Calvino and postmodernism

Traveling along the history of epistemology, one would find a path riddled with disagreements and ambiguities. Italo Calvino’s writing embraces postmodernism’s curiosity in attempting to make sense of that historical non-linearity (multiplicity).

In 1984 Calvino was invited by Harvard University as part of the Charles Elliot Norton lecture series. Out of the planned six, he managed to finish only five of them in manuscript form before falling gravely ill. The general topic of lectures was the future of literature as the new millennium was approaching. In his words: “I would […] like to devote these lectures to certain values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to my heart, trying to situate them within the perspective of the new millennium.”[1] The fifth lecture on multiplicity presents an interesting structure. Calvino cites extensively from multiple authors whom he believes to be representative of the “contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world.”[2] He discusses Gadda, Musil, Proust, Mann, Joyce, Borges, and himself among many others. Calvino’s interpretation rests on two principal premises: The first is the need of the author to write a novel where the web of details and digressions multiplies ad infinitum,[3] as in the case of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s novels where “the knowledge of things – seen as the convergence of infinite relationships, past and future, real or possible – demands that everything should be precisely named, described, and located in space and time.”[4] The second, is the impossibility of putting an end to the proliferating multiplicity, as exemplified by Robert Musil, for whom “everything he knows or thinks he deposits in an encyclopedic book that he tries to keep in the form of a novel, but its structure continually changes; it comes to pieces in his hands.”[5] Thus, for Calvino, Musil’s practice results in the impossibility of finishing the novel and its containment of “the enormous mass of material within set limits.”[6] These two conclusions help Calvino lay out a few simple prototypes[7] of novels, such as the unified single voiced text open to multiple levels of interpretation (e.g. Jarry); the manifold “polyphonic” text that replaces the single voice for a multiplicity of subjects (Plato, Rabelais, Dostoevsky); the incomplete encyclopedic text (Gadda, Musil); the nonsystematic aphoristic text (Valery); and the texts that “match the rigorous geometry of the crystal and the abstraction of deductive reasoning”[8] (Borges).

Calvino’s citation of older works is contextualized by different interpretations across different periods. These works are not necessarily postmodern – it is Calvino’s contextualization that places them within a postmodern multiplicity. This echoes Umberto Eco, who saw postmodernism as an attitude in the listener/reader and not in the work itself. Calvino sees multiplicity everywhere and revels in it. The pleasure, however, is bundled together with its opposite. Citing Flaubert’s characters Bouvard and Pecuchet, who eventually “gave up the idea of understanding the world,”[9] Calvino questions whether “we should [also] conclude that in the experience of Bouvard and Pecuchet ‘encyclopedia’ and ‘nothingness’ fuse together.”[10] Calvino addresses this question in his own novels, but with Flaubert, he chooses to see the comfort that at least Flaubert the writer “is transforming himself into an encyclopedia of the universe …”[11] Calvino is optimistic that while the epistemological quest of writing an all-encompassing encyclopedia will eventually fail, the writer at least would have profited from such failure.

While in the lectures Calvino writes of the epistemological failure of writing an all-encompassing encyclopedic book, the idea of expressing this all-encompassing multiplicity also gains a distinctly postmodern ontological dimension. In order to illustrate this point, two years before the Harvard lectures, in his last published book Mr. Palomar, Calvino writes of an encounter between the fictional protagonist Mr. Palomar (his autobiographical alter-ego) and “the only exemplar known in the world of the great albino ape”[12] at a zoo in Barcelona. This innocuous encounter serves as a trampoline for a series of dizzying reflections on the meaning of life. Mr. Palomar immediately strikes an affectionate rapport with the gorilla he observes through the zoo’s glass. Just like Mr. Palomar, the gorilla’s gaze expresses “the effort of bearing his own singularity.”[13] Having established this melancholic rapport, Mr. Palomar observes that the great ape is “pressing a rubber tire against his chest.”[14] Mr. Palomar attributes to that action the gorilla’s possible identification with the tire, who, moreover, “is about to reach, in the depths of silence, the springs from which language bursts forth, to establish a flow of relationships between his thoughts and the unyielding, deaf evidence of the facts that determine his life.”[15] The relationship between the gorilla and the symbolically ambivalent tire serves to make a final reflection on language:


“At night […] the great ape continues to appear to [Mr. Palomar]. ‘Just as the gorilla has his tire, which serves as tangible support for a raving, wordless speech,’ he thinks, ‘so I have this image of a great white ape. We all turn in our hands an old, empty tire through which we try to reach some final meaning, which words cannot achieve.’”[16]


The book abounds in similar twists, where the mundanity of everyday life is held against a postmodern mirror – images multiply, yet there exists an ontological impossibility in grasping the myriad of symbols proliferating in our contemporary world. What would happen if Gadda, Musil, Proust etc. managed to write a complete epistemology? For Calvino, in Mr. Palomar, this hypothesis gains cosmic proportions. In “Learning to be Dead” Mr. Palomar contemplates his own death, and the liberation that comes with absolving his day-to-day anxiety. The “most difficult step in learning how to be dead,” he reckons, is “to become convinced that your own life is a closed whole, all in the past, to which you can add nothing and can alter none of the relationships among the various elements.”[17] Viewing his life as a closed circle, however, does not gel well with Mr. Palomar, since his temperament makes him “reluctant to submit to the sentence to remaining exactly as he is;” yet, “he is [also] unwilling to give up anything of himself, even if it is a burden.”[18] The deadlock that paralyzes Mr. Palomar on an individual level also paralyzes his historical thought. One’s words and deeds could last throughout the centuries, but all that does is simply “[postpone] the problem, from one’s own individual death to the extinction of the human race, however late this may occur.”[19] Finally, a solution strikes Mr. Palomar: “If time has to end, it can be described, instant by instant,” Mr. Palomar thinks, “and each instant, when described, expands so that its end can no longer be seen.”[20] Calvino suggests a shift from epistemology into a fractal-like phenomenology. Describing and re-describing multiplicities will do nothing to prevent the end of our civilization, yet it can ease Mr. Palomar’s mind since his percieved passing of time will seem extended. Thus, “[Mr. Palomar] decides that he will set himself to describing every instant of his life, and until he has described them all he will no longer think of being dead. At that moment he dies.”[21] At this point, Calvino also ends his book.

Calvino seems to deny Mr. Palomar a phenomenological way out, just as he earlier denied an epistemological way out: – even when Mr. Palomar attempts to mentally construct a model of totality, “a scruple [still] restrains him: what if all this becomes a model? And so [Mr. Palomar] prefers to keep his convictions in the fluid state, check them instance by instance, and make them the implicit rule of his own everyday behavior, in doing or not doing, in choosing or rejecting, in speaking or remaining silent.”[22] Despite the exquisite lightness of Calvino’s writing, his barring conclusions are hard to come to terms with – they are dark and hopelessly evasive. Yet, over time I have managed to view them with the same inexplicable curiosity that the albino gorilla views his tire. Calvino’s lesson is not the discontinuation of practicing multiplicities, but like Mr. Palomar, the acceptance that the need to find meaning will not be ultimately resolved in the symbolic realm.



[1] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 1

[2] Ibid., 105

[3] Ibid., 107

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 110

[6] Ibid.

[7] The following prototypes are cited from Ibid., 117-118

[8] Ibid., 119

[9] Ibid., 114

[10] Ibid., 114

[11] Ibid., 115

[12] Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt, 1985), 80

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 82

[16] Ibid., 83

[17] Ibid., 125

[18] Ibid., 125

[19] Ibid., 126

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 112