Palomar, the Triviality of Modernity, and the Doctrine of the Void
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Palomar, the Triviality of Modernity, and the Doctrine of the Void

A few years ago, in a conference devoted to the work of Italo Calvino, Giorgio Agamben pointed out that the discussion of the limits of representation, Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy, the ontological implications of quantum mechanics, and so forth, are issues debated so often in recent times that they have become virtually meaningless. 1 The theme is so banal, he further asserted, that it might be called the “triviality of modernity.” In an article written around the same time, Agamben defines what he means by this phrase as he describes the difficulties which the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna encountered in teaching the doctrine of the void. 2

Several of Nagarjuna’s disciples—even Candrakirti, the most faithful—misunderstood his doctrine of the void on one essential point, a point so subtle that even Nagarjuna, at times, could not grasp it. The difference between the two interpretations was infinitesimal, but incommensurable. His doctrine taught the vacuity of representation whereas, as he put it, his disciples “treated the void as a thing: they would form a representation of the vacuity of representation. But,” continued Nagarjuna, “awareness of the emptiness of representation, is not, in its turn, a representation: it is . . . the end of representation” (132). Those who believe that “even the emptiness is an opinion, and even the unrepresentable a representation” fall into the trap of nihilism and miss the most important point of his teachings: “that the empty image is no longer an image of nothing. The word draws its fullness from its very vacuity” (132–33).

The following pages explore a possible interpretation of the difference between the doctrine of Nagarjuna and the misunderstanding of Candrakirti, between the doctrine of the void and the “triviality of modernity,” through a discussion of Mr. Palomar, a story by Italo Calvino. In the next section I will show that the two doctrines, their unity and their difference, are portrayed in Mr. Palomar with a rare clarity and rigor. I will also show how the enigmatic conclusion of the book is well suited to reflection. In short, I will show that the doctrine of the void and the vacuity of representation are precisely what Mr. Palomar forces us to consider. [End Page 757]

I. Mr. Palomar’s Endgame

Calvino does indeed seem intent on playing with the representation of the irrepresentable: the book is divided into twenty-seven sections which describe twenty-seven efforts to find an ultimate meaning in everyday interactions with the world. All twenty-seven end in failure and disarray, documenting the inability of Mr. Palomar, the main character, to enter into a meaningful relationship with the world and bridge the abyss that separates him from reality and from his fellow men. 3 Mr. Palomar’s experience is totally negative. He searches for a more balanced and less painful relationship with the world on the basis of a new harmony, a new and fully organic way to be among things and people. Exactly what he understands by “harmony,” Mr. Palomar doesn’t say. This is probably because, if he knew, his tribulations would be at an end. The search, guided by an understanding which precedes and anticipates it, would be over before it began: it would be reduced to a mere technique which, as such, would be an integral part of the goal to be attained. Mr. Palomar can, at best, sense harmony in the subtle movements of the moon in the afternoon sky, or in the delicate geometries of sidereal spaces which, he feels, are based on a regularity much deeper than the disordered succession of human events. From this he intimates the existence of a just order, possibly independent of the human, an all-encompassing order that opposes and negates division, laceration, and fracture. Harmony, in the musical sense at least, exists only in concert, 4 where individual voices, singing different melodies, compose a broader, all-encompassing texture. Harmony lies in the movement of a whole whose single parts retain their relative positions. The opposition between man and the world, instead of being a discordant fracture, could be recomposed in a chord: “the opposites in...