Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Open any book

In the morning they scatter themselves among the alpenroses on the rocky slopes around, lie on the frosty bushes and take off their shirts to look for lice.

The deportment of literature, you were saying?

Stephen Crane? Hemingway? No; and what's worse, a translation at that. Open any book by Italo Calvino, and you shortly know where you are. He is the writer who would turn the soldier's tiresome hygiene into a delectation of spring, a paradox within a paradox. 

You know you've entered a world where the bigot from Minnesota and the fabulist from Texas will never go: the one would never open a book that isn't dogmatic, and the other prescribes delusional textbooks for a State he misrepresents. Deciders. 

But one of my favourite readers, too, is Calvino, partly because he is hard; his intricate mind is wholly attuned to two premises in volatile co-existence: that nothing beautiful does not precariously rely on the play of many facets, even - as in his view of Stendhal and Hemingway - of harmonious contradictions; and that what is really valuably literary, as in his view of Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, is in the residue of "life's accidents." 

Can one think of Perry or Bachmann, not fulminating against this humane prospect? They do every day.

Our friends from overseas must wonder at our occasional treasuring of civilisation alongside alarmist political references. It is becoming plainer to us all, that our Bolshoi is the one which hasn't been liberated from intimidation; we are, more and more, the remaining Soviet writers of the Cold War's deforming inhibitions. Our culture generates a flood of dissident rhetoric, invariably of despair, some-times masked with arch ennui, but this takes no courage and makes no gain, because it humours and affirms the beast. Calvino's way of reading is like that of his writing, and it is hard to say where he makes the greater case, against writing under the spell of the beast. Here, he is reading Emil Cioran:

While the Hemlock was being prepared, Socrates was learning a melody on the flute. 
'What use will that be to you,' he was asked. 
'At least I will learn this melody before I die.'

The ultimate non-Soviet, Socrates exemplifies how the non-Soviet will read: fearlessly, open to the melody without prejudice. Open any book, he certainly seems to say, with no reflex of condemnation - one can see, how futile that is. Who would not read and write, or govern, for that futility?

I'm happy to say, I owe these impressions to readers of this page, and I do not mean the ones who also blog. I'm thinking, rather, of the [scarcely visible, I admit] discipline of laying something before others. This eventually results in an awareness of creative shackles, which one cannot attribute to anyone else, but also not to accrued years. I certainly do not mean to implicate others in these terms, but I haven't been able to dismiss a general sense that my country at this time is less free in its minds, than it may have been before, and certainly could be. 

If one reads what Cioran is saying Socrates has said, recalling that his was obviously not a more im-practicably 'perfect' world, I don't think we can blame his unsovietness on the cliché of a footloose bachel-orhood. One is left with the feeling that it is possible to be alive in that way, which brings to mind that unnerving thing that Ford said about Tietjens, in still another imperfect world: a man could stand up.

Italo Calvino

The Path to the Nest
  of the Spiders
Archibald Colquhoun, translation
The Ecco Press, 1976©

Why Read the Classics?
Collected literary essays
Martin McLaughlin, translation
Random House, 1999©

iv  Benjamin A. Huseby
     Bolshoi youth

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