Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Italo Calvino

Read March 2006

For some years now, I have wrestled with a peculiar notion of research style: what it means to exhibit lightness. Some of the work I like best exhibits it, but it also seems to run counter to the desire for "heavy" solutions that seemingly characterize science. And lightness is not easy to define: the Gothic cathedral is paradigmatically "light'', yet obviously not so in any literal sense. How, then, to think about lightness?

In 1986, Calvino was due to have given the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. He chose as his theme the remarkable question of what ``values'' he would like ``passed on to the next millennium'' (p. 118). Calvin died just before embarking on his trip, so these manuscript notes—or, as he styles them, ``memos''—are his only legacy. Imagine my delight to discover that his six legacy values are Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency, all headed up by Lightness! (Calvino died before completing Consistency, making his collection that much more tantalizing.)

It is interesting that he should choose lightness and quickness first. Unfortunately he doesn't apply them nearly enough reflexively, so the later memos often fail to exhibit either—perhaps a sign of less editing attention paid by one who admits he edits in excrutiating detail. Still, that does not diminish the absolutely luminous quality of the first two memos.

Calvino has anticipated the problem of lightness. Indeed, he is ready with a quote to combat it: quoting Paul Valéry: ``One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather'' (p. 16). Elsewhere, he says less obliquely,

I hope to have shown that there is such a thing 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. (p. 10)

Numerous literary references pepper the book, but Calvino usually wears his learning lightly, unafraid to resort to humor (such as a particularly fantastic excerpt from Cyrano's Voyage dans la lune (p. 20-22)). Some have called the book autobiographical, but that is just loose speech: it is not so much an autobiography as much as a self-study, often dissecting his own means and methods. Equally, folklore, storytales, and rare literary excerpts illustrate his points: for instance, he tells us that the description by a certain Thomas De Quincey in 1848 of the near-collision of two horse-drawn carts cannot be bettered as a description of high-speed crashes in a modern world De Quincey knew nothing about—and Calvino is so sure-footed around literature that he is almost surely right. And to make his bigger point about our legacy, he resuscitates an obscure Kafka story about a magical bucket:

the fuller [the bucket in Kafka's ``Der Kübelreiter''] is, the less it will be able to fly. Thus, astride our bucket, we shall face the new millennium, without hoping to find any more in it than what we ourselves are able to bring to it.

It is rather strange to read a book that has no end. Usually authors must pour great effort into making sure the book has the right denouement. Calvino's death saved him this misery, and each memo is sufficiently self-contained that he can end a book without ending it: just the kind of literary game he would have enjoyed in life. Indeed, its open, inconclusive conclusion is like a great last joke by the author or his Cosmic collaborator, for Calvino writes:

What tends to emerge from the great novels of the twentieth century is the idea of an open encyclopedia, an adjective that certainly contradicts the noun encyclopedia, which etymologically implies an attempt to exhaust knowledge of the world by enclosing it in a circle. But today we can no longer think in terms of a totality that is not potential, conjectural, and manifold. (p. 116)

So maybe Calvino, who apologizes early for turning to science ((p. 5): ``Is it legitimate to turn to scientific discourse to find an image of the world that suits my view?''—legitimate!), anticipates some of the great scientific advances of our time, after all. From the openness of nature by genetic engineering, the openness of being from personality-altering drugs, to the openness of knowledge itself from Wikipedia, Calvino seems to knowingly wink at it all.

Thanks to Malavika Jayaram, who led me to this treat.