Reality, One Grain at a Time

There’s more of value in one Calvino essay about Roman pig sties than there is in a week’s worth of slop from the Huffington Post.

Collection of Sand

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 240 pages
Author: Italo Calvino
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-09

It's no doubt risibly ironic to say so, but nearly all of the world’s social and economic conflicts can be ascribed to a single tendency: Monomania. In this context (using the term in its political or religious, not psychiatric, sense), monomania means an unshakeable belief, impervious to evidence or reason, that there is only one answer, and anyone who doesn’t agree should be “persuaded”, which at the very best means propagandized, and at the worst intimidated, coerced and, ultimately, eliminated. The two most efficiently murderous regimes of the 20th Century, Communism and Nazism, were obsessively single-minded, and so, too, is radical fundamentalist Islam, the doctrine that threatens to be the greatest killer of the 21st century.

It's easy to determine when a writer is monomaniacal. All one has to do is determine whether he or she is working backwards from a pre-determined conclusion. But because intellectuals are intelligent and are aware of countervailing trends and contrary evidence that might tend to vitiate that conclusion, they are guilty of an even worse sin than mere propagandizing, which is to say insincerity. As Aldous Huxley famously observed, “Defined in psychological terms, a fanatic is a man who consciously over compensates a secret doubt.”

These “secret doubts” are precisely what our mini-Menckens and assorted other polemicists ought to be confronting and exploring, rather than suppressing or insincerely rationalizing away as they too often do. “Truth,” as La Rochefoucauld pointed out in his Maxims, “does not do as much good in the world as the semblance of truth does evil.” It's this persuasive simulacrum of truth that is the single-minded thinker’s greatest failing.

The great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, was himself something of a True Believer early in his career; he was a Communist during and shortly after the Second World War, a perhaps understandable reaction to the horrors perpetrated by one of that failed ideology’s two principal adversaries at the time. But unlike many other writers, Calvino eventually saw the light, recognizing that Communism was just as bad as, if not worse than, Nazism, and later in his career turned away from politics in favor of deeply personal works, both realistic and fantastical.

The result was a poetic and memorable oeuvre including such wonderful books as Invisible Cities, Difficult Loves, If on a winter’s night a traveler, the anthology Italian Folktales, and my two personal favorites, Cosmicomics and Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City.

By the time Calvino completed the last essay compiled in Collezione di sabbia (Collection of Sand) in 1984, not long before he passed away, he would have appeared to be finished with politics entirely. The very brief journalistic essays herein are never less than erudite and entertaining (in equal measure), but they are charming and modest in their scope – granular, as the title would suggest, and containing no diatribes for or against anything at all.

The collection, published for the first time in the US in a translation by Martin McLaughlin, covers such topics as imaginary postage stamps (which is to say, real-seeming postage stamps “issued” by countries imagined by an artist), theories of human vision, the scarifying origins of the word chauffeur (it involves burnt feet), the endlessly fascinating city of Kyoto, pre-alphabetic writing, pachinko parlors, Persepolis, and the anthropological excavations of Roman pig sties and what they reveal about Roman history and daily life.

An essay about ancient Roman swine? Seriously? Yes, and in its seven brief pages it contains more of value than an entire week’s worth of Huffington Post-style slop.

What do these varied essays have in common, other than their modesty, humility and brevity? In most cases, they are about the visual world rather than inner psychological states; as Calvino notes in an essay about a museum of wax monsters, “I have to admit I never felt any attraction for innards… my gaze tended instinctively to avoid any image in which insides spilled outwards.”

Not surprisingly, given his interest in the visible and the external, Calvino devotes an essay in this collection to Roland Barthes, of whom he says “his entire oeuvre, I now realize, consists in forcing the impersonality of our linguistic and cognitive mechanisms to take account of the physicality of the living and mortal subject.” Exactly. Or, as he states in the title essay, “perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.”

Sometimes Calvino departs from the particular in an attempt to make a grand statement about a small thing, as when he posits that, “the art of making knots, which is the peak of both mental abstraction and manual work, could be seen as the human characteristic par excellence, just as much and perhaps even more than language,” to which the only possible response is “nah”.

Still, these essays should be read by everyone who these days issues bombastic pronouncements and excoriations, and invariably gets them wrong by starting with a preconceived conclusion. Start instead with the evidence, sand as sand, words as words, with the world the way it is instead of the way you think it should be, and build your way upwards from there. Begin with the particular!

Of a sculptor named Fausto Melotti, Calvino says, “his use of poor and perishable materials – little sticks of welded brass, gauze, little chains, foil, cardboard, string, iron wire, chalk, rags – is the fastest way to reach a visionary realm of marvels and splendours, as children and Shakespearean actors well know.” He’s talking about specifics here, of course, but the metaphor is clear. In another essay, when discussing those excavated pig sties but perhaps speaking of the world he lived in and perhaps of his own intellectual odyssey, Calvino notes that “there is only one way to solve all these contradictions: to evaluate and bring to light even the smallest details.”

The late essayist Lee Sandlin, himself a wonderfully readable proponent of the particular, once wrote, “The thing that I’ve discovered is that the closer you can get to what you think is the truth, and the less you worry about how universal it is, people find the universality for you. Don’t look for generalities. Look for the truth. And the generalities will come from that.”

Calvino, as he neared the end of his great career, tried to “see the world in a grain of sand,” among other particularities. It isn’t to say that one cannot search after large truths, too, and for those readers who prefer a grander sweep, Calvino’s essays here may seem more than a bit precious. But how novel it seems these days to read essays that are entirely lacking in cant and insincerity, and containing not a single denunciation or over-confident declaration. As such, and taking this little book on its own modest terms, Collection of Sand is a lovely capstone to a large and momentous career.


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