Thursday, November 03, 2005

Calvino's Tude

To continue with Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium, we come to Exactitude. If length is any indicator, exactitude is more important than lightness and quickness. Or maybe it is longer because he is striving for exactitude in the lecture. Whatever the case, I wholeheartedly agree with Calvino on this value. Early in the lecture he defines exactitude as three things:

  1. A well-defined and calculated plan for the work.
  2. Clear, incisive, memorable visual images.
  3. Language as precise as possible in terms of both "choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination."
Calvino then spends a bit of time bemoaning the apparent plague afflicting language. The symptoms of this plague are "a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas." The disease dilutes meaning, blunts expressiveness, and extinguishes "the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances." It is a lack of substance Calvino finds not only in language but also in the world (this might explain the proliferation of Chicken Soup books and all those books for Dummies). The plague makes "all histories formless, random, confused, with neither beginning nor end." But worst of all is the resulting loss of form in life. Calvino tries to oppose this "with the only weapon [he] can think of--an idea of literature." It is all very rousing. I can imagine a soundtrack with the music swelling to a triumphant crescendo. I can see the lecture hall crowd leaping to its feet, cheering wildly--Calvino! Calvino! Calvino! Our hero! Calvino knows the argument for the other side of exactitude and sets out to examine it by using Giacomo Leopardi who claimed that the more vague and imprecise language is the more poetic it becomes. Calvino uses examples of Leopardi's writing and concludes that in order for Leopardi to be vague and imprecise he has to be extremely exact and meticulous in his attention to composition, image, detail, atmosphere, etc to achieve it. Leopardi, therefore, proves Calvino right. A very clever argument. At the end of the lecture, Calvino uses Leonardo da Vinci as an example of someone striving for exactitude. In one of da Vinci's notebooks there are notes that show him recording evidence to prove a theory on the growth of the earth. He has examples of buried cities and marine fossils found in mountains. One of the fossils caught his imagination and da Vinci concludes that it must be an antediluvian sea monster. He then writes three sentences trying to describe what this creature must have looked like. It is fascinating to follow his progression:
O how many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, with your black and bristly back, looming like a mountain, and with grave and stately bearing! And many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, and with stately and grave bearing go swirling in the sea waters. And with your black and bristly back, looming like a mountain, defeating and overwhelming them! Oh how many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, looming like a mountain, defeating and overwhelming them, and with your black bristly back furrowing the sea waters, and with stately and grave bearing!
Exactitude is obviously hard work. I wonder if Calvino's plague doesn't stem from a certain laziness and sloppiness on our part? Not that I imagine there was ever a golden age, that would be a pseudo-nostalgia for something I never experienced and that never existed (I was about to take a swipe at the Republican party, but I won't and allow you to make all the inferences you want.) But I do think there is a sort of slippage of standards. I could complain about the educational system, but I don't think that is a useful thing to do. Schools reflect a culture and a society. If the schools aren't working it is because they are only a more noticeable symptom of the plague. Stay tuned for Visibility and Multiplicity!