino observed in one of his 14 definitions of what makes a classic. But while these were directed at literature, can a life be a classic, in how it is lived and what “pulviscular cloud” of cultural discourse it leaves behind? If there ever was a life imbued with a resounding “yes,” it’s Calvino’s own, and this is something he himself addresses implicitly, with equal parts wisdom and irreverent wit, in a letter to his friend Eugenio Scalfari from March 7, 1942, found in the altogether fantastic Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, his thoughts on America, and his wonderfully timeless New Year’s resolution. At the time of his letter to Scalfari, young Calvino was taking his second year of studies at the University of Turin, where his father had previously taught courses in agronomy, following in his family’s footsteps and pursuing a degree in agriculture. After the war, he would eventually return to university, abandoning agriculture and turning toward a degree in the arts shortly before immersing himself in the literary world.
After noting what joy it is “to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel” — an observation bittersweet in our age of short-form instantaneous drivel — 19-year-old Calvino launches into an extended meditation on life and legacy:
When will you stop pronouncing in my presence phrases such as “all methods are fine as long as you succeed,” or “follow the current,” or “adapt to the times”? What do you mean by “adapting to the times”? Are these the ideas of a young man who ought to face life with pureness of intentions and clarity of ideals? And then you think you can claim to have understood me, to have taken me as a model? No, that deluded youth of Via Bogino, the prisoner of his dreams in Villa Meridiana does not think along those lines. A different heart beats beneath the pigeon chest of the cloud-catcher of San Giovanni. [Ed: The Calvino’s family home was the Villa Meridiana in San Remo, and they also had land in the countryside in the village of San Giovanni.] Asserting oneself — he says — doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours. And it is precisely in that that my certainty lies: this something does not represent today, it represents tomorrow. And it is this something that I want to assert, not italocalvino; italocalvino will die and won’t serve any purpose any more; the something will remain and will provide good seed.
He then chastises Scalfari for the all too human folly of fetishizing one’s own ideas:
Every idea you have, you become a fetishist of it, you think it’s the greatest and most original idea that any human mind ever had, you turn it into a philosophy of life and bore the backside off your friends. But you’re also a well-meaning sort, and you’ll be happy because you see the world only as you like to see it.
Even though he wasn’t yet a writer, Calvino considers his own vanity with the classic writerly blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation:
I accepted the praise you gave me at the start of your letter with barely restrained grunts of satisfaction. Although I am small, ugly and dirty, I am highly ambitious and at the slightest flattery I immediately start to strut like a turkey.
He adds a poignant reflection on our inescapable illusion of uniqueness, a special kind of human vanity:
This thought has always filled me with terror: that I might be one of those people, that I might be only one of those people. And if I have decided to be merely a modest agronomist this was not just because my family’s destiny forbade me the contemplative life, but also and principally because I was terrified by the thought of one day meeting a crowd of people like me, each one convinced that he and only he was a genius. Up here in Turin I know only students of agriculture, medicine, engineering, chemistry: all good guys who are thinking about getting a job, without a head full of nonsense, no mirages of glory, often without much intelligence. And as far as they are concerned, I am one of them: no one knows who italocalvino is, who he wanted or wants to be. With these people there is little talk of dreams and the future, though they too certainly think about such things.
And yet, a writer among agronomists — his “pigeon-chest” full of uncontainable ambition for eagleness in an aviary designed for pragmatic postal pigeons — young Calvino makes it clear where his stake is to be planted in the spectrum from realism to idealism:
Apart from the fact that the literary or pseudo-literary world has always aroused a certain dislike in me, for me it would only be discouraging. But instead, living like this, I feel happy in the knowledge that I am different from those around me, that I see things with a different eye to theirs, that I know how to appreciate or suffer from the world in my own way. And I feel myself superior. I prefer being the obscure, isolated figure hoping for the victory that will see his name on everyone’s lips rather than being one of the pack just following the destiny of a group. And you certainly can’t say that this kind of behavior of mine is accommodating. I may be accommodating in life, I’ll let myself be carried away passively in the course of my actions, but I will not prostitute my art.
The following day, March 8, he takes up the unfinished letter and adds before changing the subject:
I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:
POSTERITY IS STUPID
Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!
And yet, stupid as we may be, it’s hard not to appreciate Calvino’s crystalline self-awareness and deep insight into the human soul, even in this concluding attempt at a disclaimer. No amount of self-deprecation can ever blunt a mind this sharp or dim a spirit this luminous.
Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is a remarkably rich read, a ruffle of layer upon layer of appreciation for Calvino’s singular person and persona. Sample it further with more of his wisdom on writing and the meaning of human life.