Italo Calvino’s Memo I: Lightness

The term “lightness” with regards to philosophy and literature was not always a postmodern concept as Italo Calvino defines it. Lightness on Milan Kundera‘s terms was something of a negative quality. Lightness pulled one away from the weight of the world; to seek lightness would be a mode by which one would try and escape from reality. Seeking lightness in this manner is a means to detach from the responsibility of living.

Calvino alters the perception of lightness by redefining it as a positive quality. Lightness is a means of gaining perspective. Lightness is a force that propels.  Lightness is a coping mechanism, a way of escaping from the rigors of the world.

To become light is to allow oneself to rise, to access a different plane in which to look at the environment. Changing perspective on the matters that weigh a person down is to alleviate the discomfort of that weight.

Calvino uses science to bolster his ideas. He highlights the power of the tiniest aspects of life, the atom, DNA, etc., principle structures that support and create the weightiest aspects of the greater world at large. Lightness is a force that underpins the aspect of life.

Calvino also uses the example of a shaman to describe lightness. He notes the ability of the shaman, when matters overbear the tribe with disease, infection and basic troubles, to attain a higher plane of consciousness so that he may be able to change the face of reality.

These concepts are important for Calvino and his literary escapades. He views literature as a transformation of ideas, and he views lightness as a transfromative power. Literature itself is not only mimetic power created by the poet and his inventions, but the language in literature can assume the power of lightness. Flying carpets and those who ride lightly on the wind to their destinations are achieving lightness, all the while conveying a sense of lightness to the reader. Breezes and bees, drifting and gliding are words of light verbal texture and they produce the lofty feeling of the lightness that helps one to contend with worldly weight.

The questions provided stem directly from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium:

Why does Calvino write the six memos?
To look for an overall definition of his work.

How does Calvino define “weight”?
Qualities that stick to writing from the start; interia, opacity of the world.

What is the Medusa myth considered an allegory to?
A poet’s relationship to the world; a lesson in the method to follow when writing. Persesus rides the wind then uses the mirror to view his situation. The wind is “lightness,” so that the mirror will provide an enlightened perspective.

Calvino refers to Milan Kundera’s novel to assign the meaning of weight to mean what?
The weight of living; a current state of oppression in Kundera’s country, and a type of oppression that pervades living throughout the human condition.

Where does Calvino’s view of science fit into the discrepancy between weight and lightness?
The weightness of the world is supported by minute entities like DNA, atoms, etc. Lightness in these terms are small entities with forces that are seemingly more powerful than weight.

How does Calvino’s computer science analogy depict lightness as a force?
The software of a computer cannot operate without the hardware (weight); software–the light stream of ones and zeros–becomes lightness as a force that produces meaning through the hardware.

How should the term, “knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world” (Calvino 8) be interpreted?
An understanding of the world helps to keep the weight of the world from crushing people.

What does Calvino say “profound emotion” does for Ovid?
Profound emotion transforms the nature of a single common substance into what it most differs from.

How does thoughtful lightness make frivolity seem dull and heavy?
Thoughtful lightness, likened unto pursuing the intellect and knowledge of the world, renders old ideas that are bound by a type of stagnation dwelling within group-majority-thought as uninspiring, even superficial.

How does Calvino describe the two contrasting tendencies in literature?
One tries to make language a weightless element that hovers; the other tries to give language the weight, density and concreteness of things, bodies, sensations.

Does Calvino mean to imply that specific use of language can lead to a sense of lightness?
Yes. Use of language such as: breeze, petal, bee, firm-but-light, nimble, etc.; this verbal texture in language gives a sense of weightlessness.

Why does Calvino employ Shakespeare as a model to represent his vision of lightness?
Lightness in language, specifically the use of language that evokes the feeling of weightlessness, offers a transformation of interpretation. Shakespeare’s characters are sometimes able to distance themselves from their own dramas via the mobility of light language.

How is the sluggishness of human consciousness, as described by Cyrano (20), contended with in regards to literature?
Through the use of lightness in language; poetic invention.

How does Calvino’s shaman on page 27 overcome the woes of tribal life?
By ridding the body of its psychological weight he could fly to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality. This concept is Calvino’s summation of lightness, that by becoming light, in mind and in language, the perception of the world takes on a different perspective.