Love, loss, and the first signs in space: Robert Harrison on Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the October 27 “Another Look” discussion on Cosmicomics, a collection of science-inspired fantasies by one of the greatest European writers of the last century, Italo Calvino. Harrison is the author of several acclaimed books – the newest, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age will be published later this year. Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature also hosts the popular and cerebral radio talk show, Entitled Opinions, available on iTunes. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recently named chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

Another Look”’s Cynthia Haven spoke with him in preparation for the upcoming event.

Haven: Calvino once wrote, “I like telling things in cartoon form,” and even suggested that readers try to visualize his Cosmicomic stories as comic strips. Is this a hint about why he is calling this first 1965 collection of the tales Cosmicomics?

Harrison: Well, there’s a connection with the comic strips, as you mentioned. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Italian literary tradition is so rich in comic genres, broadly understood. Just think of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he called the Commedia. It’s a cosmic comedy that takes Dante through the other world – hell, purgatory, and finally the heavens.

One aspect of Calvino’s title has to do with this literary predecessor, Dante. Another has to do with the role that comedy has played in so much of the history of “serious” Italian literature – Dante, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Goldoni, Pirandello, and many others.

Haven: So why are you drawn to these stories, and why did you pick them for “Another Look”?

Harrison: I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.

In addition, Calvino’s book deals directly with the whole phenomenon of evolution, which is the huge scientific obsession of our own time. I’m not referring to the debates about evolution versus creation. It’s more that in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.

Haven: Let’s see. Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb outside Havana in 1923, to Italian parents who were both botanists. That’s why Calvino’s friend Gore Vidal wrote that “he instinctively looks to the natural world for illumination of his own interior” – rather as you do in your own book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. But science, as well as nature, was clearly a powerful legacy from his parents.

Harrison: That’s right. Calvino makes it clear in several of his interviews that he’s been interested in science all along. For him, science and fantasy are not two separate things. There’s nothing more fantastical, in essence, than science. So he’s taking these scientific theses, which he prints at the beginning of each story, and then gives them each a story.

Haven: In the years since Cosmicomics, we’ve seen an increasing interest in bringing modern science in to the arts. Technology is changing the world, and one could argue that a “realism” that does not change with it is not “realistic.” But I wondered sometimes if Calvino is slyly mocking our attempts. Some of the “scientific” passages he cites at the beginning of each story are outdated science or junk science or even made-up science.

Harrison: But I don’t think the success of Cosmicomics relies on the science being valid. The junk science parts are just as effective as the parts that still have scientific persuasion. The achievement of Cosmicomics lies in the ways it gives anthropomorphic form to otherwise abstract phenomena that one has a hard time even imagining, just conceptually, let alone in anthropomorphic terms.

Haven: You mentioned earlier that Calvino scrambles our expectations. Certainly one way he does this is by abandoning the usual lines of character development. Moreover, most of the names are unpronounceable and we don’t even know what the protagonist Qfwfq actually is. Is he an atom, a dinosaur, a mollusc, that term beloved to science fiction fans, “an entity”?

Harrison: Well, yes, he can be all these things, but he is first and foremost an eyewitness, as it were. He gives us a first-person account of a host of events in the history of the universe – events that, according to the scientific account of them, are inconceivable to us. The birth of color. The initial congealment of matter. The first signs in space.

Haven: Calvino wrote in a letter, “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself,” which is what he’s attempting in Cosmicomics. The author is the witness behind the witness in all these stories – a witness for matter itself. Can you tell us a little about us a little about how he came to take on this singular role?

Harrison: Calvino became a writer right after the second World War. He had participated in it as a partisan on the side of the Resistance. At the end of the war, he wrote his first book, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. He tried to conform to the expectations of the political left in Italy, which expected of writers a certain kind of realism. He wanted to write in a mode that would bring alive the experience of the war and take a side, with good guys against the bad guys, and to have it be politically relevant. Already, at that early point in his career, he was having trouble with the demands of traditional realism, not to mention socialist realism, which was a different thing altogether.

It took him a while, but he finally found a way to bring that book to fruition by making its protagonist a young boy, Pin, a 12-year-old who gets caught up in the partisan warfare and really doesn’t comprehend everything that’s going on. For Pin, what’s happening becomes like some kind of a forest tale full of magic, full of characters that seem to come out of folklore more than reality.

So it’s not an orthodox realist novel, although it did have to do directly with the war and it did take a side, the side of the partisans. But it already had this sort of fantastical quality by virtue of the fact that it was narrated through the perspective of the eyes of this boy, who experiences events really more like magic than history. Subsequently, Calvino found it more and more difficult to conform to the expectations of realism.

Cosmicomics represents a real liberation from any need to ground his narratives in verisimilitude and reality. It becomes imaginative, fantastical. It enables him to bring science into the realm of the imagination and to write a series of vignettes that are fables, or perhaps allegories. His narrative becomes a sort of fairy tale.

At the same time, as Calvino insisted at the end of his life, in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he never once lost sight of the historical reality of the time in which the writer was writing.

Haven: Cosmicomics also reflected Italy in the boom years of the forties, fifties, sixties – you were there for some of those years, and had a chance to observe the cultural upheaval firsthand.

Harrison: My family moved to Rome in 1967, so I had a chance to see some of the seismic changes that were occurring at the time. Italy went from being almost an agrarian society, the way that it had been for many centuries, to rapid industrialization and modernization. What happened in the late forties and fifties is sometimes called the “Miracle Years.” Suddenly, there were cars, cities, metropolises, and an unheard-of material and economic well-being for more and more segments of the society.

All the Cosmicomics stories are retelling events in the evolution of the cosmos and the evolution of species – from a point of origin to something that develops and evolves and changes. Clearly, one of the subtexts in Cosmicomics is how the author’s own society is evolving from a point of origin in many of the stories that is described as provincial, very limited, dark, a black-and-white world before color.

In the story “All at One Point,” everything is in one point and everyone’s fighting. And then you have the “big bang” event where things get dispersed. Eventually, the moon moves away from the Earth. There’s a loss of intimacy. And for me this correlates very substantially with the migration into the cities with a loss of a certain kind of provincial close-knit togetherness, along with all the pettiness that was involved in this kind of provincial way of being – an agrarian society is giving way to an industrial society. The pathos of loss runs through these stories. In many of them, the female characters often seem to represent the pull of the past, the claims of our antecedents, while Qfwfq seems to affirm, more often than not, the direction that evolution has taken.

In other words, Cosmicomics come with serious reflections on history. In the middle period of his career, he no longer sought to make compromises with the genres of realism or neo-realism. And yet he does not really lose sight of the historical reality of what’s taking place around him. So it’s not just escapist literature.

Haven: In one master stroke, he found his own way of freeing himself from the demands of realism, the opinions of his peers, the political pressures of his era.

Harrison: He gradually liberated himself more and more from the expectations of what was already by then littérature engagée in Jean-Paul Sartre’s sense. Political commitment in literature was something that he found very hard to conjugate with his career as a writer, although he was very politically committed up until the very end. In Cosmicomics, he has given up altogether the attempt to compromise. I think Invisible Cities would be another example. That’s a beautiful book, too. But I think Cosmicomics is more appropriate for this audience because it’s less abstract and there is a lot of native Italian humor as well as elements in it.

Haven: You mentioned his Six Memos earlier. This one seems apropos to Cosmicomics: “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.”

Harrison: Yes. That’s a decisive quote for his aesthetic as a whole. I think it is true for most of his corpus.

Haven: He also says quite nicely in the same passage that weight is an equally compelling virtue. It’s a point you emphasized in your recent “Entitled Opinions” piece, “A Monologue on Lightness and Heaviness in Art.”

Harrison: I also argued at the Stanford conference that I organized around the Six Memos text last May – but this is for insiders who know Calvino very well – that in effect, his method was not so much the subtraction of weight but rather he was so drawn to the light and the maybe even the flimsy and whimsical that his first instinct was to write things that had no weight whatsoever and that he felt that he had to add weight. The addition rather than the subtraction of weight may have been his working method. It works very well for Cosmicomics.

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