I have been reading Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics at a speed that indicates I must be reading dot by dot. Although I relish Calvino’s experiment for the obvious pleasure its witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and intellectually compelling tales offer, I also resist it. I read a mere bit before I run off to pour more tea or move clothes from washer to dryer or decide that the windows must be washed immediately or that the garden needs tending or the animals petting. Alternatively, I sit with the book in my lap and stare…at the page, off the page, into space. Today, I think that I may have figured out why. I find and experience a great sadness in reading this work. It has to do with change and transition, and it cultivates an aggravated restlessness that both makes it difficult for me to read and also accounts for the emotional genius of the Cosmicomics.
Calvino tempts the reader in with the promise of intellectual and comic adventures in perspective, and he delivers by hopping the first person narrative through time and space and from single cell to higher order being to non-being—“non,” that is, in all the senses that we normally associate with “being.” He lulls us into a familiar place by relying on the antics of love triangles to move many of his plots. However, just below the veneer of sit-com meets cosmology and scientific experiment, lies a core of relentless shifts. Within individual stories and across the collection of thirty-four, Calvino forces us to confront any convictions we might have that tell us life as we know it exists. Instead, he makes it clear that “life as we know it” is more accurately “life as we do notknow it” because it’s always on the move. Furthermore, we’re fundamentally challenged as a species to ever completely grasp the vastness of being in the first place. We are just plain limited by our own biases of perspective, which make it nearly impossible to define parameters that would accurately delimit “life.”
I would like to imagine that change and transition could be associated with joy, expectation, and possibility, and yet, these options are mere back notes to the great sadness top note replete with its components of loss, insecurity, waiting, and suffering. No ultimately reasonable logic accounts for the pat association I seem to experience between change/transition and sadness. I’ll hazard that the inextricable link has to do with some spiritual failing—a lack of faith and an inability to cultivate contentment no matter the context. However, given that my failing is not strictly personal, that I am in good company, I’ll also guess that the negative values I associate with change and transition are, at least in part, a by-product of my cultural heritage and context. In the United States, we seem to be culturally ill-equipped to experience all but the most positive of feelings.
Attached as we are to “happiness,” few seem to tolerate well, let alone relish and accept, change and transition, for what they are: pervasive givens. Valued as they often are with negative feelings and associations, change and transition fall well outside the acceptable program of “happy, happy, joy, joy.” Moreover, we like to think that we are in control—of the situation, ourselves, our lives, others, the universe—and many of our myths, both religious and secular, reinforce the position that humans have at least the capacity, if not an out-right mandate, for dominion. Thus, if things are going to change, then it must be at our behest. Enter binary opposition: change that we control equals good, whereas change that we do not control equals bad. Ergo most change is bad.
Calvino’s Cosmicomics, then, activate this aggravated restlessness that I’ve been struggling with because they force readers, over and over, to challenge and confront the fallacy that change and transition answer to us. The great sadness arrives with the realization that, if anything, we answer to change and transition. With this great sadness also comes, however, the option of peace, of letting go, of surrender because the binary opposition gets cracked open. In Calvino’s tales, change and transition are not usually valued in oppositional terms. Rather, they become/are life as his main character Qfwfq knows it because Qfwfq is not in control and doesn’t seem to expect to be even when he asserts desires and will.
I’d like to think that, if given the option—as I am with Calvino’s Cosmicomics—to explore my attachment to control and to laugh about its inherent absurdity, then I just might let it go in favor of embracing change and transition for what they are: life as I know it. I’d also like to think that I might nudge this great sadness toward a great acceptance…toward peace. Unlike Calvino’s main character Qfwfq, however, my frame of reference keeps me struggling. I do not seem to be well equipped to shape-shift with such facility. Nonetheless, I have finally managed to read the thirty-four tales, dot by dot, and I can now begin to imagine such things. I highly recommend grabbing yourself a copy, and settling in. This is a collection I would add to the “must own” list. And while you’re in this vein, check out Charles and Ray Eames’s short film, Powers of Ten.
Image credit: “Knockdown of the kinesin Eg5 leads to mitotic defects. Knockdown of Eg5 levels by treatment with siRNA results in cells with monopolar spindles and a mitotic delay (right hand cell). Microtubule staining is shown in green, Eg5 in red and DNA in blue.” Stout et al. BMC Cell Biology 2006, 7:26 [View article]
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on June 20, 2011