OMNI ESSE DEO DVBITANDVM
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“In 1965 Calvino published “Cosmicomics”: twelve brief stories dealing in a fantastic way with the creation of the universe, man, society. Like Pin’s young friend who decided that life indeed resembles the strip cartoon, Calvino has deployed his complex prose in order to compose in words a super strip cartoon narrated by Qfwfq whose progress from life inside the first atom to mollusk on the earth’s sea floor to social-climbing amphibian to dinosaur to moon-farmer is told in a dozen episodes that are entirely unlike anything that anyone else has written since, let us say Lucian.”
May 30, 1974
The New York Review of Books
It is usually noted early on in one’s career as a student of literature that the very best writers possess an equally prodigious talent for literary criticism; what Gore Vidal wittily gave the appellation of Book Chat. At first, it may appear that this observation is self evident. Why wouldn’t any writer of even the most exiguous amount of talent not be able to produce some manner of useful criticism about the very craft of which they employ? Yet with continual didactic advancement, what actually becomes self evident is that this phenomena is not in any way axiomatic nor to be expected. But when endowed with great talent and genius, the literary metier evinces their critical power wherever and everywhere the proverbial pen hits the page. Is any of this made clear by example of the preceding quotation?
The above extract is taken from an essay I first encountered in 1993. That was the year in which Mr Vidal published his monumental tome of essays, United States. A book which with no possibility of hyperbole or overstatement I can say changed my life forever. This was after all the book which initiated and acquiesced me into the realm of Mr Vidal’s prosaic genius as well as firmly cementing the fact that it would be the essay where I would find my life’s devotion, my literary summa vitae if you will. And if this were not enough of a gift from one’s decided pedagogue, I am also forever indebted to Mr Vidal for bringing to my attention so many other writers who would also become canonical in their influence. Such is the case of the work of Italo Calvino.
There is nothing controversial let alone novel in this notion concerning Mr Vidal’s influence. He is quite rightly touted as the main promulgator of Calvino’s work within the Anglophone world. And throughout his lifetime, he never stopped asserting Mr Calvino as the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. In re-reading all of Mr Vidal’s essays concerning Calvino, I can think of no one else who managed to so perfectly capture his ethereal genius on the page. As with the amazing style and sagacity of his novels, Mr Vidal’s adeptness in criticism also grabs one’s interest by the throat and never lets go with its ability to amaze and delight. This type of blandishment is not at all a common quality encountered within the work of the mavens of book chat and could only manifest from the pen of a writer possessing absolute acumen concerning their subject. With so much acute understanding and appreciation of literary originality, it feels rather odd that Mr Vidal never really bothered in print with Mr Calvino’s literary criticism, of which there is also a considerable amount. Within the meeting of these two great minds, this lacuna of analysis becomes more conspicuous in one particular regard (an area I have to concede is extremely vital to myself), that existential realm where one finds the intersecting paths of philosophy and literature.
In the beginning, it always feels a bit unnerving when as an acolyte one attempts to critically engage with one’s master. Yet, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra informs us, an acolyte may never deem himself a master until he can go against his master. And in terms of philosophy, this has to be the only area of inquiry where I would ever dare to question the regnant genius of Calvino, thus completing Zarathustra’s challenge. For he consistently misrepresented the perennial quality of philosophy with more contemporary and transient academic proclivities concerning philosophy’s role in human existence. To test this assertion, one need look no further than an essay Calvino wrote in 1967 for the Times Literary Supplement, simply entitled Philosophy and Literature, which we will now dissect and scrutinize.
When I first encountered this essay fifteen years ago, I knew immediately that I was going to take issue with the ensuing polemic as soon as I digested the very first sentence: Philosophy and literature are embattled adversaries. Why? Why such a unnecessary and cruel issuance of pain? Are my entrails expected to spill onto the floor? Okay, a bit too lugubrious, right? But seriously, how is it even possible that such an astute litterateur could even begin to postulate such a blatantly false antithesis? I am supposed to believe that the two prevailing forces within my life are actually mortal enemies, forever threatening to shred one’s mind in two? And the defamation only gets worse as we continue on to the very next sentence.
Though beautifully written, Calvino sets up a caricature of the philosopher and his intellectual endeavors of which he will employ for the rest of his argument: The eyes of philosophers see through the opaqueness of the world, eliminate the flesh of it, reduce the variety of existing things to a spider’s web of relationships between general ideas, and fix the rules according to which a finite number of pawns moving on a chessboard exhaust a number of combinations that may even be infinite. There is no way in which this rather facile generalization of the philosopher and his role in life should be tolerated. There is no ONE way or method to philosophizing; I don’t eliminate, I don’t reduce, I don’t fix…anything! And as Philosophers are human after all, Calvino must have noticed this rather conspicuous fact about human nature, our infinitely permutable consciousness and ensuing psychology. But as we continue just a little further into Calvino’s polemic, we find the first source of his contention. Calvino asserts that the battle between philosophy and literature is initially based on a commonality of weapon: And the wrangle goes on, with each side confident of having taken a step ahead in the conquest of truth, or at least of “a” truth, and at the same time perfectly well aware that the raw material of its own constructions is the same as that of the opposition: words.(…)The clash between philosophy and literature does not need to be resolved. On the contrary, only if we think of it as permanent but ever new does it guarantee us that the sclerosis of words will not close over us like a sheet of ice.
Very revealing. What can we glean here about Calvino’s prejudice in this supposed conflict of interest? It would appear that he would like us to believe that it is within the role of the writer where this battle finds its locus and crux of existence. But he assures us at the same time that this battle is really negligible and only manifests a quandary when considered as a perennially self-refreshing clash. After all, does not philosophy and literature have similar ends and goals for human life, a search for unreachable truth? Perhaps then we are to be wary of too close of an interplay between these two distinct methodologies. Is this what Calvino is entreating us to ponder? He next tells us that: In the same way, philosophy, when it is too fully clothed in human flesh, too sensitive to immediate, lived experience, is for literature a less exciting challenge than is the abstraction of metaphysics or of pure logic. Phenomenology and existentialism border on literature along frontiers that are not always very clearly marked. Can the writer-philosopher cast a fresh philosophic look upon the world, a look that at the same time is also fresh for literature?
Okay, now we have Calvino giving us a greater clue to work with. It is the individual who is a writer/philosopher who must directly confront this existential challenge. Because ultimately, It is only when the writer writes “before” the philosopher who interprets him that literary stringency can serve as a model for philosophic stringency, even if the writer and philosopher happen to dwell together in the same person. This holds good not only for Dostoyevsky and Kafka, but also for Camus and Genet. The names of Dostoyevsky and Kafka remind us of the two supreme examples in which the authority of the writer—that is, the power to transmit an unmistakable message by means of a special distortion of the human figure and of situations—coincides with the authority of the thinker on the highest level. True enough, for the most part. And yet Calvino does not successfully convince us of WHY the “writer” must be the first to write before the “philosopher” can interpret. As if the writer solely “writes” and the philosopher solely “thinks” in all manners of human endeavor and exigency. Again, we see the all too easy resort to caricature. And as far as my own literary and philosophical investigations can be brought to bear on this argument, I find this notion completely nonsensical and illogical, no matter the form of interpretation or intent of meaning. There is just too much evidence on display; a great mind continually illustrating sciolistic understanding of that which he is criticizing.
At this point, it would appear and would also be true that Calvino has exhausted this line of reasoning. So he ingeniously (as I would expect of genius) changes his focus to an area where indeed philosophy and literature meet at a crossroads of some profundity: The terrain on which philosophy and literature traditionally meet is ethics. Or, rather, ethics has always provided an excuse for philosophy and literature not to look each other directly in the face, being certain and confident of being able to reach easy agreement about their task of teaching virtue to mankind. Once more, at the risk of impertinence, I must counter my master. One of Calvino’s major problems or weakness of argument throughout this polemic revolves around a matter of interpretation and usage of terminology. Yes, indeed Ethics is a critical arena for both philosophy and literature. Tautologically so in the case of philosophy, as ethics is a cardinal branch of philosophic inquiry. But I would rather say for literature that it is the best and most effective means of exploring the ethical dilemmas propagated by philosophic inquiry. When used this way, one can easily see the non sequitir of Calvino’s opening sentence. Philosophy and literature are not embattled enemies, but instead are complimentary tools of investigation useful to both the litterateur and philosopher alike.
Besides the misinterpretations of Calvino on the matters of philosophy and its utility, he next tells us that he is in fact reacting to current trends in academia and their ensuing influence on the young, which he finds so distasteful. In consideration of the fact that he was writing this essay in the late sixties, I can entirely understand his umbrage: The climate dominant today among young writers is more philosophical than ever, but imbued with a philosophy internal to the act of writing.(…)Literature seems to make itself manifest as an austere and passive speculative activity, as far from the outcries of tragedy as from the fantasies of happiness. It evokes no colors and no images other than the whiteness of the paper and the arrangement of black lines. Realizing that he has reached a polemical terminus, Calvino is forced to ask a rather prominent question to himself, which he promptly does: So does my original thesis no longer hold up? I would say it never did, but yet again Calvino changes focus and instead wishes us to consider an intriguing speculation: The fact is that if I wish my picture of things to be valid not only for today but also for tomorrow, I must include an element that I have so far neglected. What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a “menage a trois”: philosophy, literature, and science.
Initially, it has to be conceded that the inclusion of science and scientific inquiry into this diametric battle is more than just a little quixotic. Of course though, because we are dealing with literary genius we are next given by Calvino and intriguing synthesis of his proposed triune: While waiting for this time to come, we have no choice but to dwell on the available examples of a literature that breathes the air of philosophy and science but at the same time keeps its distance, while with a gentle puff it blows away both theoretical abstractions and the apparent concreteness of reality. I am speaking of that extraordinary and indefinable area of the human imagination that produced the works of Lewis Carroll, Queneau, and Borges. At last we have it presented to us. Calvino is implicitly admitting to a failure of his original thesis in favor of entreating us to instead view the amazing existential impact created by a writer who utilizes philosophy and science for the benefit of the literary imagination. This phenomenon Calvino explains issues from the eighteenth century enlightenment with the creative ventures of Voltaire, Diderot, Swift, and Sterne where: At the same time as the “conte philosophique” or, slightly later, the “conte fantastique” and the Gothic novel unleashed the obsessive visions of the unconscious.
Is it not all entirely salient at this point of what Calvino’s dispute with philosophy actually is? Calvino’s fear was that philosophy with its abstractions of thought and persistent analyzing of every aspect of human existence (consciousness), if mixed with literature, would enervate literary imagination and there by etiolate the intrinsic value of all literature. Yet at the same time, he could never fully elide the literary merit of philosophy: Since Lewis Carroll a new relationship has developed between philosophy and literature. We see the advent of those who delight in philosophy as a stimulus to the imagination. Queneau, Borges, Arno Schmidt—all have different relations with different philosophies, and use these to nourish vastly diverse visionary and linguistic worlds. Well, there we have it don’t we, Calvino has given us a resounding Au Fond, Je suis vaincu!
It’s ironic how Calvino did not see that the final part of his critique/encomium exemplified his own genius and literary efforts. Or perhaps he did. This we can never know for sure, but what we can assuredly glean from Calvino’s criticism is that he fully understood the sovereign and eternal role in human life that philosophy and literature both play. Even if he was indeed fearful of an unretractable battle between these two forces, it does not diminish from the undeniable fact of Calvino’s greater understanding. That this existential dichotomy is irrefragable to us all and that it must be faced just as surely as death itself must be; for they both lie deep within the depths and crevices of what it fundamentally is to be human.
“Robinson Crusoe” was a philosophical novel without knowing it, and even earlier “Don Quixote” and “Hamlet”—I do not know with what degree of awareness on the part of their authors—had opened up a new relationship between the phantom lightness of ideas and the heavy weight of the world. When we speak of the relationship between literature and philosophy we must not forget that the whole question begins there.