Six Memos For The Next Millennium – A Review

“INTERVIEWER: What place, if any at all, does delirium have in your working life?

ITALO CALVINO: Delirium? … Let’s assume I answer, I am always rational. Whatever I say or write, everything is subject to reason, clarity, and logic. What would you think of me? You’d think I’m completely blind when it comes to myself, a sort of paranoiac. If on the other hand I were to answer, Oh, yes, I am really delirious; I always write as if I were in a trance, I don’t know how I write such crazy things, you’d think me a fake, playing a not-too-credible character. Maybe the question we should start from is what of myself do I put into what I write. My answer—I put my reason, my will, my taste, the culture I belong to, but at the same time I cannot control, shall we say, my neurosis or what we could call delirium.

Italo Calvino is a literary philosopher. He has always strived to provide an alternative view to see through this world and to decipher its beauty and secrets through the mode of imagination and fantasy. His mind is few of those which fascinates and asks me to question the very possibilities of human intelligence. When I finished reading, “If on a winter’s night a traveller” and “Invisible Cities”, I was intrigued and thrilled, and had a nagging curiosity to understand the working; the underlying formula; the quest which must have lead the author to write them. “Six Memos for the next millennium” provides me a window to understand the methodology and motivation of Calvino’s art and magic.

Reading Calvino is an experience in itself. He has the marvelous gift to create at the juxtaposition of science and art, the man who wants to combine both. This particular book under discussion is a loose speech prepared to be delivered in Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, in 1984. “They became an obsession, and one day he announced to me that he had ideas and material for eight lectures”, writes his wife Esther. And further continues to say that the eighth lecture, had it been presented, would have been, “On the beginning and the ending[of novels]”. But this collection has five lectures, sixth one unwritten, and provides the dissection of Calvino’s own works and also an idea of the enormous range of his inspirations.

Heads up, Calvino places ’Lightness’ as the first value to be discussed. As someone whose writings makes the reader to fly, it is no surprise that Calvino places this value on top. He is quick to make it clear that he is proposing to talk of the lightness which one derives from intelligence/ thoughtfulness, and not the lightness of frivolity. “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard”, and aptly quotes Paul Valery,“One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather”. Of all the passages which he writes to espouse his first value, the one that stood close to my heart is his tribute to Milan Khundera’s novel “The unbearable Lightness of Being”. When I finished Kundera’s novel, I had the feeling of jubilant joy and freshness as if I stood beside a waterfall with patchy greenery surrounding it. I never fully understood the reason behind the ‘light’ feeling I had then, for the novel is an excruciatingly painful one to read. But, Calvino explains beautifully:

“His novel shows how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence – the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in”

With ’Quickness’ as his second lecture, he brings open the secret of a story which is its economy, the form and structure, rhythm and underlying logic. His love for fairytales and folklore, and his varied reading of classics have peppered the whole book, and he quotes them laboriously to show the agility of thought and expression. Like a tangent that strikes an arc and flow on its own, he touches Galileo, Leopardi and mythology, and he turns himself into a thread that connects the parallels. He also predicts the sure raise of mass media (and social media), and had the foresight to suggest that Conciseness will be the virtue of the new millennia.

“I will confine myself to telling you that I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram”

In ’Exactitude’ and ’Visibility’, Calvino explores the calculated and well-defined symmetry of a work, and the beauty and nature of visual imagination, respectively.  Julian Barnes has said, “Everything you invent is true: you can be sure of that. Poetry is a subject as precise as geometry.”  It is the same kind of obsession which Calvino exudes. His search is to create an art as perfect as a mathematical equation or a geometry. To create an orderliness using literature as his medium.

“Literature – and I mean the literature that matches up these requirements – is the Promised Land in which language becomes what it really ought to be”.

“A work of literature is one of these minimal portions in which the existent crystallizes into a form, acquires a meaning – not fixed, not definitive, not hardened into a mineral immobility, but alive as an organism. Poetry is the great enemy of chance, in spite of also being a daughter of chance and knowing that in the last resort, chance will win the battle”.

Both ‘Exactitude’ and ‘Visibility’ are also the values which could easily be expected in other arts and most importantly in painting, drawing etc., Perhaps, is it because of the fact that Calvino himself was trained in the art of drawing when he was an adolescent and his extraordinary love for movies as a youngster that must have led him to the love of forms and colors?

Next to ‘Lightness’ and ‘Quickness’, my favorite lecture is on ‘Multiplicity’. No wonder Calvino is inspired by technical-engineer background writers like Gadda and Musil, and he is also enamored by their capacity of excruciating detail. He quotes Gadda, Musil and Proust, all of those authors who never had a proper ending for their works as a denouement or struggled to have a one, something a game which Calvino would like to play in his literary works. Isn’t it ironic and looks like a divine comedy that this book which stands as his final legacy must itself remain unfinished, although each of the chapters is surrealistically complete and conclusive on its own?

But perhaps the answer that stands closest to my heart is something else: Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self,a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter,
To the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to place….

Somewhere else, Calvino wrote almost emphatically, “the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:

                                       POSTERITY IS STUPID

Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!”

Perhaps, Calvino might have treated Posterity with less glory and empathy. But, time, the sure hands of which determines the best, will always treasure Calvino as an original writer, with a voice which movingly spoke for all that is wonderful in human beings, for all the ages to come and even beyond eternity.



1. Interview with Italo Calvino – Paris Review

2. Italo Calvino Letter and Postscript – Paris Review



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