The Written and the Unwritten Word

Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

The following was given as the James Lecture, presented at the New York Institute for the Humanities on March 30.

When I’m asked for a lecture, not about a particular subject but one that would leave me free to choose what to speak about, I feel rather at a loss.

Usually when I write I feel myself protected behind that solid object which is the written text; it will be up to the public to read it, or if they are not pleased, to let it drop at any moment. For a lecture, on the contrary, I must face not only the audience but also the question within me: What is this audience expecting from my words? When I must lecture in a language that isn’t my own language, a supplementary question arises: Are the words I’m thinking the same as the ones I’m saying and the same the listener will receive?

To break through these difficulties, I start surrounding myself with dictionaries, as if it could be from them that a solution will come. For instance, I may look for the word “lecture” and see what the word provokes in me.

“Lecture” according to Webster’s dictionary means: “a) an informative talk given before an audience and usually prepared beforehand; b) the text of such a talk.” Therefore, I am here, having carefully prepared my talk, and the pages I am holding in my hands are the text I have written. Being unable to improvise, I am obliged to read, comforted by the Latin etymology of the word “lecture” also given by Webster. In any case, I can never escape my fate: in public as in private life I keep always a written page a few inches from my nose. During my trip to join you, on the plane crossing the ocean, and later in the cab crossing Manhattan, I was re-reading my text, also in order to practice my pronunciation; and every now and then I raised my eyes from the page, glanced around, discovered a world quite different from the world inside the written page; each time I started again to read, I was more perplexed, and each time the text looked different from before. This discontinuity between the written page, fixed and settled, and the moving multiform world outside the page never fails to strike me: even now, in this hall, every time I raise my eyes and look at my audience, I experience a familiar feeling of embarrassment, and I ask myself: Why have I written what I have written?

This will be the subject of my talk: what happens the moment I take my nose from the written page and look around, a moment repeated countless times during the day, perhaps the key moment, the moment of truth.

I belong to that part of humankind—a minority on the planetary scale, but I think a majority inside this hall—which spends most of its waking hours in a very special world, a world built by horizontal…

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