Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 739

Italo Calvino on Abortion and the Meaning of Life

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.”

“In the current abortion debate, there is no talk of children. … They never talk about nineteen-year-old fetuses,” lamented SNL’s Nora Dunn in a recent anthology of women writers and entertainers on the choice not to have children. But this sensitive subject was addressed even more eloquently and timelessly by beloved Italian writer, cultural critic, and literary jukeboxer Italo Calvino nearly three decades earlier, just as the second wave of feminism was gathering momentum. In a letter to Professor Claudio Magris from early February of 1975, found in the altogether fantastic newly released tome Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library), Calvino responds in outrage to Magris’s pro-life article titled “The Deluded,” published in Italy’s premier newspaper, Corriere della sera, on February 3 that year. With a broader meditation on the meaning of life, Calvino makes a passionate yet crisply lucid case for abortion as respect rather than disrespect for life:

Bringing a child into the world makes sense only if this child is wanted consciously and freely by its two parents. If it is not, then it is simply animal and criminal behavior. A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people. If this is not the case, then humanity becomes — as it is already to a large extent — no more than a rabbit-warren. But this is no longer a “free-range” warren but a “battery” one, in the conditions of artificiality in which it lives, with artificial light and chemical feed.

Only those people … who are a hundred percent convinced that they possess the moral and physical possibility not only of rearing a child but of welcoming it as a welcome and beloved presence, have the right to procreate. If this is not the case, they must first of all do everything not to conceive, and if they do conceive (given that the margin for unpredictability continues to be high) abortion is not only a sad necessity, but a highly moral decision to be taken with full freedom of conscience. I do not understand how you can associate abortion with an idea of hedonism or the good life. Abortion is a terrifying thing…

In abortion the person who is massacred, physically and morally, is the woman. Also for any man with a conscience every abortion is a moral ordeal that leaves a mark, but certainly here the fate of the woman is in such a disproportionate condition of unfairness compared with the man’s, that every male should bite his tongue three times before speaking about such things. Just at the moment when we are trying to make less barbarous a situation which for the woman is truly terrifying, an intellectual uses his authority so that women have to stay in this hell. Let me tell you, you are really irresponsible, to say the least. I would not mock the “hygienic-prophylactic measures” so much; certainly you will never have to undergo a scraping of your womb. But I’d like to see your face if they forced you to have an operation in the filth and without any recourse to hospitals under pain of imprisonment.

Calvino ends the letter by making his convictions actionably clear:

I am sorry that such a radical divergence of opinion on these basic ethical questions has interrupted our friendship.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is indispensable in its entirety, a treasure trove of timeless insight on literature and life.


Space for Equality: NASA Joins the It Gets Better Project

“It’s becoming the new normal — you’re being defined by your character and not by whom you love.”

When we lost pioneering astronaut Sally Ride in 2012, many knew that as she boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger in June of 1983, she became the first American woman in space and the nation’s youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos. But few were aware that she was also America’s first lesbian astronaut in space — a quiet but powerful rebel of gender diversity on multiple levels in a field still dominated by rigid stereotypes and gender norms. At the time of her death, Ride had been with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, for the past 27 years. And yet one can only imagine the pressures, both inward and outward, she had to withstand coming of age at a time of extreme orientation-based discrimination.

Hardly any movement has done more to alleviate the spectrum from crippling self-doubt to suicide that young queer people struggle with than the It Gets Better project, masterminded by Dan Savage and his husband of 18 years, Terry Miller. Since its conception in 2010, it has drawn thousands of brave people of various sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as a cohort of heterosexual supporters — from countless individuals to the staffers of organizations like Google, Apple and Etsy to the cast of popular TV shows like House and True Blood to President Obama himself — to face the camera and help struggling LGBTQ youth face themselves with dignity and inner peace. Thirty years after Ride boarded the Challenger, NASA joins the It Gets Better ranks with a heartening testament to the diversity of the LBGTQ community, with space agency staffers ranging from interns to managers, engineers to astronauts, and even NASA’s Chief of Staff.

It almost doesn’t matter anymore — it’s who I am; it’s one part of who I am and not everything that I am.

Complement with Dan Savage’s recently released and excellent American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, discussed in brief here.

The Dish


Patti Smith Reads Her Poetic Tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe

“Blessedness is within us all.”

“The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise,” Coleridge asserted. “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man,” Wordsworth famously proclaimed. Nowhere is this dual definition more ablaze with life than in The Coral Sea (public library) by the eclectically brilliant Patti Smith — a breathtaking collection of prose poems exorcising Smith’s profound grief for her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946–March 9, 1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Her short foreword stirs the soul intensely:

The first time I saw Robert he was sleeping. I stood over him, this boy of twenty, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled. With few words he became my friend, my compeer, my beloved adventure.

When he became ill I wept and could not stop weeping. He scolded me for that, not with words but with a simple look of reproach, and I ceased.

When I saw him last we sat in silence and he rested his head on my shoulder. I watched the light changing over his hands, over his work, and over the whole of our lives. Later, returning to his bed, we said goodbye. But as I was leaving something stopped me and I went back to his room. He was sleeping. I stood over him, a dying man, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled.

When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote. Then I took the pages and set them away. Here are those pages, my farewell to my friend, my adventure, my unfettered joy.

At the recent opening of exhibition of the same title at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center — which also gave us Smith’s delightful lettuce soup recipe for starving artists — I recorded Smith’s moving reading of some poems from the book and photographed the handwritten originals of the poems, below, on display at the CAC.

I had the pleasure of hearing — and, to our shared delight, recording — Smith’s reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

The Coral Sea is sublime in its entirety, as is Smith’s album of the same title.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated