Six memos for the new millennium. Italo Calvino. 1988
Time is 1985 and the location is Cambridge at the Harvard University in Massachusetts. The occasion is the official invitation from the University for the “Charles Eliot Norton Poetry Lectures”. It is a very prestigious professorship so the topic is chosen accurately: the values of literature that Calvino felt to be important for the coming millennium to be dealt in six monographic lessons.
The topics are: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. The sixth lesson is published posthumously and titled in English “consistency” but in Italian translated “starting and ending.”
The title of the book is “Six memos for the next millennium”, translated after Calvino’s death by his wife Esther into “Lezioni Americane” meaning “American lessons”. Esther tells that, during the writing, Calvino’s friend Pietro Civati used to ask, “how are the American lesson going?” so that question grew to be the Italian title.
Lightness is the first lesson topic: it is not meant as triviality but as ability to encompass life in all its beauty and gravity without being overwhelmed by it. Quickness is the mental velocity of the story able to engage the reader. Exactitude points at the proportionality of the tale, which should well balance each of its part like a crystal: whose beauty is both complex and readable.
Visibility is intended as the ability to use words, sentences and syntactic structures to create vivid images in the reader’s mind. Multiplicity means that a literary work, in order to picture life, has to mirror its transformation experimenting different styles and narrative techniques to best picture its nuances. The last lesson concerns the necessity for a story, as for a circle, to create a start that relates to a proper ending: a conclusion in which the dynamics that had been opened may find an accurate closing hence being surpassed or neatly interiorised.
Following the logic of the circle and applying it to the Calvino’s series of lessons, one may be tempted to come back where the book started, realizing that the first study concerning lightness had already embraced inceptions of the value system expressed by the other ones.
“Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times — noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring — belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.”
The poet-philosopher who Calvino is referring to is Guido Cavalcanti representative writer of the “Dolce Stilnovo” the important literary movement born in Florence in the 13th century. Calvino recalls how Cavalcanti was pictured by Renaissance humanist writer Boccaccio walking through a cemetery and how, when confronted by some friends of the Florentine gilded youth for his austerity,
“as the one who was very light, he leaped deftly over a tombstone, and developing from them he went away”.
The image of Cavalcanti who leaps light over a tombstone, is able to be at the same time light, quick, exact, visible and multiple becoming symbol of the values for the next millennium literature which in the mind of Calvino would free individual experience from gravity toward personal and collective emotional and intellectual processing. The “American lessons” are a fundamental guide for anyone wishing to learn to tell a story but also the leap toward the discovery of a path of values able to widen the horizon and the capacity to feel and interact with life.