The Sixth Memo of Italo Calvino

October 15, 2010 | 6 4 min read

coverIn the mid 1980’s, Italo Calvino began to think about the approaching millennium. It was still a decade and a half away, but the Italian writer had been invited to give a series of lectures at Harvard University and believing he needed a bigger theme to guide his lectures he chose “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” which would be collected in a book by the same name. On the eve of his departure for the United States and with five memos written, he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the front of the collection his wife later published is a list of the six memos in Calvino’s handwriting, though the sixth and final is faint, as if someone had attempted to erase it. I have read the book a handful of times since it was assigned to me in an MFA course a couple years ago and this opening page remains my favorite, the faded letters like an invitation to finish the list for him, as if the sixth memo could (and should) be almost anything.

Each memo is intended to illuminate a value that Calvino saw in literature and address how it will function within literature in the new millennium. The five memos Calvino wrote cover lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. The final lecture would have been on consistency. I was fifteen the night the Y2K world meltdown didn’t happen, so I’m not quite a child of the new millennium, but a child of the moment just before, the same moment in which Calvino began his memos. I can remember a time before the proliferation of computers, when I had to do the majority of my teenage gossiping tied to the kitchen wall by a long curling phone cord. So, if I were to complete Calvino’s memos (not that he asked) I don’t think I’d choose consistency. From my vantage point, a decade into the shiny fresh millennium, I’d make the case for sustainability.

Sustainability is a term most often associated with the environment and ecology, used in conversations about protecting ecosystems we now know are fragile. It is a word concerned with balance and the tricky problem of not destroying something we love (like the planet, or literature) with the incredible ability of humans to screw it up. In dictionaries the word “sustain” is likened to phrases such as “to endure” or “strength or support physically and mentally.” It comes from the Latin word sustinere, which means “to hold up.” I do not think there is an aspect to literature that would not be served well with a little focus on endurance.

When Calvino began his memos technology was already rushing toward him, the invisible bits and bytes of computers already influencing the ways in which information moved. Now, full swing into the 21st century, literature is being delivered and profoundly shaped by e-readers, blogs and cell phones. It’s as if we have all become modern day Rip Van Winkles, closing our eyes to sleep for just a moment and opening them each morning to a brand new world. If literature is to be sustained, readers and writers must embrace those changes.

In his lecture on quickness, Calvino uses the metaphor of a traveling horse and literature’s ability to take a person on a journey. I don’t believe it matters which horse we take, so long as literature moves us. It is inevitable that as new electronic platforms become an everyday reality that someone is going to use them as a way to tell a story. Sustainability is not about rigid adherence to a single way of doing things, but rather about striving to make literature accessible to any sort of reader.

But sustainability isn’t only about technology. It is also about publishing. In his argument for lightness, Calvino invokes the image of Perseus and his winged sandals, defeating Medusa by looking only at her reflection. To look into her in the face would turn him to stone. I think maybe writers should take the hint and start using mirrors to examine the snake haired head of publishing. No writer stuck in rock is sustainable.

Literature has never had so much competition. Our screens can bring us stories and novels, but it also brings television and music and a steady stream of photographs and videos. Literature exists in a world blanketed in images and sound and it can feel sometimes as though there are no quiet moments left in which a good story can breath. Every piece of writing needs to earn its readers. Calvino suggests that in the new millennium we will need exactitude and visibility. Precise language and a well-defined plan are what make up exactitude. Writing that is not smart and quick is going to lose readers to the sound bites that are, and are only a click away. So, too, will images for the sake of images. There is an endless stream of websites devoted to nothing more than images: images of baby animals, of humorous mishaps, of cakes or dolls or kittens. I believe this means that a reader now demands more of literature than perhaps she did fifty years ago. Literature will not sustain itself merely because it hasn’t disappeared, yet. So, too, sustainability is about intention.

I sometimes wonder what Calvino would have said about consistency. Would he have hoped for literature that holds together? Certainly, since he was an experimental writer himself, he would not have confused consistency with a resistance to newness. Perhaps he meant it more in line with reliability. As it is, the final value Calvino gives us is multiplicity. It also happens to be my favorite. He writes that this lecture is about “the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people and things of the world.” Each time I get to that line I can’t help but think of how it is the idea of connection that dominates everything I see changing in literature. I think, too, of publishing, with Medusa’s snakes going in a hundred different directions. I don’t think anyone really knows, even now, what the new millennium means for writers and literature. Except I know that there are values to honor in literature. Sustainability is mine. I hope other writers have their own to write in next to Calvino’s faded sixth idea. Near the closing of his introduction, Calvino admits he has little time for speculating on the end of literature, writing, “My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.” This, I think, is something we can all agree on.

lives, teaches, and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Find her in 280 characters @margosita.