Frankel, Matthew [faculty advisor, English]




phenomenology, Multiplicity, Salvation, University of Rhode Island, Honors


“Lightness.” The word remains inescapable when attending to the mysterious work of Italo Calvino. It appears elusively in the texts of his novels and acts as a catalyst to many of his critical endeavors. Calvino addresses most explicitly this concept of lightness in his collection of lectures entitled Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Although these lectures were never delivered, they exist as a testament to the idea that “the boundless universe of literature” contains “new avenues to be explored, both very recent and very ancient, styles and forms that can change our image of the world” (Six Memos 7-8). It is literature’s lightness—that subtle quality that forces its readers to recognize, “there’s something about that book”—that reveals knowledge of the world capable of questioning those aspects of existence that seem the most certain and stagnant. For Calvino, literature can “dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile” (Six Memos 8). Fiction reveals the reality of infinity—of infinite interpretive possibility. When reading Calvino’s novels, one realizes the indefinite allure of his narrative style. This vertiginous quality of each book, though impossible to apprehend or render tangible, becomes as concrete as the type on its pages. The novels’ “emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies” (Six Memos 8). Although this may appear to be a study of traditionally postmodern questions of narrative indeterminacy, its goals can hardly be contained within such a solid characterization. Apart from merely identifying Calvino’s use of continuous narrative in order to solidify his identity as a postmodern writer of metafiction, this essay poses several exigent questions on the gravity of his continual flights from reference. What does it mean that each of the narrative tactics about to be investigated speaks to that which is ineffable? What are the implications of Calvino’s obsessive attendance to matters of uncertainty as addressed by issues of narrative structure and thematics? Thematically, his novels lend themselves to readings attempting to ascertain the “point” of exposing the heuristic failures of his characters. Structurally, readers wonder what the “point” might be in reading stories without endings. In assuming that Calvino’s fiction refers not only to itself but also to the realm of their own existence, readers feel compelled to ask: if Calvino’s characters cannot find answers to their questions about life, do answers exist for me? Furthermore, does the realm of infinite possibility—the refusal of comforting stability—render life hopeless and without direction or purpose? As the above quotations suggest, communicating a message of hopelessness is hardly Calvino’s literary aim. Throughout his novels, Calvino’s characters fail to find the answers they seek in spite of near-fanatical efforts to apprehend their lives. In the midst of defeat, they understand that they can never know their world. There exists a depth that no amount of analysis can ever truly measure—an array of meanings rather than one supreme truth. In practicing phenomenology—a science that observes without attempting to explain—his characters and those reading his novels can detect the possibility that “salvation lies solely in applying oneself to the things that are there” (Mr. Palomar 52). The possibility for this salvation exists insofar as one is able to understand that he/she will never know, and insofar as he/she maintains a movement of thought. It is this mobility that denies the limits of one’s culturally mandated subjectivity. The vitality of life, a concept similar to the uncertain sensations invoked by Calvino’s style, refuses the flawed model of transcendent truth that plagues Calvino’s characters. It allows them to see that though they may never know the world, the world’s multiplicity renders their lives significant. The ineffability they encounter does not constrain them or render their lives meaningless. Rather, it shows that everything has meaning. There are many truths, and each of their lives (replete with their own singularities) contributes to the great multiplicity of existence.