As you know, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium has entranced me this year. The first essay was “Lightness,” and Calvino sought balance between capturing difficult reality and his dreamlike aspirations. The next, “Quickness,” explored narrative aerodynamics. Both essays spoke near-directly to my life in the weeks I read them.
In the third essay, “Exactitude,” I didn’t expect to connect as deeply as with the first two. “Exactitude” was such an anal-retentive word, and a glance at my apartment shouted the opposite. This guess was wrong, of course. While I didn’t connect as personally, the depth was there.
Speaking to the topic, Calvino didn’t act as a friend. He was a ride. I imagined the space elevator. He telescoped in and out. Exactitude, to him, was a dichotomy in writing. Did a writer use the primacy of words to find form in the world? Or did a writer use the primacy of the world to inspire words to catch up? For as much as a writer could measure actions to try and capture the infinite, the writer could also describe the seemingly finite to an infinite extent. Zooming out, zooming in.
Exactitude, for Calvino, began with precision but lived on exploration.
He raised a metaphor of a crystal and a flame. A crystal appeared to be a rigidly structured object but was only as such because of its life inside. A flame seemed to be wild and uncontrollable but was only as such because of its steady, mathematical, thermodynamic engine.
Putting aside some beautiful extended quotes Calvino used (among them, a meditation on how we observe indirect sun and moonlight), this was the first of two favorite “Exactitude” passages for me:
The fact is, my writing has always found itself facing two divergent paths that correspond to two different types of knowledge. One path goes into the mental space of bodiless rationality, where one may trace lines that converge, projections, abstract forms, vectors of force. The other path goes through a space crammed with objects and attempts to create a verbal equivalent of that space by filling the page with words, involving a most careful, painstaking effort to adapt what is written to what is not written, to the sum of what is sayable and not sayable. These are two different drives toward exactitude that will never attain complete fulfillment, one because “natural” languages always say something more than formalized languages can — natural languages always involve a certain amount of noise that impinges upon the essentiality of the information — and the other because, in representing the density and continuity of the world around us, language is revealed as defective and fragmentary, always saying something less with respect to the sum of what can be experienced.
Here was the second, again dueling with descriptive dichotomy:
There are those who hold that the word is the way of attaining the substance of the world, the final, unique, and absolute substance. Rather than representing the substance, the word identifies itself with it (so that it is wrong to call the word merely a means to an end): there is the word that knows only itself, and no other knowledge of the world is possible. There are others who regard the use of the word as an unceasing pursuit of things, an approach not to their substance but to their infinite variety, touching on their inexhaustibly multiform surface. As Hoffmannsthal said: “Depth is hidden. Where? On the surface.” And Wittgenstein went even further than this: “For what is hidden … is of no interest to us.”
I would not be so drastic. I think we are always searching for something hidden or merely potential or hypothetical, following its traces whenever they appear on the surface. I think our basic mental processes have come down to us through every period of history, ever since the times of our Paleolithic forefathers, who were hunters and gatherers. The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.
A week after reading, I love that image. I sit here at the beach, wondering when to be the crystal and when to be the flame.