Atelier of the Boxes, ivory writing tablet and lid (Medieval, between 1340 and 1360, northern France). Walters Art Museum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
I belong to that portion of humanity—a minority on the planetary scale but a majority I think among my public—that spends a large part of its waking hours in a special world, a world made up of horizontal lines where the words follow one another one at a time, where every sentence and every paragraph occupies its set place: a world that can be very rich, maybe even richer than the nonwritten one, but that requires me to make a special adjustment to situate myself in it. When I leave the written world to find my place in the other, in what we usually call the world, made up of three dimensions and five senses, populated by billions of our kind, that to me is equivalent every time to repeating the trauma of birth, giving the shape of intelligible reality to a set of confused sensations, and choosing a strategy for confronting the unexpected without being destroyed.
This new birth is always accompanied by special rites that signify the entrance into a different life: for example, the rite of putting on my glasses, since I’m nearsighted and read without glasses, while for the farsighted majority the opposite rite is imposed, that is, of taking off the glasses used for reading.
Every rite of passage corresponds to a change in mental attitude. When I read, every sentence has to be readily understood, at least in its literal meaning, and has to enable me to formulate an opinion: what I’ve read is true or false, right or wrong, pleasant or unpleasant. In ordinary life, on the other hand, there are always countless circumstances that escape my understanding, from the most general to the most banal: I often find myself facing situations in which I wouldn’t know how to express an opinion, in which I prefer to suspend judgment.
While I wait for the unwritten world to become clear to my eyes, there is always within reach a written page that I can dive back into. I hasten to do that, with the greatest satisfaction: there at least, even if I understand only a small part of the whole, I can cultivate the illusion of keeping everything under control.
I think that in my youth, too, things went that way, but at the time I had the illusion that the written world and the unwritten world illuminated one another; that the experiences of life and the experiences of reading were in some way complementary, and every step forward in one field corresponded to a step forward in the other. Today I can say that I know much more about the written world than I once did: within books, experience is always possible, but its reach doesn’t extend beyond the blank margin of the page. Instead, what happens in the world that surrounds me never stops surprising me, frightening me, disorienting me. I’ve witnessed many changes in my lifetime, in the vast world, in society, and many changes in myself, too, and yet I can’t predict anything, not for myself or for the people I know, and even less regarding the future of the human race. I couldn’t predict the future relations between the sexes, between the generations, future developments of society, of cities and nations, what type of peace there will be or what type of war, what significance money will have, which of the objects in daily use will disappear and which appear as new, what sort of vehicles and machines will be used, what the future of the sea will be, of rivers, animals, plants. I know very well that I share this ignorance with those who, on the contrary, claim to know: economists, sociologists, politicians. But the fact that I am not alone gives me no comfort.
I take some comfort in the thought that literature has always understood something more than other disciplines, but this reminds me that the ancients saw in letters a school of wisdom, and I realize how unattainable every idea of wisdom is today.
At this point you will ask: If you say that your true world is the written page, if only there do you feel at ease, why do you want to leave it, why do you want to venture into this vast world that you are unable to master? The answer is simple: To write. Because I’m a writer. What is expected of me is that I look around and capture some rapid images of what’s happening, then return and, bent over my desk, resume work. In order to restart my factory of words I have to get new fuel from the wells of the unwritten.
But let’s take a closer look at how things stand. Is that really how it happens? The principal philosophical currents of the moment say: No, none of this is true. The mind of the writer is obsessed by the contrasting positions of two philosophical currents. The first says: The world doesn’t exist; only language exists. The second says: Common language has no meaning; the world is ineffable.
For the first, the materiality of language is raised above a world of shadows; for the second, it’s the world that looms as a mute stone sphinx over a desert of words, like sand carried by the wind. The first current’s main sources have come from Paris over the past twenty-five years; the second has been flowing from Vienna since the start of the century and has passed through various changes, regaining general acceptance in recent years in Italy as well. Both philosophies have strong arguments on their side. Both represent a challenge for the writer: the first requires the use of a language that responds only to itself, to its internal laws; the second, the use of a language that can face up to the silence of the world. Both exert on me their fascination and their influence. That means that I end up not following either, that I don’t believe in either. What do I believe in, then?
Let’s see for a moment if I can take advantage of this difficult situation. First of all, if we feel so intensely the incompatibility between the written and the not written, it’s because we’re much more aware of what the written world is: we can’t forget even for a second that it’s a world made of words, used according to the techniques and strategies proper to language, according to the special systems in which meanings and the relations between meanings are organized. We are aware that when a story is told to us (and almost all written texts tell a story, even a philosophical essay, even a corporation balance sheet, even a cooking recipe), this story is set in motion by a mechanism similar to the mechanisms of every other story.
This is a big step forward: we’re now able to avoid a lot of confusion between what is linguistic and what isn’t, and so we can see clearly the relationship between the two worlds.
All that’s left is to cross-check, and verify that the external world is always there and doesn’t depend on words, rather, is not reducible to words, and that no language, no writing can deplete it. I have only to turn my back on the words deposited in books, plunge into the world outside, hoping to reach the heart of silence, the true silence full of meaning … but how to get there?
Some, in order to have contact with the world outside, simply buy the newspaper every morning. I am not so naive. I know that from the papers I get a reading of the world made by others, or, rather, made by an anonymous machine, expert in choosing from the infinite dust of events those which can be sifted out as “news.”
Others, to escape the grip of the written world, turn on the television. But I know that all the images, even those most directly drawn from life, are part of a constructed story, like the ones in the newspapers. So I won’t buy the newspaper, I won’t turn on the television but will confine myself to going out for a walk.
But everything I see on the city streets already has its place in the context of homogenized information. This world I see, which is usually recognized as the world, appears to my eyes—mostly, anyway—already conquered, colonized by words, a world covered by a thick crust of discourses. The facts of our life are already classified, judged, commented on, even before they happen. We live in a world where everything is read even before it starts to exist.
Not only everything we see but our very eyes are saturated with written language. Over the centuries the habit of reading has transformed Homo sapiens into Homo legens, but this Homo legens isn’t necessarily wiser than before. The man who didn’t read knew how to see and hear many things that we no longer perceive: the tracks of the beasts he hunted, the signs of the approach of rain or wind. He knew the time of day from the shadow of a tree, the time of night by the distance of the stars above the horizon. And as for the heard, smelled, tasted, touched, his superiority to us can’t be doubted.
Having said this, I had better clarify that I didn’t come here to propose a return to illiteracy in order to recover the knowledge of Paleolithic tribes. I regret all we may have lost, but I never forget that the gains are greater than the losses. What I’m trying to understand is what we can do today.
I have to mention the particular difficulties I encounter as an Italian in both my relations with the world and my relations with language, that is, as a writer from a country that is continuously frustrating to those who try to understand it. Italy is a country where many mysterious things happen, which are every day widely discussed and commented on but never solved; where every event hides a secret plot, which is a secret and remains a secret; where no story comes to an end because the beginning is unknown, but between beginning and end we can enjoy an infinity of details. Italy is a country where society experiences very rapid changes, even in habits, in behavior: so rapid that we can’t tell what direction we’re moving in, and every new fact disappears, sunk by an avalanche of complaints and warnings of degradation and catastrophe, or by declarations of satisfaction with our traditional ability to get by and survive.
So the stories we can tell are marked on the one hand by a sense of the unknown and on the other by a need for structure, for carefully drawn lines, for harmony and geometry; this is our way of reacting to the shifting sands we feel under our feet.
As for language, it has been stricken by a kind of plague. Italian is becoming an increasingly abstract, artificial, ambiguous language; the simplest things are never said directly, concrete nouns are rarely used. This epidemic first infected politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, then became more general, as the larger masses increasingly acquired political and intellectual awareness. The writer’s task is to fight this plague, ensure the survival of a direct, concrete language, but the problem is that everyday language, until yesterday the living source that writers could resort to, can no longer avoid infection.
In other words, I believe that we Italians are in the ideal situation to link our current difficulty in writing novels to general reflections on language and the world.
An important international tendency in our century’s culture, what we call the phenomenological approach in philosophy and the alienation effect in literature, drives us to break the screen of words and concepts and see the world as if it were appearing to our gaze for the first time. Good, now I will try to make my mind blank, and look at the landscape with a gaze free of every cultural precedent. What happens? Our life is programmed for reading, and I realize that I am trying to read the landscape, the meadow, the waves of the sea. This programming doesn’t mean that our eyes are obliged to follow an instinctive horizontal movement from left to right, then to the left a little lower down, and so on. (Obviously I’m speaking about eyes programmed to read Western pages; Japanese eyes are used to a vertical program.) More than an optical exercise, reading is a process that involves mind and eyes together, a process of abstraction or, rather, an extraction of concreteness by means of abstract operations, like recognizing distinc tive marks, shattering everything we see into tiny pieces, rearranging them into meaningful segments, discovering around us regularities, differences, recurrences, singularities, substitutions, redundancies.
The comparison between the world and a book has had a long history starting in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What language is the book of the world written in? According to Galileo, it’s the language of mathematics and geometry, a language of absolute exactitude. Can we read the world of today in this way? Maybe, if we’re talking about the extremely distant: galaxies, quasars, supernovas. But as for our daily world, it seems to us written, rather, as in a mosaic of languages, like a wall covered with graffiti, writings traced one on top of the other, a palimpsest whose parchment has been scratched and rewritten many times, a collage by Schwitters, a layering of alphabets, of diverse citations, of slang terms, of flickering characters like those which appear on a computer screen.
Should we be trying to achieve an imitation of this language of the world? Some of the most important writers of our century have done that: we can find examples in the Cantos of Ezra Pound, or in Joyce, or in some dizzying passages of Gadda, who is always tempted by his obsession with connecting every detail to the entire universe.
But is imitation really the right way? I started from the irreconcilable difference between the written world and the unwritten world; if their two languages merge, my argument crumbles. The true challenge for a writer is to speak of the intricate tangle of our situation using a language so seemingly transparent that it creates a sense of hallucination, as Kafka did.
Perhaps the first step in renewing a relationship between language and world is the simplest: fix attention on an ordinary object, the most banal and familiar, and describe it minutely, as if it were the newest and most interesting thing in the universe.
One of the lessons we can take from modern poetry is to invest all our attention, all our love for detail, in something very far from any human image: an object or plant or animal in which we can identify our sense of reality, our morality, our I, as William Carlos Williams did with a cyclamen, Marianne Moore with a nautilus, Eugenio Montale with an eel.
In France, ever since Francis Ponge began to write prose poems on humble objects like a piece of soap or a piece of coal, the problem of the “thing in itself” has continued to mark literary projects, through Sartre and Camus, to reach its ultimate expression in the description of a quarter of a tomato by Robbe-Grillet. But I don’t think the last word has been said yet. In Germany recently, Peter Handke wrote a novel based entirely on landscapes. And in Italy, too, what some of the new writers I’ve read lately have in common is a visual approach.
My interest in descriptions is also due to the fact that my most recent book, Palomar, includes a lot of descriptions. I try to work so that the description becomes a story, yet remains description. In each of these brief stories, a character thinks only on the basis of what he sees and is suspicious of any thoughts that come to him by other routes. My problem in writing this book was that I have never been what is called an observer; so the first operation I had to perform was to focus my attention on something and then describe it, or rather do the two things at the same time, because, not being an observer, if for example I observe an iguana at the zoo and I don’t immediately write down everything I’ve seen, I forget it.
I have to say that most of the books I’ve written and those I have it in mind to write originate in the idea that writing such a book seemed impossible to me. When I’m convinced that a certain type of book is completely beyond the capacities of my temperament and my technical skills, I sit down at my desk and start writing it.
That’s what happened with my novel If on a winter’s night a traveler: I began by imagining all the types of novel that I will never write; then I tried to write them, to evoke in myself the creative energy of ten different imaginary novelists.
Another book I’m writing talks about the five senses, to demonstrate that modern man has lost the use of them. My problem in writing this book is that my sense of smell isn’t very developed, I lack auditory attention, I’m not a gourmet, my tactile sensitivity is approximate, and I’m nearsighted. For each of the five senses I have to make an effort that allows me to master a range of sensations and nuances. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but in this case as in the others my goal is not so much to make a book as to change myself, which I think should be the goal of every human undertaking.
You may object that you prefer books that convey a true experience, fully grasped. Well, so do I. But in my experience the motivation to write is always connected to the lack of something we would like to know and possess, something that escapes us. And since I am well acquainted with that type of motivation, it seems to me that I can also recognize it in the great writers whose voices seem to reach us from the peak of an absolute experience. What they convey is a sense of the approach to the experience, rather than a sense of the experience achieved; their secret is in knowing how to keep the force of desire intact.
In a certain sense, I believe that we always write about something we don’t know: we write to make it possible for the unwritten world to express itself through us. At the moment my attention shifts from the regular order of the written lines and follows the mobile complexity that no sentence can contain or use up, I feel close to understanding that from the other side of the words, from the silent side, something is trying to emerge, to signify through language, like tapping on a prison wall.
From a paper read at New York University as the James Lecture at the Institute for the Humanities on March 30, 1983, in a new translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, to be published in a collection of Calvino’s essays, The Written World and the Unwritten World, by Mariner Classics in January 2023.
The novels of Italo Calvino (1923–1985) include Invisible Cities, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and The Baron in the Trees. He also published numerous collections of fiction, folktales, criticism, and essays.
Ann Goldstein has translated widely from Italian, including the works of Elena Ferrante, Primo Levi, Alessandro Baricco, and others.
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