Go ahead and love something an embarrassing amount, Vol. V: Lightness and its meaning

Nei momenti in cui il regno dell’umano mi sembra condannato alla pesantezza, penso che dovrei volare come Perseo in un altro spazio. Non sto parlando di fughe nel sogno o nell’irrazionale. Voglio dire che devo cambiare il mio approccio, devo guardare il mondo con un’altra ottica, un’altra logica, altri metodi di conoscenza e di verifica.

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. 

from Italo Calvino’s “Lightness,” translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh

I first read this essay more than ten years ago, and I still remember the electric current it sent radiating through me. In describing – with such accuracy that he might have been living inside my head – the feeling of vitality and existential importance that certain books had inspired in me, Italo Calvino was providing an answer to a question that had been gnawing at me: why read? Why study literature? What is the point of it all, and who cares? It was a panicky time in my life: I was a junior in college faced with the question of what would be coming next. My time for taking classes purely for enjoyment and edification was over, and I had to think seriously about my contribution to the world. Part of the problem was the inescapable worry that I would make the wrong choice and be doomed to…something. Nothing was certain, everything was vague, and the only thing that I knew I truly loved – Italian – seemed hopelessly distant from the world I lived in. The fact that I loved it and felt it connecting to every area of my life seemed to me irrelevant; I could not make the case for myself as a force for good in the world merely on the strength of my love for Italian literature. Here came Calvino, telling me that my love of reading was not a frivolous pursuit whose only possible good was my own pleasure. My ability to read across languages and let what I was reading envelop me and change my perspective – that all by itself was an ability worth cultivating. Reading and writing brought out my most thoughtful and critical self, and that was valuable. Perhaps not in a tangible, immediately-visible way, but in a way that would serve me no matter what I ultimately did.

The essay itself is extremely worthy of your time, but know that I am talking to you, here, regardless of whether you have ever heard of Italo Calvino. Part of what I love about Calvino is that he is so inviting, both as a fiction writer and an essayist. Even if you’re just a kid who doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, Calvino is writing to you, too.

In 1985, Calvino composed what is now known as Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a series of meditations on literature destined to be delivered as the annual Norton Poetry Lectures that same year at Harvard University. Previous Norton lecturers had included Jorge Luis Borges, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. In recent years, Toni Morrison and Herbie Hancock have spoken. It is somewhat of a pantheon of widely-recognized masters of language. Calvino was by the mid-1980 internationally renowned as a literary master; the New York Times review of the first printed edition of the Six Memos calls him “that gifted and nimble Italian genius of the short prose narrative.” 

The lectures themselves intended to articulate a set literary values for the coming millennium, values which promised to keep literature relevant as the world turned: Leggerezza, Rapidità, Esattezza, Visibilità, Molteplicità, Coerenza (Lightness, Rapidity, Exactness, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency). Though he died suddenly shortly before his departure for the Harvard campus, Calvino had already written all but “Consistency,” which he planned to compose while residing in Cambridge. In 1988, his wife Esther published the text of the five completed lectures under their intended title of Six Memos, the numerical inconsistency itself a nod to the gap between what is and what might have been.

I think part of what captivated me as I read “Lightness” was the thought that this little book, written by one of my little Italian authors who by that time had already become so precious to me, personally, was important not just to me but to the world of literature. I had read Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot – these were names that everyone knew, and to say I was reading them was to simultaneously explain why I would read them. My proclivity for Italian literature, on the other hand, seemed less automatically relevant to the world I then lived in. The Six Memos (or Lezioni americane, the title of the Italian edition in which I read them) were there to show me that Calvino meant something not just to me but to the world.

That passage I quoted at the beginning – read it again. “When humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.” Literature, mythology, stories – is their function merely to receive us as we flee from reality, to give us a soft place to land? Such has certainly been argued as the intrinsic value of fiction: fantasy, the ability to Don-Quixote yourself to a more appealing non-reality as the world melts down. No, Calvino is not going there: “I don’t mean escaping into dreams or the irrational.” The Italian version of the next sentence gets at this with more precision than the English: “devo guardare il mondo con un’altra ottica.” The translation is “I have … to look at the world from a different perspective,” which is a phrase we so often use in English that it threatens to pass without examination. What Calvino has written in the original, though, is “another optics.” A different methodology of looking. Perspective is certainly one way of characterizing what the five memos in Six Memos are about, but I think that optics is a more precise way to evoke what Calvino is doing. He teaches us to look, actively, and thereby to see things in literature that we could not see otherwise, and he gives us language to talk about them. These are skills that we need if we are to fly like Perseus into a different space – we need to be nimble readers and interpreters, flexible in our accommodations of difficulty and precise in our understanding of language.

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As Calvino will later note, “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.” In that spirit, let’s move away from abstraction for a moment. The most specific part of that first passage is the flight of Perseus, which Calvino invokes, you will not be surprised to hear, quite intentionally and with the full weight (or lightness) of the myth behind it. “At certain moments” early in his writing career “I felt that the entire world was turning into stone … it was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa.” Calvino, in exploring the applications and the limitations of his reflections, will often turn to images from mythology, sometimes for the benefit of the common ground they provide and at other times to maintain the most concrete visibility for what he is exploring. Medusa is an easily-identifiable image, both for her striking countenance and for her near-unstoppable power to turn anyone who looks upon her to a statue. “To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone,” he continues, “Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze on what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.” This is Perseus’s great strength: “a refusal to look directly, but not … a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.”

I love this idea – we can refuse to look directly at reality without refusing reality itself. We can subtract weight without subtracting seriousness. One of my favorite shows on television right now, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend(for which my great love has already been documented here), has mastered the art of seriousness that doesn’t feel the need to be heavy. Take the theme song for the second season: at 44 seconds long, it effectively and snappily takes the subtext of the first season and elevates it to the show’s headline: “I’m just a girl in love! I can’t be held responsible for my actions! (Ooh, she’s an ingénue!) I have no underlying issues to address; I’m certifiably cute and adorably obsessed!” Viewers who enjoyed the first season may have had their reservations about how breezily the show seemed to let its protagonist get away with being the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” She has done things that are objectively crazy, unacceptable, and even illegal – as my attorney husband pointed out, the fact that she made it to the end of the first season without being disbarred is borderline improbable. Is the show asking us to suspend our disbelief that far? No, says the second season theme, we’re going somewhere with this. “They say love makes you crazy, therefore you can’t call her crazy, because when you call her crazy, you’re just calling her in love! (BLAM!)” Rebecca Bunch is not crazy like the in-love kind of crazy; she’s seriously mentally ill, as the second season begins to show us with increasing clarity and coherence. She needs professional help, not just perfect-man-to-save-her help. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is nothing but serious about its commitment to this message. It is also one of the funniest shows on television, and it’s funny precisely because of how thoughtful and precise and methodical it is about delivering its message through brilliant dialogue and sparkling musical numbers. “There is such a thing,” as Calvino writes, “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.” (Like, perhaps, the lightness of Dude Where’s My Car?

The world is an objectively heavy place to live in right now, and this has paradoxically become almost routine. As Sarah Koenig put it in the fifth episode of Serial’s third season, “‘what are you going to do’ starts to feel like an answer, rather than an urgent question.” But even when you do pose it as a question…what are you going to do? Maybe you get into politics and run for office and try to fix things from the inside. Maybe you get that law degree and become a lobbyist for the causes you care about. Regardless of what you choose to do, though, you would do well to cultivate the kind of nimble and flexible mind that can both live in reality and also, simultaneously, take a flying leap into another dimension. If you are so weighed down by the heaviness of the world at every moment, how will you ever see the ways in which you can engage with it? Calvino means, I think, for us to stop thinking of literature as an escape or a frivolous pursuit and to reframe it, instead, as an engine for creative and flexible thinking. Rachel Bloom has created one of the best shows on television because of how engaged she has been for her whole life with musical theater and creative media in general, and her ability to portray mental illness on her show with seriousness and lightness at the same time comes from her constant engagement with reality. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is nimble enough to feel very of the moment, here and now in 2018, but it has the foundational strength to be remembered well into the future.

I assigned “Leggerezza” to an Italian literature class last semester, and I was unsure at the time whether I had really done it justice in our discussion of the essay together. I probably mentioned Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in class, and everyone probably looked blankly at me – I am getting old enough that my hip cultural references are far from guaranteed to land with the college crowd. Last week, though, a student from that class excitedly e-mailed me and the rest of the participants with a link to an interview with world-famous architect Renzo Piano talking about lightness, transparency, and weight in the making of buildings. Look – it’s “leggerezza” in action, the lightness whose value we can no longer unsee. “Keep in mind that lightness only makes sense when you have also heaviness,” Piano says at one point, “otherwise lightness doesn’t mean anything.” This returns us to the passage that we opened with: when we imitate Perseus and make that leap into another dimension, we are not escaping reality, but rather adjusting our methodology of looking at it. If this is something we can learn to do through reading and thinking and discussing, let’s all keep doing it.