Tag Archives: Italo Calvino

Ghosts of Calvino’s “The Aquatic Uncle:” Langdon Smith’s “Evolution”

(i’ll explain/write about the Calvino connection later—”The Aquatic Uncle” is in the running for my favorite short story)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into light again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And, oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing side
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o’er the plain
And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Then I hid me close to the reedy tarn
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded bone
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved the fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Till our brutal tush were gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico’s.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet –

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnished them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men make war
And the oxwain creaks o’er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then as we linger at luncheon here
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

Science writing as art form

This quote from Michael Regnier of The Guardian, writing about “science writing” as a form of literary expression rather than reportage, expresses my thoughts on writing creatively about science rather perfectly. And Regnier gives the example of Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar for the win.

“But let’s not forget that writing is an art form as well as a tool. Let’s take inspiration from the science we report and, from time to time, experiment with the way we write about it.”

Fictionalizing science writing and “The Distance of the Moon”

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a collection of short stories of a science-inspired nature, is one of my favorite pieces of literature. Calvino was a fantastically imaginative writer, and his Cosmicomics highlight his ability like no other. The stories in Cosmicomics exemplify what Miroslav Holub implied when he commented that play allows the artist to “avoid the aridities of rationalism”—Calvino’s imaginings are anything but dry. Each takes its origin from some brief, abstract concept drawn from the hard sciences. In the case of the collection’s first story, “The Distance of the Moon,” Calvino opens with the following excerpt:

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

From this deduction, Calvino injects the statement with life, character, a host of emotions and interactions. He plays with the feminization of the moon, why, from a storyteller’s point of view, She might have been pushed away from the Earth and what effort Earth’s inhabitants might have made to re-reach Her. The tale begins, in effect, to describe Calvino’s greater reinterpreting of how the universe was created, how forms so numerous came into being:

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

To me, Calvino performed something through these stories—12 in the original collection—that the sphere of science writing, as a general whole, has seemed to have neglected or perhaps even forgotten. Cosmicomics was published in 1965—when the author was 43 years old—and in the decades since, few writers have produced the same form of fictionalized “toying” with scientific fact, making of empirical research something new, what Michel de Certeau conceptualized as reappropriation. In his pivotal The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau wrote of the public’s interpretation of information and texts—scientifically based or not—as acts of consumption, and as such, likened to everyday resistance against a top-down dynamic between information producers and consumers. The consumer of information, the theorist wrote, “takes neither the position of the author nor an author’s position. He invents in texts something different from what they intended.” In this case, the information drawn from science, to de Certeau, did not have to be the final frontier—instead, one could formulate fact into new configurations.

Discussing Cosmicomics, Jeanette Winterson described Calvino as an adamant believer that art is a force that can unite various and seemingly disconnected parts of the self and the social body. Science, as one element of this greater unit, should be only the starting point in bringing together strands of thought and creativity. Winterson wrote, “For him [Calvino], literature as a force going forward, postwar, would be a literature that could encompass everything—science, history, politics, fantasy—but would be in thrall to none of these.”

What has become of this encompassing since Calvino’s time? Science writing today is undoubtedly creative, clear, communicative, to name a few characteristics of the craft. Yet foremost as an educative endeavor—to foster scientific literacy, to raise societal awareness, to bridge scientific practice and everyday life—current science writing is, and in some ways, as practiced, must be, thrall to the worldview and positivism of science and its methodology. Any effort to produce scientifically inspired fiction is given the label of “sci-fi,” when in fact is was Calvino who redefined the term to mean something entirely different. Most recently, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptilean imagining of the musings of an 18th-century Turkish female tortoise in Selborne, England—stands out as an example that fulfills this niche of literature. Of the book and its author, The Washington Post Book World writes, Klinkenborg “rescues us from dailynessfrom, as Timothy would say, our terrible speedand makes our world again large and wondrous.”

Calvino’s Cosmicomics is about making our would wondrous, even those elements of that world we typically relegate to laboratories, observatories, and remote field sites instead of being seen as inspirational sources of creativity. Of Cosmicomics, Salman Rushdie wrote that “Perhaps only Calvino could have created a work that combines scientific erudition, wild fantasy and a humane wit that prevents the edifices of these stories from toppling into whimsy.” I would hope, for one, that Rushdie was incorrect in making such a suggestion, that Calvino’s work was only the beginning of a movement in literature, in particular the short story form. The products of Cosmicomics continually inspire my own thoughts on writing and literature, serve as the best kind of example of something to strive for in words. And they do so for others as well, in varied formats and mediums. Take for example, and enjoy, the following short filmby an Israeli visual communications student, dubbed “shulamitsitself a reimagining and reappropriation of Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon.”

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:

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