Calvino and the Value of Literature
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Calvino and the Value of Literature

1. The formal is moral is political

Six Memos for the Next Millennium, written in 1985 shortly before the author’s death, may be considered Calvino’s literary testament. The prefatory note to the book (conceived originally as a series of lectures to be delivered at Harvard University) situates it within the perspective of the new millennium, and highlights as its central concern the status of literature in contemporary discourse.

Barely fifteen years stand betwen us and the new millennium . . . The millennium about to end has seen the birth and development of the modern languages of the West, and of the literatures that have explored the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities of these languages. It has also been the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call a book take on the form now familiar to us. Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called post-industrial era of technology. I don’t much feel like indulging in this sort of speculation. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it. I would therefore like to devote these lectures to certain values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to my heart, trying to situate them within the perspective of the new millennium.

(Six Memos 1) 1

I would like to use this text to address the question of the value of literature for Calvino and for us today. In the era of cultural studies, [End Page 121] in which criticism has increasingly focused on mass culture along with or side by side with literature, taking as equally worthy objects of analysis films and novels, television, porno magazines and the Marquis De Sade, comic books and Shakespeare, graffiti, advertising, videogames, and Emily Dickinson, “Rimbaud and Rambo” (as I have heard someone say), it may be useful to explore the reasons why a writer like Calvino, so finely attuned to the cultural mutations of modernity, and with such a keen interest in a multiplicity of critical and intellectual products and kinds of discourse (including film, television and the new technologies), attributed throughout his entire life a special value to literature.

It is too simple (though not inaccurate) to answer: “because he was a writer and he loved literature.” Love and personal preference (I will come back to love later) do play a large role in Calvino’s consistent, stubborn reaffirmation of the value of literature through four decades, but Calvino had an exquisitely analytical mind, and besides reaffirming his love, he never ceased reflecting on the status of literary discourse as such and attempting to answer the questions “What is literature?” and, especially, “Why literature?”

We could say about Calvino—particularly his Memos—what Calvino said about Elio Vittorini in his 1967 essay, written shortly after the death of his friend: “It is useless to try to pin down a discourse that has always been open, fixing it at the point where it was broken off . . . But the outline of a method is clear, as is the basic line which Vittorini consistently adhered to.” 2

Throughout his career Calvino—despite the multiple metamorphoses of his writing and the changes in his intellectual and political positions—adhered to a consistent vision of the value of literature, questioning it and scrutinizing it in many ways and from different points of view, but always returning to it once again. I would like to look at some key moments of Calvino’s intellectual development with an eye to what that development, with its moments of crisis and impasse, as well as slancio and enthusiasm, can tell us today in the current situation of literature’s devaluation and the crisis of literary studies.

I will start with a famous essay, the 1955 “Il midollo del leone” (“The Lion’s Marrow”). In that essay Calvino tries to answer a [End Page 122] question that obsessed postwar Marxist intellectuals in Europe—think for example of Sartre’s famous 1947...