Are we sponges or technicians?

Somewhere in his journals Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pray and dig away long enough, and lo! soon he will hit upon the marvelous.

This note, by Saul Bellows, a several National Book Award–winning Canadian-born Jewish American, brings to mind and contrasts a parable I read several years back by Italo Calvino. The brief tale comes at the end of his essay “Quickness,” one of the five lectures that compose the Italian author’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Although the preceding essay in the compilation, “Lightness,” is more well-known, especially for its connection with the Roman poet–natural philosopher Lucretius and both early and modern atomism, Calvino’s paraphrase of a Chinese fable, both in content and method, eloquently reduces the heart of the piece to a moment:

Among Chuan-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

The essay gravitates around Calvino’s concept of this economy of movement, this exact and instantaneous making of a world, and in doing so skips directly from and back into the writer’s notes on lightness and reducing weight from words, sentences, ideas. Along these lines, Calvino details the process of stripping a paragraph of its density in his Italian Folktales:

[from the story, “The Feathered Ogre”] A king fell ill and was told by his doctors, “Majesty, if you want to get well, you’ll have to obtain one of the ogre’s feathers. That will not be easy, since the ogre eats every human he sees.” The king passed the word to everybody, but no one was willing to go to the ogre. Then he asked one of his most loyal and courageous attendants, who said, “I will go.” The man was shown the road and told, “On a mountaintop are seven caves, in one of which lives the ogre.” The man set out and walked until dark […]

[back to “Quickness”] Not a word is said about what illness the king was suffering from, or why on earth an ogre should have feathers, or what those caves were like. But everything mentioned has a necessary function to the plot. The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression. 

But this economy isn’t limited to folktales. Success of the prose writer, Calvino says, “consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts.” Clearly, and Calvino admits, this kind of momentary exactitude and precision—on which the author elaborates in his subsequent essay—are tensions that cannot be maintained in longer works, and hence the author’s preference for the short story, the folktale, the short-form essay.

Of short-form essays, it’s been said that Lewis Thomas did something akin to both the economy of Chuan-tzu’s story and the precision-lightness of Calvino’s Italian Folktales. Thomas was a well-respected physician and medical researcher who was invited by the New England Journal of Medicine to write a regular column of thoughts and introspections into the field of biology and biomedical science. The essays culminated in the 1974 publication of Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, which won the National Book Award the following year and ranked number 11 in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century. The essays themselves, modeled in part on the writings of Michel de Montaigne, are fluid, casual observations and thoughts on the beauty and implications of the scientific process. Some have labeled his essays as following the running style in literature, the structuring of sentence that follows the workings of a mind processing a question or conflict—rambling, producing associations, connective. But the pieces in Lives of a Cell are never messy—they are the fruits of Calvino’s “successful writer,” those selections of the mot juste, the final word, the tight economy of choice, the prose-as-completed-puzzle metaphor.

Thomas’s precision shows throughout his many books of the NEJM essays, particularly in “Organelles as Organisms,” the content of which draws from the title—viewing those specialized subunits of our cells as independent beings within the body:

It is no good standing on dignity in a situation like this, and better not to try. It is a mystery. There they are, moving about in my cytoplasm, breathing for my own flesh, but strangers. They are much less closely related to me than to each other and to the living free-living bacteria out under the hill. They feel like strangers, but the thought comes from the same creatures, precisely the same, are out there in the cells of sea gulls, and whales, and dune grass, and seaweed, and hermit crabs, and further inland in the leaves of the beech in my backyard, and in the family of skunks beneath the back fence, and even in that fly on the window. Through them, I am connected.; I have close relatives, once removed, all over the place. 

The writing is simultaneously rambling and specific, carries on and flows at an almost-random, but each bend is calculated and furthers the primary idea. Returning to Calvino’s thoughts on “The Feathered Ogre,” everything mentioned has a necessary function to fulfill advancement of the idea. But Thomas’ s prose isn’t just drawn from Calvino’s patient search for precision or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s scratching and prying away. Patience and word-searching were clearly involved in Thomas’s thought process. But Thomas wrote his essays  with that ultimate embodiment of quickness found in Calvino’s presentation of the Chuan-tzu tale. As the pieces contained in Lives of a Cell were written as Thomas was in his 50s and 60s, the physician-researcher contained within him decades of everyday observations, meanderings of the peer-reviewed scientific literature, direct knowledge of the time’s most-advance biological research methods and techniques —in short, fifty to sixty years worth of what the anthropologists call participant observation and what all else call fieldwork, an experiential understanding of one’s subject that only comes through the everyday absorption and use of information and a closeness with one’s work, an intimacy with knowledge. Bringing his multifaceted understandings of simple biological phenomena together, each of Thomas’s essays was written primarily in the evenings as Thomas let his thoughts release, regroup, chatter. By the following morning, a semblance of a composed piece stood awaiting slight marks of precision.

In this way, writing seems to have been catharsis and reappropriation, taking a learned concept and twisting its use, attaching it to a slight-of-hand association, illustrating and strengthening, as Thomas himself noted in a preface to a collection of poetry by Miroslav Holub, “the points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.” Thomas’s approach to short-form writing took expertise as the ability to empty a sponge. In those ending moments of the evening, composing these essays in free-form, Thomas brought together those components of Calvino’s mediations on quickness, in an instant drawing his own crab of prose.

These philosophies of “writing economics” make me wish the metaphor of whittling was employed more, for the imagery the practice births is also exact. From a wider angle, to whittle is to first have a tree—to find the right species, bury the seed in soil, water and protect, observe growth. Following these phases of idea, brainstorm, and nurture, only a fraction of the full body is removed and then reduced, at the micro scale, as details, bulk, splinters—in short, excess at any length of the spectrum—are deleted for the sake of that final perfection-in-object. Perhaps I too am being hasty and not giving in to the lesson found in Chuan-tzu, am being too much like Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the spirit of scratching, praying, and digging instead of following Thomas and absorbing, absorbing, finally executing.

I frequently think about the literary consequences of Thomas’s career—it was only at the later half of his life that he dedicated himself to this linguistic release, the act of writing and reflection, to his exactitude and precision of language. Perhaps at his stage of expertise, one can bypass that lengthy process of whittling down language to find the unalterable word or phrase. Here the economy is instant. Or maybe Thomas simply found balance between these temporal polarities, finding release in knowledge and closure in the technical lightening of choice phrase.


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