Italo Calvino on the Unbearable Lightness of Language, Literature, and Life
“The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well.”
By Maria Popova
One of the most influential and widely beloved authors of the twentieth century, Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) was not only a sage of writing but also a man of piercing insight into such subtleties of existence as the art of asserting oneself with grace, the paradox of America, distraction and procrastination, the trick to lowering one’s “worryability,” and the meaning of life. Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — an annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Umberto Eco. (Alas, not unlike the Gifford Lectures, the series has remained a lamentable boys’ club — only three women have held the position since its inception in 1925.)
Calvino died weeks before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver his Norton lectures. But working on them, his wife recalls, was the obsession of his final months. His manuscripts for them, in which Calvino looks back on “the millennium of the book” and peers forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of language and literature, were his last legacy. Eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library | IndieBound) in 1988, his final insights — prescient, profound, immeasurably perceptive — are perhaps even more relevant today, well into the new millennium Calvino didn’t live to see, when some of our gravest fears and some of our greatest hopes for the written word have borne out.
In the foreword, Calvino considers what books alone can give us and writes:
Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology. I don’t much feel like indulging in this sort of speculation. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.
He sets out to outline six such things, beginning with Lightness — perhaps the most poetic and delicate of all. Looking back on his own career spanning forty years of writing fiction, Calvino observes:
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… I have come to consider lightness a value rather than a defect.
Noting that “it is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from the events of everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quête,” he points to Milan Kundera’s cult-classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being as an exquisite example of accomplishing this feat with “great clarity and immediacy”:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading oppression that has been the fate of his hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be. For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence — the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.
Calvino examines the value of lightness in shifting our perspective and making life’s burdens bearable:
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…
In a particularly poignant passage — especially in light of today’s renewed efforts to bridge the toxic, unnatural rift between the sciences and the humanities — Calvino extols the imaginative possibilities of science as a muse to literature and a conduit to lightness:
If literature is not enough to assure me that I am not just chasing dreams, I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. 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…
Writing in 1985, before most of the seminal ideas that shaped the modern web even existed, Calvino adds:
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 software and evolve so that they 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.
But rather than a fanciful aside, Calvino argues that this fascination with science in exploring lightness connects directly “with a very old thread in the history of poetry.” He points to another sublime example of lightness in Lucretius’s seminal Epicurean text The Nature of Things, which Calvino calls “the first great work of poetry in which knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile”:
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. The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities — even the poetry of nothingness — issues from a poet who had no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world.
He finds a parallel example in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
For Ovid, too, everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world. And also for him there is an essential parity between everything that exists, as opposed to any sort of hierarchy of powers or values. If the world of Lucretius is composed of immutable atoms, Ovid’s world is made up of the qualities, attributes and forms that define the variety of things, whether plants, animals, or persons. But these are only the outward appearances of a single common substance that—if stirred by profound emotion—may be changed into what most differs from it.
For both of these ancient writers, Calvino argues, “lightness is a way of looking at the world based on philosophy and science,” but 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.” Shakespeare, he later adds, “recognized subtle forces connecting macrocosm and microcosm.” And therein lies the paradoxical yet reconciliatory essence of lightness:
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.
With this lens, Calvino gazes into the new millennium — our millennium — in which such thoughtful lightness appears all the more urgently needed, all the more singularly capable of quenching a deep longing for meaning. Calvino writes:
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.
A theme by no means “light,” such as the sufferings of love, is dissolved into impalpable entities that move between sensitive soul and intellective soul, between heart and mind, between eyes and voice.
A masterful application of lightness, Calvino adds, is marked by three key characteristics:
- it is to the highest degree light;
- it is in motion;
- it is a vector of information.
With this, he offers an eloquent and enchanting formulation of how the artful application of lightness ennobles language, literature, and human life:
The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.
We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations.
Noting that the concept “goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard,” he enumerates the three important senses of lightness:
- There is 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…
- There is the narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction…
- There is a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value… Some literary inventions are impressed on our memories by their verbal implications rather than by their actual words.
Calvino concludes by considering the ultimate value of lightness, not only in literature but in making sense of the existential:
Literature [is] an existential function, the search for lightness [is] a reaction to the weight of living.
I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge. In order to move onto existential ground, I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology. Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life — drought, sickness, evil influences — the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality. In centuries and civilizations closer to us, in villages where the women bore most of the weight of a constricted life, witches flew by night on broomsticks or even on lighter vehicles such as ears of wheat or pieces of straw. Before being codified by the Inquisition, these visions were part of the folk imagination, or we might even say of lived experience. I find it a steady feature in anthropology, this link between the levitation desired and the privation actually suffered. It is this anthropological device that literature perpetuates.
I think that the deepest rationality behind every literary operation has to be sought out in the anthropological needs to which it corresponds.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a wonderful read in its entirety and Calvino’s exploration of the remaining subjects — Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity, as Calvino died before completing the sixth lecture — are equally elevating. Complement it with Calvino on writing, Hemingway, and the two types of writers.
Published October 15, 2014