February 2, by elementalaisha. These two tendencies toward literature proposed by Calvino, lightness and weight, represent the two poles of human nature: we either rise above the weight of humanity, the weight of the world, or we can succumb to it. For Calvino, the lightness of language can only be explained through the weight of the world, and in fact, this lightness comes from it. Perseus can only slay Medusa by indirect vision, through a mirror.

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I will devote my first lecture to the opposition between lightness and weight, and will uphold the values of lightness. This does not mean that I consider the virtues of weight any less compelling, but simply that I have more to say about lightness.

After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: 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.

In this talk I shall try to explain—both to myself and to you—why I have come to consider lightness a value rather than a defect; to indicate the works of the past in which I recognize my ideal of lightness; and to show where I situate this value in the present and how I project it into the future. I will start with the last point. When I began my career, the categorical imperative of every young writer was to represent his own time. Full of good intentions, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual.

I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. Soon I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross.

Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world—qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them. At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life.

It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. Thus Perseus comes to my aid even at this moment, just as I too am about to be caught in a vise of stone—which happens every time I try to speak about my own past. Better to let my talk be composed of images from mythology.

But I know that any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it. With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images.

The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside. The relationship between Perseus and the Gorgon is a complex one and does not end with the beheading of the monster. With one blow of his hoof on Mount Helicon, Pegasus makes a spring gush forth, where the Muses drink. In certain versions of the myth, it is Perseus who rides the miraculous Pegasus, so dear to the Muses, born from the accursed blood of Medusa.

As for the severed head, Perseus does not abandon it but carries it concealed in a bag. It is a weapon he uses only in cases of dire necessity, and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues. Perseus succeeds in mastering that horrendous face by keeping it hidden, just as in the first place he vanquished it by viewing it in a mirror. Perseus wins another battle: he hacks a sea-monster to pieces with his sword and sets Andromeda free.

Now he prepares to do what any of us would do after such an awful chore—he wants to wash his hands. And here Ovid has some lines IV. But the most unexpected thing is the miracle that follows: when they touch Medusa, the little marine plants turn into coral and the nymphs, in order to have coral for adornments, rush to bring sprigs and seaweed to the terrible head. This clash of images, in which the fine grace of the coral touches the savage horror of the Gorgon, is so suggestive that I would not like to spoil it by attempting glosses or interpretations.

But how can we hope to save ourselves in that which is most fragile? This is what Milan Kundera has done with great clarity and immediacy. His novel 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.

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. 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 the boundless universe of literature there are always new avenues to be explored, both very recent and very ancient, styles and forms that can change our image of the world.

But 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.

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 iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.

Is it legitimate to turn to scientific discourse to find an image of the world that suits my view? If what I am attempting here attracts me, it is because I feel it might connect with a very old thread in the history of poetry. The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius is 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.

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. This atomizing of things extends also to the visible aspects of the world, and it is here that Lucretius is at his best as a poet: the little motes of dust swirling in a shaft of sunlight in a dark room II. 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. 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. It is in following the continuity of the passage from one form to another that Ovid displays his incomparable gifts. He tells how a woman realizes that she is changing into a lotus tree: her feet are rooted to the earth, a soft bark creeps up little by little and enfolds her groin; she makes a movement to tear her hair and finds her hands full of leaves.

In both Lucretius and Ovid, lightness is a way of looking at the world based on philosophy and science: the doctrines of Epicurus for Lucretius and those of Pythagoras for Ovid a Pythagoras who, as presented by Ovid, greatly resembles the Buddha.

From what I have said so far, I think the concept of lightness is beginning to take shape. Above all I hope to have shown that 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. I could not illustrate this notion better than by using a story from the Decameron VI.

Boccaccio presents Cavalcanti as an austere philosopher, walking meditatively among marble tombs near a church. Cavalcanti is not popular with them because, although wealthy and elegant, he has refused to join in their revels—and also because his mysterious philosophy is suspected of impiety. Great marble tombs, now in Santa Reparata, were then scattered about San Giovanni.

As he was standing between the porphyry columns of the church and these tombs, with the door of the church shut fast behind him, Messer Betto and his company came riding along the Piazza di Santa Reparata.

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.

I would like you to bear this image in mind as I proceed to talk about Cavalcanti as the poet of lightness. In short, in every case we are concerned with something marked by three characteristics: 1 it is to the highest degree light; 2 it is in motion; 3 it is a vector of information. In some poems this messenger-cum-message is the poetic text itself. Years before, Guinizelli in one of his sonnets had transformed his poet into a brass statue, a concrete image that draws its strength from the very sense of weight it communicates.

In Cavalcanti the weight of matter is dissolved because the materials of the human simulacrum can be many, all interchangeable. The metaphor does not impress a solid image on us, and not even the word pietra stone lends heaviness to the line. Here also we find the equality of all existing things that I spoke of in regard to Lucretius and Ovid. The two lines are almost identical, but they express two completely different concepts.

In both the snow on windless days suggests a light, silent movement. But here the resemblance ends. But it is chiefly the first word that determines the difference between the two lines. In Cavalcanti the conjunction e and puts the snow on the same level as the other visions that precede and follow it: a series of pages like a catalogue of the beauties of the world. In Dante the adverb come as encloses the entire scene in the frame of a metaphor, but within this frame it has a concrete reality of its own.

No less concrete and dramatic is the landscape of hell under a rain of fire, which he illustrates by the simile of the snow. In Cavalcanti everything moves so swiftly that we are unaware of its consistency, only of its effects.

In Dante everything acquires consistency and stability: the weight of things is precisely established. At this point we should remember that 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. At the very beginnings of Italian, and indeed European, literature, the first tendency was initiated by Cavalcanti, the second by Dante. In the Vita nuova Dante deals with the same material as his friend and master, and certain words, themes, and ideas are found in both poets.

When Dante wants to express lightness, even in the Divina Commedia, no one can do it better than he does, but his real genius lies in the opposite direction—in extracting all the possibilities of sound and emotion and feeling from the language, in capturing the world in verse at all its various levels, in all its forms and attributes, in transmitting the sense that the world is organized into a system, an order, or a hierarchy where everything has its place.

To push this contrast perhaps too far, I might say that Dante gives solidity even to the most abstract intellectual speculation, whereas Cavalcanti dissolves the concreteness of tangible experience in lines of measured rhythm, syllable by syllable, as if thought were darting out of darkness in swift lightning flashes. I have relied on Cavalcanti for examples of lightness in at least three different senses. First 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.

I leave it to you to find other examples of this sort. Second, 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.

To find a more modern example of this we may turn to Henry James, opening any of his books at random:.


Italo Calvino’s Memo I: Lightness

Lightness is a philosophical concept most closely associated with continental philosophy and existentialism , which is used in ontology. The term "lightness" varies in usage but is differentiated from physical weight, such as "the lightness of balsa wood". Lightness is also considered as a noun. Eternal Return dictates that all things in existence recur over and over again for all eternity.


Lightness (philosophy)

Courtesy the artist. In art, I look for a space outside of the enumerable into which to leap. This urge is pervasive. It is a creative, meaningful gesture enabled precisely by an acknowledgement of its situatedness and necessary relationship to the world. Calvino posits lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity as five characteristics of an art that might hold within itself room for the future. In many ways it represents the attitude I feel challenged to cultivate in my own practice.


Six Memos for the Next Millennium review – Italo Calvino’s Harvard lectures

Lightness is a means of gaining perspective. Lightness is a force that propels. Changing perspective on the matters that weigh a person down is to alleviate the discomfort of that weight. Calvino uses science to bolster his ideas. Lightness is a force that underpins the aspect of life.

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