The University of Western Australia
As we approach the close of the millennium, we are witnessing the critical reassessment of the Enlightenment heritage and its exclusive focus on reason and methods of knowledge that have foregrounded order over disorder, simplification and abstraction over complexity. This form of understanding, it is now argued, has tended to exclude nature itself in favour of superimposing on it rigid models of order. Scientists working towards an integrated understanding of life are announcing a fundamental paradigm shift - taking part in all branches of culture - as we are leaving behind the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton in favour of an ecological understanding of life. Ecology focuses on the relationship of the individual with his/her physical environment and views the world as an interconnected and interdependent whole. While the dominant paradigm that has shaped modern Western culture put mind over matter, ecology propounds a unified view of mind, matter and life, where human beings are viewed as part of an a-centred network. The emergence of a "new dialogue with nature," to borrow the subtitle of Prigogine and Stengers' influential book, implies that we return to nature as a blackboard of models of thought that are more complex than our models of reason which, as history has shown, have led to simplification, exclusion and tyrannical control rather than harmony.
The possibility of a new harmony between humanity and nature presupposes the return to holistic forms of knowledge, like the ancient cosmology, which predates the split of culture into distinct branches. In other words, an ecological awareness implies the recovery of a conception of knowledge as a unified field, in which science and literature are complementary forces feeding off each other.
In this article I would like to sketch a portrait of the ways in which the Italian writer Italo Calvino took up this challenge and experimented with ways in which literature could, in his words, return to its original specific vocation as "natural philosophy."
|Holistic visions of knowledge|
Western thought is characterised by the fragmentation of knowledge which entails the loss of a unifying cultural framework. This can be dated to the beginnings of modernity, starting in the 18th century with the development of experimental science which resulted in the split into two cultures, science and the humanities. Science's move away from treatise writing and the study of classical texts (from Aristotle to Ptolemy) to experimentation and observation of nature has led to the marginalisation of literature in favour of the empirical truths science can deliver. Ecology with its emphasis on integration and holism offers a new role for literature, namely that of cultural unifier. It suggests a return of literature to the status it once had, when written discourse was synonymous with knowledge generally and literature was regarded as a source of knowledge rather than an object of study. For Calvino that means that we must demand that literature provide us with "a cosmic image".
The return to the cosmos is crucial, and, I would argue, indicates a break with the modernist conception of a Copernican universe that had made Reason the new centre of the world and thus reinforced the century-old anthropocentric view of the universe. It is a move towards a postmodernist conception of wholeness that takes its inspiration from classical cosmology, or the study of possible models of the universe that places the cosmos and its functioning at the centre of the universe, recognising humanity as part of the cosmos and not the detached observer of a rational universe. In his book Return to Cosmology (1982), Stephen Toulmin argues that "the world view of Descartes and Newton no longer represents a genuine cosmos" since the introduction of fundamental opposites, such as mind and matter, rationality and causality, subject and object, led to yet another dualism, namely the separation of humanity from nature.
What was lost with the advent of modernity was not only the notion of a cosmos but a genuine cosmology, or a unified understanding of life, as natural philosophy became separated from natural theology in the seventeenth century leading to the specialisation of disciplines. "As a result," Toulmin explains, "it was no longer the professional business of anybody in the sciences to think about 'the Whole'- that is, to deal with those broader questions, about the overall interrelations between things of vastly different kinds, which had been a major concern of earlier cosmologies." One implication of this is the fundamentally interdisciplinary character of the traditional cosmology, for, as Toulmin affirms: although "historically it was predisciplinary, functionally it was transdisciplinary." Calvino's call for literature to supply us with a cosmic image of reality is thus an appeal to literature to return to the role it had before the advent of modernity as 'transdisciplinary' cosmology. It picks up what Calvino sees as a tradition of Italian literature continued from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance but lost in modernity:
This is a deep-rooted vocation in Italian literature, handed down from Dante to Galileo: the notion of the literary work as a map of the world and of the knowable, of writing driven on by a thirst for knowledge that may by turns be theological, speculative, magical, encyclopaedic, or may be concerned with natural philosophy or with transfiguring, visionary observation. It is a tradition that exists in all European literatures, but I would say that in Italian literature it has been dominant in every shape and form, making our literature very different from others, very difficult but at the same time perfectly unique. In the last few centuries this vein has emerged less frequently, and since that time, certainly, our literature has diminished in importance.
|The question of anthropomorphism|
The cosmos as a unifying site has further implications, as Calvino outlines: "the cosmos does not exist" he argues, "not even for science, it is the horizon of an impersonal knowledge, where our anthropocentric chauvinism can be overcome and a non-anthropomorphic vision may be reached." The Enlightenment had banned anthropomorphism, since, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, it saw the projection of subjectivity onto nature as the cause of myth. The subsequent remapping of the cosmos by modern science resulted in what Max Weber called "the disenchantment of nature," making the cosmos a foreign and inaccessible space, in which humanity had no longer any place. Recent theories have pleaded for the reenchantment of science as a point of departure for a new harmony between human beings and nature, whereby human beings have to be conceived as nature's partner (Michel Serres) and engaged in a mutual dialogue (Prigogine and Stengers). Others, like Augustin Berque, have been cautious to point out that this relationship will have to remain one-sided since nature has neither voice nor subjectivity with which to take up its part in the exchange. This means not only that it will remain silent and fundamentally disadvantaged but also forever indifferent to our needs. Our new awareness of a relationship with nature based on equality is therefore nothing but the paradoxical attempt to escape our inescapable anthropomorphism.
Calvino, an insatiable reader of the romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi who had lamented nature's fundamental indifference in his finest poems, was equally aware of the conflict and addressed it in all of his writings. He attempted the reconciliation of man with the Copernican universe in his 'cosmicomical' tales (Cosmicomics, 1963 and T zero, 1965) which for the most part follow a similar pattern: a scientific statement or hypothesis about the origin of the universe, taken from an article or book by a prominent scientist, is followed by a cosmicomical fable told from the point of view of the omnipresent and amorphous Qfwfq. Qfwfq, eyewitness to the Big Bang confirms the scientific statements by cheerfully interjecting, "Hey, its true, I have been there", and in the fable or short story that follows gives us his account of the origin of the universe. The characters' endless disputes and disagreements on the merits and disadvantages of order over disorder, linearity over non-linearity, determinism over indeterminism which are arguably points of divergence of postmodern science from modern science, constitute the remapping of humanity's Imaginaire which ultimately determines and shapes all branches of culture, as it informs our narratives (including science's narratives of knowledge). Calvino's 'escape' into the cosmos is thus his strongest weapon against what he perceives to be an outdated humanism dominating the Italian cultural scene. It constitutes an attempt at escaping an anthropocentric point of view, facilitated through the discourse of science.
Calvino's solution to the humanist heritage of the Enlightenment is, however, paradoxical: on the one hand he pledges escape from any form of humanist teleology, on the other he 'reinserts' subjectivity into the cosmos by creating with Qfwfq an amorphous yet totally human character:
The stories Calvino creates are, similar to folktales, an anthropomorphic mapping of the universe. By humanising the cosmos to the extreme he makes familiar and thus accessible what is not. Inspired by Leopardi whom he credits as a stimulus behind these tales, Calvino proposes a form of narration that conciliates the great romantic poet's lament of the loss of 'illusions,' or the ancients' anthropomorphic understanding of the universe with the advent of Reason:
The formula for his anthropomorphic mapping of the cosmos however comes from the French writer, Raymond Queneau, who had in his poem about the cosmos, Petite cosmogonie portative (1969), marginalised humanity, trying to give a voice to the cosmos itself. Yet as Calvino reminds us in his guide to the poem, Queneau's poem shows that the attempt to escape any form of anthropomorphic representation is an illusion: "Queneau's is still always an anthropomorphic or better an anthropotelic reading of natural history." What makes Queneau's poem an anthropomorphic reading of the cosmos, Calvino explains, is his use of colloquial language, which contrasts starkly with the neutral and seemingly objective language used by science. In this Calvino discerns a philosophical lesson, which we can also recognise in his own Cosmicomiche: "It is from the use of language itself that a philosophical perspective is born: nature becomes humanised, but man does not at all appear enlarged, on the contrary."
By presenting the cosmos in the colourful language of everyday speech, making it the backdrop of domestic scenes, and by populating it with the most ordinary images (for example, a galaxy is compared to an omelette heated in a pan, while the Big Bang is unleashed when a certain signora Ph(i)Nko exclaims in an outburst of love: "Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd love to make some noodles for you boys!"), Calvino makes accessible what constitutes the ultimate foreign space. Yet, as one critic has observed, by reducing the enormity of nature to the everyday, Calvino does not attempt to make fun of it, instead he illustrates the limits of our own anthropocentric vision of the world and it is ultimately we who are made to look ridiculous.
|Palomar - a Cartesian cogito|
A decade after his cosmicomical tales Calvino returns to the paradox of anthropocentrism with a collection of petits poèmes en prose that look at the empirical world through the eyes of a prototypical Cartesian cogito, Mr. Palomar. Palomar complements Qfwfq, the amorphous protagonist of the cosmicomical tales who had looked at the macrocosmos in order to integrate in it the microcosm of human emotions; Palomar instead looks at the microcosm in an attempt to see "the minimal facts of everyday life in a cosmic perspective". Like his ancestor Qfwfq, Mr Palomar is an amorphous being, a pair of eyes, or better a brain with eyes, indeed, he is a post-modern embodiment of Valéry's equally cerebral Monsieur Teste. With Mr Palomar whose name derives from a famous Californian observatory, Calvino investigates the possiblity, or better, impossibility of overcoming the gap between observer and observed, subject and object in order to arrive at some kind of holistic experience. Rather than allowing a glimpse of this seemingly unachievable ideal state, the stories reveal the insufficiency of our Cartesian models of analysis, or as Palomar puts it: "how can you look at something and set your own ego aside? Whose eyes are doing the looking?" And he decides that "To look at itself the world needs the eyes (and the eyeglasses) of Mr Palomar." Palomar's dilemma as described here is of crucial importance to twentieth century science, whose claim to some kind of "spectacles of objectivity" has come under attack this century. As Werner Heisenberg has persuasively argued: "Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning." Thus both science and literature offer fictions about the relation between the subject and the world, and while, as Calvino noted, it was in fact literature that problematised the observer's subjectivity before science acknowledged its own limitations, literature can adopt the scientific method of minute observation and precise description in an attempt to reassess and possibly renew the relation between human beings and the cosmos.
Palomar's descriptions of nature ranging from a wave, a lawn, the night sky, the whistling of birds to a giraffe etc., resemble, as Gore Vidal has observed, those of "a scientist making ongoing reports on that ongoing experiment" with "a scientist's respect for data." A sense of objective narration is created by the use of the third person and present tense, yet estrangement is achieved precisely through anthropomorphic description in the fashion of the nineteenth century naturalists. The most vivid examples are Signor Palomar's descriptions of animals, for instance in "The loves of the tortoises" or "The gecko's belly," where the description of mating turtles or the belly of a gecko in anthropomorphic terms renders strange precisely these terms leading to bizarre questions such as "what does eros become if there are plates of bone or horny scales in the place of skin." In the three stories that make up the section "Palomar at the zoo," the attempt to interpret animal behaviour from an anthropocentric point of view allows Palomar to perceive "a first daybreak of culture in the long biological night" in the albino gorilla's gesture of clutching a rubber tyre. Meanwhile the display of reptiles in "The order of scaly creatures," a bestiary of antediluvian animals which belong to "the world as it was before man," demonstrates "that the world of man is not eternal and is not unique." The stories illustrate Calvino's 'bet with himself,' begun with the cosmicomical tales, to describe anthropomorphically a universe in which humanity has only a very marginal position.
Mr Palomar is a prototypical modern day human, conditioned into a state of perpetual apprehension and insecurity by the frenetic rhythms and congestions of the modern city which make him prone to the illnesses of modern civilisations such as heart attacks and ulcers. Hence his urgency to find a state of peaceful co-existence with nature, which is constantly interrupted by the urgings of his rational mind that force him to analyse his relationship with the world of nature. In "The sword of the sun" while taking an evening swim he contemplates the gap that exists between the world he observes outside of himself and the one he harbours inside his analytic mind. He envisions his physical self, his "swimming ego" as "immersed in a disembodied world," a world of geometrical shapes that co-exists with another interior world where everything is less clear, where straight lines and vectorial diagrams are replaced by something less tangible, which for want of an exact term he describes as "a lump, a clot, a blockage." It is from this world that springs both the desire to immerse himself in the macroscopic world and become part of the cosmos, and the painful awareness that the world was not created for the human spectator, who, like the perpetually apprehensive Palomar, is left to his own devices to try and make existence meaningful by inventing a relation between the self and the cosmos. Likewise in "Reading a wave" the seemingly soothing activity of observing the surf crashing on the shore becomes a nerve-racking experience when he tries to observe a single wave. A parody of our Cartesian methods of analysis of separating a fragment from the whole, the story plays once again on Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle that prevents us from describing with precision the fluid reality of matter. Palomar's perpetual irritation when confronted with fluid forms is endemic of Calvino's painful awareness that quantum physics poses a challenge to his narrative models which are informed by structural analysis and are based on a combinatorial code that assumes that the world can be compartmentalised into fundamental building blocks. As the physicist Fritjof Capra has put it, at the subatomic level entities dissolve into wave-like probabilities, revealing "a basic oneness of the universe." In other words, the universe is a universe in flux, where the division between subject and object is blurred, making the subject part of the flux as Palomar's failed efforts at mastering a wave demonstrate. Calvino-Palomar's attempts ultimately fail since they are still informed by an ideology of mastery and control as the author's very definition of literature as an instrument of knowledge makes clear: "in my experience, the urge for writing is always connected with the longing for something one would like to possess and master, something that escapes us."
Palomar is a mouthpiece of Calvino's resolve to approach the world by describing and observing it rather than interpreting it. The author's reformulation of knowledge in these terms is similar to Prigogine and Stengers for whom description is a form of communication, a dialogue with nature, which demonstrates that "we are macroscopic beings embedded in the physical world." And although, as we have seen, this dialogue will have to remain anthropotelic, it does not necessarily have to remain one-sided, as it implies attention on our part to our silent partner, recognising the forms and models it offers us rather than imposing our logically perfect models on it. As Calvino had reflected on another occasion, knowledge is a work in progress, an ongoing process of refining our understanding of nature and the empirical world:
. See for example Edgar Morin. Introduction à la pensée complexe. Paris: ESF éditeur, 1990.
. See Fritjof Capra's latest book The Web of Life: A new Synthesis of Mind and Matter. 2nd ed. London: Flamingo, 1997.
. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers. Order out of Chaos: Man's new Dialogue with Nature. 2nd ed. London: Flamingo, 1985; trans. of La nouvelle alliance: Métamorphose de la science. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.
. Letter to Giuseppe Bonaviri, 29.4.1969 in I libri degli altri. Turin: Einaudi, 1991: "quella che era la sua vocazione specifica nei suoi primi secoli: letteratura come 'filosofia naturale'", p.579.
. See chapter 1. "Literature and the Division of Knowledge" in William R. Paulson's. The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988, pp.3-29.
. Italo Calvino. "La sfida al labirinto" Una pietra sopra. Turin: Einaudi, 1980, p.97. My translation.
. Stephen Toulmin. The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982, p.224.
. Toulmin, p.237.
. Toulmin, p.229.
. "Two Interviews on Literature and Science" (1968). The Uses of Literature. New York: Harvest, 1987, p.32.
. Italo Calvino with Daniele Del Giudice. "Situazione 1978" Saggi. Vol 2, ed. Mario Barenghi Milan: Mondadori, 1995, pp.2830-31. My translation.
. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1986, p.10.
. David Ray Griffin, ed.. The Reenchantment of Science. SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought New York: The State U of New York P, 1988, p.1.
. As Griffin explains, the "disenchantment of nature ... means the denial to nature of all subjectivity, all experience, all feeling", p.2.
. Michel Serres. Le contract naturel. Paris: Editions François Bourin, 1992.
. Augustin Berque. Etre humains sur la terre. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
. Cf. letter to Franco Fortini 5 Nov. 1971; now I libri degli altri, p.589: "Ma quello che io tento è di uscire da ogni teleologia umanistica vedendo l'uomo come strumento o catalizzatore o anello non so di che cosa, di un universo-informazione, d'una storia o antropomorfizzazione della materia, e un mondo senza più esseri umani in cui l'uomo si sia realizzato e risolto, un mondo di calcolatori elettronici e farfalle, non mi spaventa anzi mi rassicura."
. The term 'reinsert' is borrowed from Toulmin who explains that postmodern science is called upon to reintegrate nature and humanity: "the expansion of scientific inquiry into the human realm is compelling us to abandon the Cartesian dichotomies and look for ways of 'reinserting' humanity into the world of nature. Instead of viewing the world of nature as onlookers from outside, we now have to understand how our own human life and activities operate as elements within the world of nature. So we must develop a more coordinated view of the world, embracing both the world of nature and the world of humanity - a view capable of integrating, not merely aggregating our scientific understanding, and capable of doing so with practice in view. Only a broader, more coordinated view of the world of this kind can pick up once again the legitimate tasks undertaken by the traditional cosmology before the 'new philosophers' of the seventeenth century led to its dismantlement", pp.255-56.
. Calvino. "Two interviews", p.34.
. Alexander Stille. "An interview with Italo Calvino" Saturday Review. March/April 1985, pp.37-39 39.
. Italo Calvino. "Piccola guida alla 'Piccola cosmogonia portatile'" Piccola cosmogonia portatile. trans. Sergio Solmi, 2nd ed. Torino: Einaudi, 1988, pp.147-83 : "quella di Q. è pur sempre una lettura antropomorfa o meglio antropotelica della storia naturale", p.175.
. Calvino. "Piccola guida". pp.175-76. My translation.
. Calvino. Cosmicomics. Trans. William Weaver London: Jonathan Cape, 1969, p.46.
. Claudio Milanini. L'utopia discontinua. Saggio su Italo Calvino. Milano: Garzanti 1990, p.113.
. Cf. an interview with Walter Mauro. "Calvino al crocevia fra realtà e favola" Il Tempo 20 Feb. 1984, p.3. My translation.
. Calvino. Mr Palomar. Trans. William Weaver London: Picador, 1986, p.102.
. David Locke. Science as Writing. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992, p.57.
. Werner Heisenberg. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959, p.75.
. "Prima ancora che la scienza avesse ufficialmente riconosciuto il principio che l'osservazione interviene a modificare in qualche modo il fenomeno osservato, Gadda sapeva che 'conoscere è inserire alcunché nel reale; è, quindi deformare il reale' " S I, p.719.
 Gore Vidal. "On Italo Calvino" New York Review of Books. 21 Nov. 1985, p.3 & p.6.
. Calvino. Palomar, p.18.
. Calvino, p.74.
. Calvino, p.78.
. Calvino, p.14.
. Fritjof Capra. The Tao of Physics. 3rd ed London: Flamingo, 1992. p.78.
. Calvino. "The Written and the Unwritten Word". Trans. William Weaver. New York Review of Books 30, 1983, p.39.
. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers. Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. 2nd ed. London: Flamingo, 1985. p.300.
. Calvino. The Uses, p.296.
Dr Kerstin Pilz teaches Italian and European Studies in the School of European Languages at the University of Western Australia. Her research and teaching interests include Italian twentieth century literature, particularly women's writing and Italo Calvino, literary theory and Italian cinema. Her PhD thesis explores the relationship between science, philosophy and literature in the works of Italo Calvino and she has published several articles on that topic.