Italo Calvino wrote five “memos” (there was supposed to be a sixth) as Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1985-86. Titled Six Memos for the Next Millennium, they were meant to be an investigation into the literary values he wished to give to future generations. He died before delivering his thoughts about the pending millennium. His thoughts about why read the classics were also published posthumously in 1986.
In the opening of Six Memos he says:
The millennium about to end has seen the birth and development of the modern languages of the West, and of the literatures that have explored the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities of these languages. It has also been the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call the book take on the form now familiar to us.
Perhaps it is a sing of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology.
My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it. I would like therefore to dedicate these lectures to certain values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to my heart, trying to situate them within the perspective of the new millennium.
In the lecture, Calvino contrasts each value or characteristic with its opposite, explaining why he chose one and how he respects the other.
1. On Lightness
He devoted his first lecture to lightness, because he had more to say about it — he saw his work as the subtraction of weight. He says:
…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.
For examples of this, The Nonexistent Knight. Why is lightness a value? He says:
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.)
In both cases the lightness is also something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.
There is also “a lightness of thoughtfulness” as we live in noisy and aggressive times. Calvino says:
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.
2. On Quickness
Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.
“I do not wish to say that quickness is a value in itself,” he says:
Narrative time can also be delaying, cyclic, or motionless. In any case, story is an operation carried out on the length of time involved, and enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.
Calvino uses the metaphor of a traveling horse and literature’s ability to take a person on a journey. He says:
The horse as an emblem of speed, even speed of the mind, runs through the whole history of literature, heralding the entire problematics of our own technological viewpoint.
The metaphor of the horse for the speed of thought was first used by Galielo Galilei. But mental speed cannot be measured, nor allow comparisons. His recommendation:
In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.
Mental speed is valuable in itself. Which leads into appreciation for the pleasures of lingering. In literature repetition and digression are ways to slow down time.
3. On Exactitude
A definition of what he means by exactitude opens this memo.
To my mind exactitude means three things above all:
(1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
(2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images;
(3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination
Approximate, careless language bothered Calvino who valued appropriateness and cautioned against automatism and abhorred formulaic, generic language. “We live in an unending rainfall of images,” he says. Exactitude includes thoughts on his fondness for geometrical forms, symmetries, numerical series, proportions, for all that is combinatory.
Invisible Cities is an example of even exactitude — every concept and value turns out to be double. A city combines the idea of geometric rationality with the entanglements of human life.
4. On Visibility
We may distinguish between two types of imaginative processes: the one that starts with the words and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression.
The first process is the one that normally occurs when we read. For example, we read a scene in a novel or the report of some event sin a newspaper and, according to the greater or lesser effectiveness of the text, we are brought to witness the scene as if it were taking place before our eyes, or at least to witness certain fragments or details of the scene that are singled out.
A mental cinema is always at work in each of us — we project images in our mind’s eye. On why visibility is a value he says:
If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.
He then wonders if the literature of the fantastic will be possible in the twenty-first century, given the growing inflation of prefabricated images.
5. On Multiplicity
“Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” He says:
Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.
Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.
Multiplicity reflects our combination of experiences, information, the books we read, the things we imagine. Calvino says:
Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.
But perhaps the answers that stands closest to my heart is something else: Think what it would be to have a work conceived outside of the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic…
He died before publishing his memo on Consistency.