The Italian writer, Italo Calvino, was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1985 but died before he was able to deliver them. Luckily, we have the text of 5 of these 6 planned lectures and they are published in English as ‘Six memos for the next millennium’.
Each of these memos touches on a different quality which Calvino felt should be valued in literature. The first is ‘Lightness’ – Leggerezza in Italian.
Calvino may be talking about language and writing, but what he has to say can also be applied to the way we think about the world more generally. He draws on a dizzying range of literary sources without expecting us to be weighed down by them, and in praising lightness he is also clear that he values weight.
Speaking of his own writing, Calvino tells us that his method often involves the subtraction of weight:
“I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”
He also highlights what he sees as two opposite tendencies in literature; the one trying to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things” and the other trying to “give language the weight, density and concreteness of things.”
Lightness and weight may be opposites, but they are inseparable. Calvino illustrates this by drawing, among other metaphors, on the myth of Perseus who flies weightlessly with winged sandals while also relying on the decapitated Gorgon’s head, kept in a sack, to petrify his enemies and weigh them down once and for all.
Lightness of thought has benefits for all of us as we navigate the business of being human and living in the world. For instance, how are we to fully understand the world if we only have our own personal experience to draw on? We could simply learn more and more about other individuals and their lived experience as different versions of our own, accumulating more of the same type of ‘weight’. But if we want to better understand the human condition we also need to be able to shed some of this weight and make the leap to more social or global perspectives which, while they include multiple individual experiences, are not weighed down by their particularity. It is lightness which allows us to step up and take a sociological, political or planetary view.
So, this lightness can help us see the whole beyond the parts we know personally. It allows us to reach beyond our first-hand experience, empathize with others, generalize and see our human experience at a wider, social or global level and even go beyond purely human concerns. Lightness helps us to shift to a new level of understanding and to see the bigger picture.
Calvino refers to the “forces connecting macrocosm to microcosm” and the way that the lightness of the parts which contribute to the weight of the whole. He quotes Jacques from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ describing his melancholy as “compounded of many simples…”. Calvino sees such emergent properties as a “fine dust of atoms, like everything that goes to make up the ultimate substance of the multiplicity of things.” The parts may be light and invisible, but they are what makes up the all too weighty whole which we inhabit.
The balance between weight and lightness is also a balance between attachment and freedom. While being attached to certain beliefs, preconceptions and values, we also need to exercise the freedom to consider alternative perspectives and other ways of being and doing things. The quality of lightness is what allows us to detach ourselves from the weight of what we know and to see it from a new place.
Reading Calvino’s ‘Lightness’ reminds us of the value of letting go and ‘taking off’ as well as the need for strong foundations. In this wonderful essay he helps us gain perspective, shift our point of view and move between levels, both in our reading and in our thinking.
Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)
Theodore Zeldin on ‘what is worth knowing?’ (August 2016)
Gulliver’s levels (May 2015)