Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

invisible-citiesI’d read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities a number of years ago, decades. I’d read Borges, and started thinking about all the talk about “the postmodern novel” or whatever one might call it. I’d taken a course in college in which Calvino was assigned, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I felt an antipathy toward it at the time. Likely, I felt an antipathy above all to what I felt, at times in hindsight justifiably but not as generally as I then felt, was an antipathy toward the pompous Lit majors who would pontificate about the book when they hadn’t read it. I only skimmed it, but I kept my mouth shut.

So it was part of a process of opening up to the world, at the time very incomplete, that I allowed myself to read Calvino in my 20’s. I read most of his work over a two-year period. As it happens, I really did enjoy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler least of the lot. Invisible Cities, the first of a serier that I’d read on a friend’s recommendation, I enjoyed most, followed very closely by The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

I’ll start with the uncharitable read of the work. At some level, Calvino is Borges-lite, for the NPR crowd. Above all, he reads incredibly easily for someone who associated himself with semiotics. I am all for easy reading on its own merits, but the situation is ripe for abuse by the audience. While most of us won’t slog through Barthes if there isn’t credit attached to it, we can read Calvino, talk about postmodernism (-structuralism, semiotics, or whatever), and feel like we’re cool. We heard these terms on NPR on some report as we were driving to work. We know we should use them. With Calvino, you get a lot of name-dropping bang for your buck. You can say “Oulipo,” and then tsk-tsk your interlocutor for mistaking the word for a font.
Borges, on the other hand–or at least the Borges of Ficciones–is a graceful, engaging read, but not an easy one if you pause a bit and scratch below the surface. He’s playing–we will get to this–with some of the same things as Calvino, but in a way that is not quite as light.This gets to the charitable read of the work. Calvino’s real virtues, as far as I can tell, rarely get talked about. Above all, Calvino has as light a quality to his writing as anyone I’ve read. Lightness, I have said again and again my friends will attest, is my cardinal virtue in any form of art. This is a matter of personal taste, without doubt. Lightness, too, does not mean insubstantial, or “lightweight.” The best example I can find in any medium of this quality of lightness would be Jo Jones‘ playing in the Basie band of 1938.

Invisible Cities–I haven’t yet actually described the book–is a series of descriptions of imaginary cities threaded together as an ostensible dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. These descriptions are by no means all equal. At their best, though, they give a feeling of a lifting of the reader, this reader anyway. It’s like I’m in a hot air ballon, floating somewhere. This feeling is absolutely priceless.

This is the kind of thing that I never hear discussed about Calvino, and which I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear. Calvino associated with hip postmodernists before it was hip, but he also, like Bakhtin, was fascinated by pre-modern popular culture, in particular folk literature as his collection of Italian folktales retold bears witness. Calvino’s approach at some level is that of a storyteller rather than po-mo novelist.

Calvino might be hip, but I have a clear sense that being hip was not his agenda. Rather, like a storyteller in a traditional setting, he very clearly wanted to produce in his reader a sense, through fiction, of a wider world of being than what any one individual’s daily life encompasses. Reading Invisible Cities, I get a clear feeling that the world is wide and that anything is possible. Art can communicate this. With Welles, people talk about his use of the camera, his play with narrative, his self-conscious artificiality, but his real virtue as an artist is–present tense–that he communicates the idea that anything can be done. I get this feeling with Calvino.

As with Welles, Calvino plays with his medium. The most obvious example of this is The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the writing of which he began by laying down a bunch of tarot cards on a table to see what lay where. It is this sense of play, in the most basic sense, not in a hipster po-mo kind of non-play play pretension, that produces that feeling of lightness so critical to the beauty of any work of art.

So, with Calvino, we need to discard all talk of the postmodern novel, semiotics, and post-structuralism. Attaching these terms to Calvino is like attaching lead weights to an air ballon. Rather, when we discuss Calvino, we need to see his work for what it is. Calvino’s work is light, fun, easy reading that opens a reader up to the idea that the possibility of the world is far from exhausted. I can’t imagine that Calvino wouldn’t prefer this type of discussion.


Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms

As one can tell given a prior post on one of his books, I’m on something of a Carlo Ginzburg kick, and this, The Cheese and the Worms, is the book that, when I mentioned a few years ago to some friends that I’d learned about this interesting historian, they each said, “ah, yes, The Cheese and the Worms!”  I had just started The Night Battles, and hadn’t heard of this one, which clearly was the one that got a lot of press in places like the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Ginzburg wrote the Cheese and the Worms in an attempt to simultaneously satisfy the expectations of both “the general reader” or “literate public” and academic history.  That is to say, there are neither foot- nor endnotes proper, but rather appendices which detail source material for pages in question.  I have to think that Ginzburg made this choice because he’d stumbled across an undeniably fantastic subject, a sixteenth century miller, Italian, known as Menocchio, on whom more later.

Ginzburg’s claim to fame is that of “microhistorian” of popular religiosity: he takes very specific data, as far as I can tell most importantly from archives of the Italian Inquisition, and gives them a very close reading in order to read through, so to speak, the bias of the author–the Inquisitor bent on rooting out heresy as he imagines it–to get into, to a remarkably plausible extent, the mind of the accused heretic.  What Ginzburg finds is, not surprisingly, that the actual ideas of the heretic were, while still contrary to or different from High Church orthodoxy, very different from what Inquisitors assumed or imagined the heretics to believe.  Generally, where Inquisitors found heresy, Ginzburg finds popular, peasant religiosity.  Give the paucity of source material from peasants themselves on the subject, the historian relies on other sources.

As I noted above, Ginzburg knew he was on to something good when he found Menocchio.  The book is, above all, a completely fascinating read, and Menocchio himself, doomed to be burned at the stake we know from the start, an intensely sympathetic and literally pathetic figure.  He seems not to have had a mean bone in his body, but rather what seems on the surface to have been a totally idiosyncratic approach to religion.  He developed a unique, but at the same time detailed, cosmology, borrowing freely from written sources as well as oral tradition.  He was literate, but did not, as a working man, have access to large libraries and so his readings were intense and focused, with ample room for his own embellishment of meaning.  Under questioning, Menocchio veered between a willingness to please his questioner and an inability to resist the original thinking which landed him in hot water.  I can’t imagine a person reading this book and not projecting onto Menocchio all or at least some of his or her own difficulties with authority that wanted to stifle one’s originality.

There are three kinds of historian.  A first produces scholarly articles and monographs for other historians and never makes a meaningful dime from writing.  These historians often imagine what it would be like to be widely read, and simultaneously envy and look down upon anyone with a broad, or even slightly broad, audience.  Most historians fall into this category.  A second spends most of a career in the first category and then at some point gets the idea to write something that will actually sell, in the hopes that one can have some residual income when one retires, in addition to one’s pension.   They write the book, usually but not always a textbook, and then finish off a last scholarly monograph or two before calling it a day.  A third category more or less abandons academic history even while she or he draws the largest paycheck in the department because of all the appearances on public or network television as a talking head.  Her books or his are published by Random House, or at minimum one of its subsidiaries, and can be found at Barnes and Noble or Borders, or at minimum ordered there through regular channels.  This third group is, in a word, popular.  Ginzburg is interesting.  He seems to simultaneously be in the first and second categories, by design.

Early in the book Ginzburg references Bakhtin‘s Rabelais and his World, in particular Bakhtin’s notion of a reciprocal relationship in the sixteenth century between popular and high culture, at least in some cases like that of Rabelais.  We have an inarticulate peasant culture–inarticulate as far as written source material goes–centuries old, that, in the cultural fluidity of the sixteenth century, percolated up so to speak through particular, individual writers who, despite their education, remained expressive of that peasant culture.  I have coincidentally read Bakhtin’s book, loved it, and then lost my copy in the course of a couple of moves.  Ginzburg sees in Menocchio a case-in-point of Bakhtin’s model.  This works for me, but for the life of me I think Ginzburg needed another fifty pages to prove it.  The main text of the book is a mere 128 pages, compared to, for example, Bakhtin’s close read of Rabelais which was nearly 500.

All too often, Ginzburg references popular belief generally, leaving the reader with the sense of a formless mass of ideas rather than something real.  One can bring prior knowledge of the subject to Ginzburg’s account, which I did and which is why, I think, I bought his basic idea from the start, because I could fill in the blanks.  I got the impression at times that Ginzburg projected onto this mass of ideas what he wanted rather than what was there.  Peasants felt the world order, with entrenched elites, unjust, and felt that labor created the world.  Anyone who roots for the underdog would want peasants to believe this, and it’s not very profound that they did.  To take a contrary example, Bakhtin’s lengthy discussion about ideas of the body in Rabelais and his World struck me as deeply profound, not entirely expected (to me, anyway), and amply documented.

His general exposition of peasant belief as reflected in Menocchio makes perfect sense to me, but Ginzburg leaves me with a sense that he hasn’t really shown it.  The tension between his niche in academic history, that of microhistorian, focusing on very specific cases-in-point, and his broader ambitions to illuminate a broader culture is nearly too tense to sustain itself.  Interestingly, in the bit I read of The Night Battles a few years ago (I am going reread and complete the book within the year) I never felt that Ginzburg’s pronouncements about peasant belief were under-documented.  Having said that, The Cheese and the Worms is worth the read, both for what it documents about Menocchio, an interesting case if ever there was one, and for what it suggests about broader peasant religiosity.  That, and because Ginzburg, seeking to engage a broader audience, certainly wrote to be read.

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Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and Historical Method

I studied history in school because I liked it, and I can say that I like reading academic history more than histories intended for the general public, most of the time. I say this not to sound elitist, but because the best academic history operates on a much greater level of detail than popular histories, and I find that detail interesting. One of my big questions as a person is that of the relationship between general and specific.

A number of years ago a friend TA’d for a course in which the prof had assigned Carlo Ginzburg‘s The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, which on my friend’s recommendation I purchased. I began reading it, liked it, got distracted, and gave it away with the rest of my library when I moved to Senegal. In the intervening years, however, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and for my birthday I asked my parents each to get me some Ginsburg books. This one, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, I actually bought myself to round out the set, breaking my rule about not buying books any more. The library didn’t have it, I say in my defense.

The book is a series of articles, the contents of which I checked out before buying it, which seemed most interesting to me when they focus on what Ginsburg is justly famous for: documenting popular culture, witchcraft particularly, using sources hostile to the subject. One title explains the basic point: “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist.” We might actually as a general rule reverse the two and note the Anthropologist as Inquisitor, had not Vine Deloria already done so so beautifully. Ginzburg, however, is dealing with an extreme example of the basic methodological question in history, which is that of source material. Ginsburg uses inquisitorial records of heresy to examine popular religious belief. To do this, he needs to compensate for the inherent bias of the source material, in particular the tendency of inquisitors to understand statements of the accused as recitations of the Church’s notions of heresy–everything leads up to the Witches’ Sabbat–rather than as statements in and of themselves. Nor are the accused speaking freely. Everything the accused says is an attempt to on the one hand be credible to the inquisitor and at the same time innocent of capital crime.

This to me is a fascinating inquiry. As such, the most interesting–and without question, my primary concern to me in reading anything is whether or not I happen to find it interesting–articles in the book are the ones that deal with popular religion and methodology. Codification of eros in Titian is of abstract interest to me, but I’d rather have been told the point in conversation with someone over pints than have taken the time to read the article. I did so as a point of principle, having paid for the book.

Definitely not a starting point for Ginzburg’s work. The Night Battles or, I am told, The Worms and the Cheese are certainly worth anyone’s time. I have those both waiting near my bed to finish by summer’s end.

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