- Naïve Physics and Cosmic Perspective-Taking in Dante’s Commedia and Calvino’s Cosmicomiche
One of the recurrent motifs in the tradition of the “katabasis,” or journey to the underworld, in Western literature, is that of the visitor trying to embrace the incorporeal soul of a dead relative or friend. We find this motif in Homer’s Odyssey, later in the Aeneid, and finally in the Commedia, where Dante attempts to embrace the shade of his Florentine friend, Casella, in the Purgatorio:
Io vidi una di lor trarresi avanteper abbracciarmi, con sì grande affetto,che mosse me a far lo somigliante.
Ohi ombre vane, fuor che ne l’aspetto!tre volte dietro a lei le mani avvinsi,e tante mi tornai con esse al petto.
Di maraviglia, credo, mi dipinsi;per che l’ombra sorrise e si ritrasse,e io, seguendo lei, oltre mi pinsi.1 [End Page 24]
Unlike Dante’s source, Virgil, whose account of the otherworldly embrace does not dwell on the protagonist’s emotional responses, this passage explicitly portrays the protagonist’s “maraviglia” at being unable to grip what looks like the body of his friend.2 Dante’s wonder stems from a conflict between the ordinary appearance of Casella’s shade (“ombre vane, fuor che ne l’aspetto”) and the failure of a sensorimotor sequence—the embrace—that we would expect to work on the basis of real-world experience. Dante’s emotional response, in other words, reflects a breakdown of what psychologists and philosophers call “naïve physics,” our expectations regarding the physical behavior of objects in space. This article is concerned with this kind of disruption and the effects it can have on readers of literary texts.
As my reference to Dante’s journey to the underworld implies, I will be suggesting that there is a close connection between the disruption of naïve physics, the implication of sensorimotor responses in the immediate experience of literary texts, and a broader experiential effect that I will call “cosmic perspective-taking.” In short, cosmic perspective-taking is a textual invitation to distance oneself from quintessentially human cognitive biases and limitations by considering a reality that transcends the human. Already in Dante, the disruption of naïve physics is associated with a form of cosmic perspective-taking, if we keep in mind Dante’s vision of the Earth in the Paradiso—where our planet, seen from a celestial distance, is famously compared to an “aiuola” or “little patch of earth”:
L’aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci,volgendom’ io con li etterni Gemellitutta m’apparve da’ colli a le foci.3
But not all forms of cosmic perspective-taking are inspired by a religious metaphysics such as Dante’s. Literary uses of scientific knowledge [End Page 25] can also achieve a similar effect, inviting us to experience realities that destabilize anthropocentric assumptions because of how they tend to resist human perception. In the second part of this article I will use Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomiche to illustrate this point. I am not, of course, equating Dante’s metaphysics and modern science, or claiming that Dante’s universe—which is still, in an important sense, anthropocentric—can be compared to Calvino’s playful exploration of physics, evolutionary biology, and astronomy. I am, however, suggesting that there can be something in common at the level of experience between Dante’s vision of the Earth and the perspective-taking potentially triggered by Calvino’s text through a dialogue with scientific knowledge.4
Further, the co-occurrence of kinesthetic experience and cosmic perspective-taking in two texts separated by a significant historical gap exemplifies one of the core ideas of so-called “cognitive literary studies:” namely, the fact that cognitive-level constraints on mental processes (in this case, a set of regularities in our perception of the external world, such as the solidity of objects or the directionality of gravity) are more stable than cultural meanings, so that their presence can be detected across literary history.5 Surely, our conceptual understanding of gravity has undergone significant revisions since Dante’s times, but our everyday experience of gravity as a force that pulls us “down...