{A Note on Poetics: Lightness} “Six Memos for the Next Millennium” by Italo Calvino (1988)

In 2016, a new translation of Italo Calvino’s was published by Mariner Books. This corresponded to the thirtieth anniversary of the series of lectures Calvino had prepared for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1985, but, unfortunately, never deliveredThe six lectures were to have been Calvino’s legacy to us on the values of literature which he understood to be important for the 21st century, as well as a guide to Calvino’s own poetics. At the time of his death, Calvino had finished five of the six lectures.

The values which Calvino highlights are: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity.  The sixth lecture was to be on Consistency, and will be considered from fragments, notes, and letters Calvino wrote, as well as his known influences and examples from his own body of work. All page numbers refer to the Vintage International version of Six Memos, published in 1988.

A Consideration of Calvino’s Memo on “Lightness”

In his memo on Lightness, Calvino used the examples of the Greek mythological hero Perseus, the Roman poet-philosophers Lucretius and Ovid, and the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti as embodiments of the value of lightness. He could just as easily have used his own works such as The Non-Existent Knight, The Cloven Viscount, or The Baron in the Trees.

Calvino describes his working method as often involving the subtraction of weight. “Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language” (p.3). This was a reaction to his awareness of the gap between “the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world” (p.4) – the heavy facts that make up our experience of life – and the quick, light, liberating touch he wanted for his writing. “The weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely” (p.7).

Calvino illustrates this subtraction of weight with the myth of Perseus and his insight that Perseus, with his winged sandals, is the hero of lightness. In his battle with the Gorgon Medusa, Perseus does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield. Perseus understands the weight of Medusa’s gaze and the effect it has had on every other individual that has tried to face her. Perseus uses his shield as a medium to overcome the effect of Medusa’s gaze, his sword  to subtract the weight of her head from her body, the leather bag to capture her power and carry it with him, and his winged sandals to lift him away to his next task. Calvino reads this as an allegory of the poet’s relationship to the world. “Perseus’ strength lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live. He carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden” (p.5).

Calvino: “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” (p.7).

One different perspective Calvino cites, is that of the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius. Calvino claims that the chief concern of On the Nature of Things is to prevent the weight of matter from crushing us. He then continues this perspective with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he describes as a work that changes the weighty and indigestible to a lighter and more amenable form. “For Ovid, as with Lucretius, everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world. In both Lucretius and Ovid, lightness is a way of looking at the world based on philosophy and science” (p.8).

Calvino then describes a scene in The Decameron where Boccacio is recounting a story about the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti leaping over a tomb and escaping out of the cemetery from his harassers. “Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world [tomb], 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” (p.12). Calvino then designates Cavalcanti as the poet of lightness. “In Cavalcanti the weight of matter is dissolved because the materials of the human simulacrum can be many, all interchangeable” (p.12).

An example of Cavalcanti’s quality of sublime lightness can be seen in his Sonnet XIII, as well as the translation of it by Ezra Pound:

SONNET XIII

“SUBTLE the spirit striking through the eyes
Which rouseth up a spirit in the mind
Whence moves a spirit unto love inclined
Which breeds, in other sprites, nobilities.
No turbid spirit hath the sense which sees
How greatly empowered a spirit he appeareth ;
He is the little breath which that breath feareth,
Which breedeth virginal humilities.
Yet from this spirit doth another move
Wherein such tempered sweetness rightly dwells
That Mercy’s spirit followeth his ways,
And Mercy’s spirit as it moves above
Rains down those spirits that ope all things else,
Perforce of One who seeth all of these.”

The lines of the sonnet suggest a light, silent movement of energy continuing in a series of images of the path love takes through the human body. “In Cavalcanti, everything moves so swiftly that we are unaware of its consistency, only of its effects; in Dante, where everything acquires consistency and stability, the weight of things is precisely established” (p.15).

Calvino reminds us, however, that 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 the finest dust, or a field of magnetic impulses [Cavalcanti]; the other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations [Dante].”

To emphasize this distinction, Calvino includes a pithy quote of Paul Valéry from Choses Tues, Cahier d’Impressions Et d’Idées (1930): Il faut être léger comme l’oiseau et non comme la plume.” / “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather” (p.16).

Calvino uses Cavalcanti for examples of lightness in at least three different senses:           i) 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. ii) 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. iii) a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value (i.e. Boccaccio’s story of Cavalcanti vaulting on nimble legs over a tombstone) (p.17).

In every case we are concerned with something marked by these characteristics: i) it is to the highest degree light. ii) it is in motion. iii) it is a vector of information.

Calvino also reveals the connection between melancholy and humour. “As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humour is comedy that has lost its bodily weight. It casts doubt on the self, on the world, and on the whole network of relationships that are at stake” (p.19). For Calvino, literature has an existential function. “It is the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of the living” (p.26).

Some Conclusions on Calvino’s Memo on “Lightness” for a New Poetics

There is the light of the dawn that slowly dissolves the darkness of what remains of the previous night. The absence of light is the abyss of the cosmos.

There is the lightness of weight as much as there is the heaviness of weight. Both a bird and a boulder have weight, but one is unwillingly rolled downwards while the other, with little effort, rises upwards.

There is the lightness of winged words that raise one’s spirit and offset the heavy vulgarity that is constantly appropriated as a weapon by those who know only the effect of harsh language.

There is comic lightness that breaks up the seriousness of potentially hostile societal situations and reminds us of our common humanity.