Reproduced from two of the six (exquisite, prescient) essays in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Vintage, 1988). The following words are Italo Calvino's, as he searched after Mallarmé's crystal:
It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty–that is, the use of words. It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meanings, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.
At this point, I don't wish to dwell on the possible sources of this epidemic, whether they are to be sought in politics, ideology, bureaucratic uniformity, the monotomy of the mass media, or the way the schools dispense the culture of the mediocre. What interests me are the possibilities of health. Literature, and perhaps literature alone, can create the antibodies to fight this plague in language.
I would like to add that it is not just language that seems to have been struck by this pestilence...
But maybe this lack of substance is not to be found in images or in language alone, but in the world itself. This plague strikes also at the lives of people and the history of nations. It makes all histories formless, random, confused, with neither beginning nor end. My discomfort arises from the loss of form that I notice in life, which I try to oppose with the only weapon I can think of–the idea of literature.
Therefore I can even use negative terms to define the values I am setting out to defend. It remains to be seen whether by using equally convincing arguments one cannot defend the contrary thesis. For example, Giacomo Leopardi maintained that the more vague and imprecise language is, the more poetic it becomes. I might mention in passing that as far as I know Italian is the only language in which the word vago (vague) also means "lovely, attractive." Starting out from the original meaning of "wandering," the word vago still carries an idea of a movement and mutability, which in Italian is associated both with uncertainty and indefiniteness and with gracefulness and pleasure...
[goes on to examine Leopardi's Zibaldone for "proof"]
So this is what Leopardi asks of us, that we may savor the beauty of the vague and indefinite! What he requires is a highly exact and meticulous attention to the composition of each image, to the minute definition of details, to the choice of objects, to the lighting and the atmosphere, all in order to attain the desired degree of vagueness. Therefore Leopardi, whom I had chosen as the ideal oppenent of my argument in favor of exactitude, turns out to be a decisive witness in its favor.....The poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude, who is able to grasp the subtlest sensations with eyes and ears and quick, unerring hands...
Sometimes I try to concentrate on the story I would like to write, and I realize that what interests me is something else entirely or, rather, not anything precise but everything that does not fit in with what I ought to write–the relationship between a given argument and all its possible variants and alternatives, everything that can happen in time and space. This is a devouring and destructive obession, which is enough to render writing impossible. In order to combat it, I try to limit the field of what I have to say, divide it into still more limited fields, then subdivide these again, and so on and on. Then another kind of vertigo seizes me, that of the detail of the detail of the detail, and I am drown into the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, just as I was previously lost in the infinitely vast...
The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game: but now it was the game's reason that eluded him. The end of every game is a gain or a loss: but of what? What were the real stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner's hand, nothingness remains: a black square, or a white one. By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire's multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a sqaure of planed wood.
Then Marco Polo spoke: "Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night's frost forced it to desist."
Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.
"Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum's nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree's being chosen for chopping down...This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding..."
The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebody forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows...* ("Exactitude")
* Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), pp. 131-132
Often for Calvino, it all seems to come back to women at the windows...
And from "Visibility:"
We may distinguish between two types of imaginative process: the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression. The first process is the one that normally occurs when we read. For example, we read a scene in a novel or the report of some event in a newspaper and, according to the greater or lesser effectiveness of the text, we are brought to witness the scene as if it were taking place before our eyes, or at least to witness certain fragments or details of the scene that are singled out.
In the cinema the image we see on the screen has also passed through the stage of the written text, has then been "visualized" in the mind of the director, then physically reconstructed on the set, and finally fixed in the frames of the film itself. A film is therefore the outcome of a succession of phases, both material and otherwise, in the course of which the images acquire form. During this process, the "mental cinema" of the imagination has a function no less important than that of the actual creation of the sequences as they will be recorded by the camera and then put together on the moviola. This mental cinema is always at work in each one of us, and it always has been, even before the invention of the cinema. Nor does it ever stop projecting images before our mind's eye... ("Visibility")