- Lightness and Gravity: Calvino, Pynchon, and Postmodernity
A comparative reading of Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon might align the two texts on opposite sides of a dialogue between two aesthetically and ethically distinct varieties of postmodern literature. As John Barth has pointed out with express regard to Calvino, any consideration of the literary postmodern must account for the historical dimensions of the work. 1 Written in 1972, Calvino’s novel is often regarded by critics as situated squarely on the boundary between modernism and postmodernism. Whereas it may be true, as Barth suggests, that the “postmodern” Calvino can be seen as a more modern modernist, Pynchon, whose latest novel appears just a few years prior to the end of the millennium, clearly is embarked on a farther-ranging exploration of postmodern territory. 2 Any dialogue between the two works might well ground itself in this sense of the historical development of literary postmodernism, which too often is reduced, as Hegel said of Schelling’s notion of the Absolute, to a night in which all cows are black.
More to the point, I think, a critical comparison of Invisible Cities and Mason & Dixon ought to prompt an examination of the relationship between formations of the postmodern and of national identity or community. Recently, in Pasolini contro Calvino, the Italian critic Carla Benedetti has contrasted the American strain of postmodern writing to the Italian, which she associates ironically with “Il Postmoderno Nazionale.” 3 According to Benedetti’s typology, Calvino is a prime representative of a “weakened” postmodernism, focusing narrowly, as he does, on the stylistic dimensions of the work of art and [End Page 1062] foregoing more ethically responsible engagement with social realities. American writers such as Pynchon and Donald Bartheleme, on the other hand, create metropolitan fictions that, unlike the works of their Italian counterparts, are able to confront directly the “semiotic disorder” of changing urban populations and historical catastrophes:
La letteratura postmoderna in Italia non ha avuto un’altrettanta capacità di rapportarsi alla vita contemporanea nei suoi aspetti più spaesanti negativi. Da noi sembra aver attechito maggiormente l’altra anima del postmoderno, quella ironico necrofila, ripiegata sui meccanismi autoriflessivi della scrittura, capace si di costruire spazi di finzione o di metafinzione, ma chiusi in un labirinto intertestuale, nello spazio ora malinconico ora euforico, ma pur sempre rassicurante di un mondo tutto letterario.(56–57)
Postmodern literature in Italy has not shown the same ability to respond to contemporary life in its most negative and alienating aspects. Here it seems what’s taken root is more like the other soul of postmodernism, which is ironic and necrophiliac, doubled back on itself in the autoreflexive mechanisms of metafiction, capable of constructing spaces of fiction and writing, yet confined in an intertextual labyrinth, in a space at times melancholic, at times euphoric, but anyway always reassuring, of a wholly literary world. 4
If we consider Pynchon’s latest novel, the division pointed out by Benedetti between Pynchon’s and Calvino’s versions of the postmodern seems more evident than ever.
On the one hand, Calvino’s Invisible Cities takes us back to the end of the thirteenth century in Marco Polo’s China and to the Tartar Empire’s relentless program of conquest and domination. Over this rich historical canvas, however, the Italian author elaborately paints abstract maps of idealized geographical itineraries and in so doing redefines the limits of writing as the borders of the world. On the other hand, in Pynchon’s Grand Tour of the new world, the spatial morphologies of Invisible Cities are replaced by an overdetermined picaresque wilderness, where any act of demarcation threatens to become, at worst, a “conduit” of evil and, at best, a historical scar (Mason & Dixon 701). 5 Yet history in Mason & Dixon is not merely the stage-prop of pastiche, but the point of departure for acts of ethical witnessing and “caring.” As Michael Wood puts it, Mason & Dixon is a book about learning rather slowly to care about, rather than to wonder at, the past (121).
Obviously, the interest of a comparative reading of the two novels must also be motivated by what the two texts...