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#2554 - Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - Editor: Jerry Katz

Photo: book cover

Exclusive to the Highlights:   This issue contains further excerpts from Six Memos for the Next Millenium, by Italo Calvino. Learn more about this book at  


Six Memos for the Next Millenium, by Italo Calvino   S


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A writer's work has to take account of many rhythms: Vulcan's and Mercury's, a message of urgency obtained by dint ot patient and meticulous adjustments and an intuition so instantaneous that, when formulated, it acquires the finality of something that could never have been otherwise. But it is also the rhythm of time that passes with no other aim than to let feelings and thoughts settle down, mature, and shed all impatience or ephemeral contingency.  

I began this lecture by telling a story. Let me end it with another story, this time Chinese: Among Chuang-tzu's many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years," said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.  

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The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.   For this reason, the proper use of language, for me personally, is one that enables us to approach things (present or absent) with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things (present or absent) communicate without words.  

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If I had to say which fiction writer has perfectly achieved Valery's aesthetic ideal of exactitude in imagination and in language, creating works that match the rigorous geometry of the crystal and the abstraction of deductive reasoning, I would without hesitation say Jorge Luis Borges. The reasons for my fondness for Borges do not end here, but I will mention only the main one. I love his work because every one of his pieces contains a model of the universe or of an attribute of the universe (infinity, the innumerable, time eternal or present or cyclic); because they are texts contained in only a few pages, with an exemplary economy of expression; because his stories often take the outer form of some genre from popular literature, a form proved by a long usage, which creates almost mythical structures. As an example let us take his most vertiginous "essay" on time, "El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan" (The Garden of Forking Paths), which is presented as a spy story and includes a totally logico-metaphysical story, which in turn contains the description of an endless Chinese novel--and all this concentrated into a dozen pages.  

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Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.   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 plastic . . . .  

Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and every thing?  

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Six Memos for the Next Millenium, by Italo Calvino. Learn more at

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