Six Memos for the Next Millenium

Italo Calvino • 1986

This is a great book about art in the twentieth century, and it left me with a better sense of how and why Calvino wrote and how to think about the art I consume going forward. It even has a quintessentially Calvino twist: the ironic title (there are, of course, only five memos — the book was published posthumously, and the sixth is left as an exercise to the reader.)

I suppose it is worth trying to qualify further why you should read this book, and I don’t think I have a compelling argument beyond “if you like modernism and if you like Calvino”, at which point you’re probably already predisposed enough to read this book that my recommendation is moot.

The one I can try is this: it is not dry, it is not academic, and if you treat this collection of essays as a tour through a very interesting writer’s favorite things about writing you will come away delighted with how you spent the past two hours of your time.



[Perseus’s] power derives from refusing to look directly while not denying the reality of the world of monsters in which he must live, a reality he carries with him and bears as his personal burden.
On the other hand, being thrifty with time is a good thing, since the more time we save, the more we’ll be able to lose.
The demands of the publishing marketplace are a fetish that should not prevent experimentation with new forms.
Among Zhuang Zhou’s many virtues was his talent for drawing. The king asked him to draw a crab. Zhuang Zhou said he would need five years and a villa with twelve servants. After five years he had not yet begun the drawing. “I need another five years,” he said. The king agreed. When the tenth year was up, Zhuang Zhou took his brush and in an instant, with a single flourish, drew a crab, the most perfect crab anyone had ever seen.
Sometimes it seems to me that a terrible plague has struck humanity in the faculty that most distinguishes it, its use of words—a plague that manifests in language as a loss of cognitive power and immediacy, as an automatic tendency to reduce expression to its most generic, anonymous, abstract constructions and to dilute its meanings, blunt its expressive points, and snuff every spark that flies from the collision of words with new circumstances. I’m not concerned here with whether the origins of this epidemic can be traced to politics, to ideology, to bureaucratic uniformity, to the homogenization of mass media, or to the diffusion in schools of middlebrow culture. What interests me are the possible remedies. Literature, and perhaps only literature, can create the antibodies that might resist the spread of this language plague.
Literature can survive only by pursuing outsized goals, even those beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares to imagine will literature continue to serve a purpose. As science begins to mistrust general explanations and solutions that are not narrow or specialized, the great challenge for literature will be to learn to weave together different kinds of knowledge and different codes into a pluralistic, multifaceted vision of the world.
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