The Complete Cosmicomics
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
432 pp., 36.24
Lost in the Cosmos
For fun, though possibly also for illumination, one might conveniently divide the fictions of the past hundred years into two large groups: the ones that don't really care about the developments of science and technology since the Industrial Revolution, and the ones that do. The first group tends to overlap pretty significantly with the kind of fiction we call "realistic," while the second corresponds to a good many other things: most forms of fantasy, all forms of science fiction, and a great many generically ambiguous texts. Tolkien described his fiction as being preeminently concerned with "Fall, Mortality, and the Machine," and when Jacques Ellul wrote of the necessity of evaluating technique by standards other than those of technique itself, he might have been describing the chief thematic impetus of The Lord of the Rings.
Modern mythic narrative—or, perhaps more precisely, modern narrative that interacts with ancient myth, legend, and folklore in any of a variety of ways—seems to be especially concerned with articulating a response to life within a technocratic regime. This can involve turning one's back on modern science altogether, or, and this is the more intriguing and complex response, using mythological narrative as a means of controlling and manipulating scientific accounts of the world.
It is within the orbit of this second approach that we may begin to understand the marvelous stories by Italo Calvino that he called his "Cosmicomics"— as though he were naming a genre rather than titling a collection. And in an important sense that was just what he was doing. Anyone can write a cosmicomic: all you have to do is think of some event in the history of the cosmos and then imagine what it would have been like for Qfwfq to experience it.
What's that? You don't know who Qfwfq is? Well, that does pose a problem. Let's get you up to speed. Qfwfq was there, along with his extended family, friends, and neighbors, when it all happened—whatever "it" happens to be: when the moon broke away from the earth, when the first vertebrates left the sea for the land, when the dinosaurs became extinct, when mollusks evolved their shells. That kind of thing. Or any kind of thing: Qfwfq was there. Qfwfq experienced it, as a mollusk, as a dinosaur, as something indefinable and indescribable that somehow existed in the infinitesimal point that was the universe before the Big Bang. And he is happy to tell you what it was like.
(In the last-named case, it was really crowded. Qfwfq: "I say 'packed like sardines,' using a literary image: in reality there wasn't even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn't even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn't exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pbert Pberd underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.")
Italo Calvino (1923-1985) is best known for his experimental, playful metafiction, especially Invisible Cities and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. But he began his career with a series of conventional realistic novels, a mode of writing that he was never fully comfortable with but to which he could imagine no alternative—until he was commissioned by an Italian publisher to collect and retell the folktales of the various regions of Italy. This he did with extraordinary skill. His collection remains one of the most delightful gatherings of folklore ever produced, even though he began the project half-heartedly. In his introduction to the completed Italian Folktales (1956) he wrote, "I … plunged into that submarine world totally unequipped, without even a tank full of intellectual enthusiasm for anything spontaneous and primitive." But the more he studied both the tales themselves and the great 20th-century scholars of folklore (especially the Russian Vladimir Propp), the more absorbed he became. "For two years I have lived in woodlands and enchanted castles, torn between contemplation and action… . And during these two years the world about me gradually took on the attributes of fairyland, where everything that happened was a spell or a metamorphosis." He emerged from this "submarine world" with one overriding conviction: "Folktales are real."
But Calvino was also scientifically literate, and felt strongly the profound dissonance between modern scientific accounts of the cosmos and the stories told by our ancestors. Most of us perceive that dissonance as well as Calvino did; but we usually decide to ignore it, or to prefer one kind of account while largely ignoring the other. The genius of the cosmicomics lies in Calvino's ability to create a mode of narrative that somehow merges these two radically disparate ways of narrating the world.
Each of the stories begins with a brief description of a scientific law or hypothesis or idea: "The equations of the gravitational field which relate the curve of space to the distribution of matter are already becoming common knowledge." "According to the most recent theories, the Earth was originally a tiny, cold body which later increased in size through the incorporation of meteorites and meteor dust." This is immediately followed by a story, usually told by Qfwfq—"old Qfwfq," your grandfather, or great-grandfather, as it were, always ready with a remembrance of the old days. Just as folktales are rooted in and emerge from the collective experience of communities, the cosmicomics emerge from the collective experience of the cosmos: of those who saw the moon drift farther from the earth, or remember the making of the sun.
But the stories can be highly individualized as well: only Qfwfq knows exactly what it was like to be in love with a woman who was in love with his own deaf cousin, who was, in his turn, in love with the moon. Only Qfwfq remembers looking through a telescope toward distant galaxies, suddenly jolted when he discerns a sign pointed right at him: I SAW YOU. (Several hundred million years earlier he had done something rather embarrassing. Read the story for the details.)
If asked to describe Qfwfq's character, I'd call him a melancholic. A being as old as the cosmos eventually accumulates quite a record of loss—even if there are sometimes also unexpected recoveries, as when the sister who had disappeared when the matter of the universe first coalesced into objects turns up in Canberra, Australia, in 1912, "married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railwayman, so changed I hardly recognized her." That last phrase suggests something less than delight in the unexpected reunion; but by then Qfwfq had loved and lost so many times that even the happiest of moments were inevitably tinged by melancholy.
The bringing together of disparate elements is central to comedy, and as the title suggests, there's much humor in the Cosmicomics. But they are surprisingly affecting as well. I think this is possible because Calvino simply embraces the relentlessly anthropomorphic habits of our species. We know this about ourselves primarily through our encounters with animals, but the inclination goes still deeper. Cognitive scientists have shown how we see faces in even the most minimal sketches or combinations of objects; and from a very early age we are prone to transform any set of events into a narrative, complete with cause, effect, conflict, impediment, and (joyful or tragic) resolution. We are ceaseless storytellers, and we don't know how to tell stories that aren't human stories.
Thus in Cosmicomics the mollusk's development of a shell is accounted for by a classic example of sublimation. Unable to fulfill his desires for an attractive nearby female mollusk, Qfwfq-as-mollusk turns to the limited but real consolations of self-expression:
It was then that I began to secrete calcareous matter. I wanted to make something to mark my presence in an unmistakable fashion, something that would defend this individual presence of mine from the indiscriminate instability of all the rest. Now it's no use my piling up words, trying to explain the novelty of this intention I had; the first word I said is more than enough: make, I wanted to make, and considering the fact that I had never made anything or thought you could make anything, this in itself was a big event. So I began to make the first thing that occurred to me, and it was a shell.
And, wondrous to relate, this improvised spiral shell, born not of a coherent plan but of inchoate impulse, turns out to be useful to Qfwfq and beautiful to others.
Similarly, the story of the last dinosaur becomes a moving account of what it's like to live within a community that neither understands nor fully accepts you. And even a ruthlessly simplified description of movement through undefined and characterless space in parallel, or perhaps not parallel, lines—one of the most elementary of geometrical ideas—is transformed into an emotionally rich narrative about desire and fear:
I too, naturally, dreamed only of meeting Ursula H'x, but since, in my fall, I was following a straight line absolutely parallel to the one she followed, it seemed inappropriate to reveal such an unattainable desire. Of course, if I chose to be an optimist, there was always the possibility that, if our two parallels continued to infinity, the moment would come when they would touch. This eventuality gave me some hope; indeed, it kept me in a state of constant excitement. I don't mind telling you I had dreamed so much of a meeting of our parallels, in great detail, that it was now a part of my experience, as if I had actually lived it.
As can be seen in most of the quotations I have provided, the Cosmicomics are beautifully written throughout. It seems that the evident absurdity of the conceit freed Calvino to pursue every experiential register, from the farcical to the joyous to the mournful. Again and again the stories sneak up on readers, touching our emotions in unexpected ways and at unexpected points. This edition marks the first publication in English and in America of all the cosmicomic stories, in superb translations by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver; it therefore provides the ideal way for the American reader to encounter one of the quiet, unobtrusive masterworks of 20th-century fiction.
Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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