restricted access Calvino's Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos (review)
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Reviewed by
Kathryn Hume. Calvino's Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 212 pp. $49.95, cloth.

This book starts from an interesting and unusual premise, namely that Italo Calvino's 1965 collection of short stories The Cosmicomics (a mélange of science fiction, philosophical, and love stories with non-human protagonists) constitutes the pinnacle of his achievement, the "Big Bang" which gave his fictional cosmos its definitive imprint. Running counter to the tendency among ltalianists to emphasize the astonishing variety of Calvino's work and the metamorphoses of his style and themes, Kathryn Hume searches for what remains constant in his work and finds it to be an oppositional structure pitting a Cartesian cogito against the chaos, flux and threatening multiplicity of the material world. This cogito's most perfect incarnation is the character of Qfwfq, narrator of the Cosmicomics (Qfwfq is also Calvino's most typical persona according to Hume), who is reincarnated as Marco Polo and the Khan in Invisible Cities as well as that sublime builder of fragile bridges across the abyss, Mr. Palomar.

Calvino's cogito, in its various guises, always seeks to find systems models or grids to measure, control and tame an unruly universe. Accordingly, Hume reads Calvino's entire production up to Cosmicomics, including the 1947 neorealist novel Path to the Nest of Spiders, the 1963 political novella The Watcher, and the celebrated fantastic trilogy Our Ancestors, as so many unsuccessful attempts on Calvino's part to put his own cosmos into place and to set up the oppositional structure which will be the governing principle of his work after Cosmicomics. All of Calvino's subsequent works are but permutations of the deep structure found in Cosmicomics. Thus her approach is emphatically not chronological but rather, as she calls it, "logical." For example, in chapter five she reads The Castle of Crossed Destinies together with the later If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, while in chapter six she pairs Invisible Cities with Mr. Palomar. Her entire discussion radiates, as it were, from a fixed center which is the totalizing "metaphysic" (as she repeatedly refers to it) put into place by Calvino with Cosmicomics. This represents a represents a refreshing change from the standard sequential accounts of the development of Calvino's work, and it yields come creative insights, especially in chapter five, where the unrelieved darkness of The Castle, with its emphasis on the unreliability of language, is set off against the luminous ironies of On A Winter's Night.

Especially valuable is Hume's attempt to take seriously Calvino's interest in science and the potential challenges that scientific discourse can pose for narrative fiction. "We will not have a culture equal to the challenge [of [End Page 194] modern science] until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question," Calvino wrote in a 1967 article (which Hume never cites). Unfortunately, this attempt does not work. Hume seems to rely on an antiquated notion of science when she tells her readers that "Calvino deconstructs some of science's most cherished myths," and she fails to give us any understanding of what exactly Calvino knew and understood about science, including Galileo's optics, Einstein's relativity, particle physics, Kuhn's structure of scientific revolutions, Popper, botany, and René Thorn's chaos and catastrophe theories. All of these seem potential sources of inspiration for his work and have yet to be properly discussed by critics. Just as her definition of science and the "scientific method" remains imprecise, so does her use of terms such as "Cartesian cogito" and "metaphysic." Hume never defines these controversial terms, assuming the former to refer indifferently to "thinking self," the "rational ego," "rationality," or "mind vs. matter" (but what about the materiality of the ego?) and the latter to indicate a deep and universal structure of meaning. But after all, Calvino lived most of his life in a era in which that Cogito came increasingly under scrutiny by thinkers like Horkeimer, and Adorno, Foucault, Lacan and Kristeva (all of whom he had read). The cogito could no longer...