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 lines where words follow each other one at a time, and every sentence and every paragraph occupies its orderly place, a world perhaps very rich, even more rich than the unwritten one, but in any case requiring a special adjustment in order to fit oneself into it. When I move from the written world to the other, the one we currently call the world, based on three dimensions, five senses, peopled by four billions of our fellows, this means, for me, repeating every time the event of my birth, passing again through its trauma, to shape an intelligible reality from a lot of confused sensations, to choose again a strategy for facing the unexpected without being destroyed by it.
This new birth is marked for me every time by special rites signifying my entry into a different life: for instance, the rite of putting on my glasses because I am a nearsighted man and read without spectacles—while for the farsighted majority of you the rite would be the opposite, taking off the spectacles you use for reading.
Any rite of passage means a change in the attitude of our minds: when reading I need to understand quickly every sentence, at least its literal meaning, and once I have understood it, I feel ready to pronounce judgment: what I’ve read is true or false, right or wrong, pleasant or disagreeable. In my ordinary life, on the contrary, countless circumstances escape my understanding, from the most general to the simplest and most trivial: I am often facing situations I can’t give an opinion about and I prefer to suspend judgment.
As I wait for the unwritten world to become clearer, there is always a written page opened before me, where I can dive back in; I do it without delay and with the greatest satisfaction because there at least, even if what I understand is only a small part of the whole, I can cherish the illusion that I am keeping everything under control.
I think I felt the same in my youth, but at that time my illusion was that the written and the unwritten worlds would mutually enlighten each other; experiences in life and experiences in books would be complementary, and advancing in one field I would advance in the other. Today I can say that I know much more about the written world than before: inside books, experience is still possible, but its domain ends at the white edge of the page. On the contrary, what happens around me surprises me every time, scares me, leaves me puzzled. I’ve seen many changes in my life, in the wide world, in the society around me, many changes even inside myself, and yet I can’t foresee anything, for me, for people I know, not to mention the future of mankind. I can’t foresee the future relationship between the sexes, between the generations, future developments of society, of towns, of countries, what kind of peace there will be or what kind of war, what money will mean, which of the everyday objects surrounding us will disappear and which new ones will appear, what sort of vehicles and engines will exist, what will be the future of the sea, of rivers, of animals, of plants. I know that I share my ignorance with those who, on the contrary, pretend to know: economists, sociologists, politicians; but the fact that I’m not alone doesn’t cheer me up.
I could cheer myself up by thinking literature has always understood something more than other disciplines, but this makes me remember that the ancients saw in the humanities a school of wisdom, and I realize how much the very idea of wisdom is unattainable today.
At this point you will ask me: If you say your true world is the written page, the only one where you feel at ease, why do you want to leave it, and why do you venture into that wide world you are not able to master? The answer is very simple: in order to write. Because I’m a writer. I am supposed to cast exploring looks around, catch glimpses of what is going on, then bend again over my writing desk and go on with my temporarily interrupted job. It is in order to start again my factory of words that I must draw new fuel from the wells of the unwritten.
But let’s look further into the situation. Are things really like this? The leading present philosophies say: No, you are wrong. Two contrasting conclusions to two philosophical currents haunt the writer’s mind. The one says: The world doesn’t exist, only language exists. The other says: The common language has no meaning; the world is literally unspeakable.
For the former, solid language stands over a world of shadows; for the latter it is the world that stands like a stony silent sphinx upon a desert of words shifting in the wind.
The first current has its source in today’s Paris; the second flows from the turn of the century in Vienna, but has gone through several revivals and is today widespread also in my country. Both philosophies have strong claims to being right. Both offer the writer a challenge: the first, to use a language responsible only to itself; the other, to use a language in order to reach the silence of the world. I’m fascinated and influenced by both. This means that I don’t follow either, that I don’t believe in either. What do I believe in, then?
Let me see for a moment if I can get some satisfaction out of this difficult situation. First of all, if we feel so intensely the incompatibility between the written and the unwritten, it’s because we are now much more aware of what the written world is, we can’t ever forget that it is made by words, that language is used according to its own techniques and strategies, that meanings and relationships among meanings are organized according to special systems; we are aware that when a story is told to us (and almost every written text tells a story, or many stories, even a book of philosophy, even a company budget, even a cooking recipe) this story is set in motion by a machinery, like other machineries of other stories.
This realization is already a great advance: we can now avoid any confusion between what is linguistic and what isn’t, so we can be more precisely aware of any possible relationship between the two worlds.
Now I have only to do the counter-check, to test that the world outside is still there, and doesn’t depend on words, is to some extent irreducible to words, and no speech, no writing could exhaust it. I have just to turn my back on the words deposited in books, dive into the outside world, and I will join the heart of silence, the very silence being full of meaning…. How can I reach it?
In order to get in touch with the outside world, some people merely buy the newspaper every morning. I’m not so naive. I know that in the papers I may get only a reading of the world made by others, or rather by an anonymous machinery specialized in selecting from the infinite dust of events those which can be caught in the sieve of “news.”
Other people, in order to escape written words, turn on the television. But I know that all the images, even live reporting, belong to a constructed speech, not unlike that of the papers. So, don’t buy the paper, don’t turn on the TV, just go out and walk.
But everything I see in the city streets has already got its place in the pattern of homogenized information. This world I see, the one we ordinarily recognize as the world, presents itself to my eyes—at least to a large extent—already defined, labeled, catalogued. It is a world already conquered, colonized by words, a world that bears a heavy crust of speech. The facts of our lives are already classified, judged, commented upon, even before happening. We live in a world where everything is already read even before it starts to exist.
I see my argument has led me into a dead end. If the unwritten world is actually entirely written, I’ll never be able to break the written shell surrounding me, whether I raise my eyes from the page or I look down; I can’t expect any change.
Not only everything we see but also our very eyes are saturated with written language. Through the centuries, the habit of reading has changed Homo sapiens into Homo legens. But this Homo legens is not more sapiens than his ancestors. The nonreading man could see and hear many things we aren’t able to perceive now: the tracks of the beasts he was hunting, the signs of the approaching rain or wind. He could tell the hours of the day from the shadow of a tree or those of the night from the position of stars upon the horizon. And as to hearing, smell, taste, and touch, his superiority over us is undeniable.
Anyway, I didn’t come here to propose a revival of illiteracy in order to recover the knowledge of paleolithic tribes. I regret everything we have lost, but I am bearing in mind that the gains exceed the losses. What I am trying to discover is what we can actually do today.
I must mention the special difficulties I have as an Italian in my relationship with the world and with language. The man who is speaking to you is a writer from a country that causes a lot of frustrations for those who try to understand it. Italy is a place where many mysterious stories happen, widely discussed and commented on every day but never solved; where every event hides a secret plot whose nature remains hidden while the fact of being a secret is not a secret at all; where no story comes to an end because its beginnings remain obscure, but between the beginning and the end we may enjoy an infinite number of details. Italy is a place where changes in society, habits, behavior are now very quick, maybe too quick to let us understand in what direction we are heading, and anyway everything that happens is accompanied by forewarnings of degradation or catastrophe or by declarations of our persistent triumph in our traditional art of surviving, picking our way and making do.
Therefore the stories we Italian writers can tell are marked on the one hand by the sense of the unknown and on the other by the need for construction: exactly drawn lines of harmony and geometry—that is the way we react to the quicksand we stand on.
As for the language, a sort of plague has struck it. Italian is getting more and more abstract, artificial, ambiguous; the simplest things aren’t ever said directly, concrete nouns are no longer used. First the politicians, the officials, the intellectuals were struck by this disease, then it became a general epidemic, as a political and intellectual consciousness spread over the larger masses. The task of the writer is to fight against this plague, to make a direct, concrete language survive, but everyday language, which used to be the living source writers could draw from, now doesn’t escape the infection.
Therefore, I think we Italians are in the ideal situation to connect our present difficulties in writing novels with general reflections about language and the world.
An important international trend in the culture of our century, what we might call the phenomenological approach in philosophy, the estrangement effect in literature, urges us to break through the screen of words and concepts and see the world as if it appeared for the first time to our sight. Well, now let me try to create the void in my mind, and gaze at a landscape, keeping it free of every cultural connection. What happens? Our sight is programmed to read and I notice that I’m trying to read the landscape, the meadow, the stormy sea.
Such a program doesn’t mean that our eyes follow an instinctive horizontal movement from left to right, then from the left again, repeating the same movement a bit lower down, and so on. (Of course the eyes I’m speaking about are programmed for the Western pages; for Japanese eyes we should suppose a vertical program.) Reading, more than an optic exercise, is a process involving mind and eyes, a process of abstraction, or rather an extraction of concreteness from abstract operations, like recognizing distinctive marks, breaking down everything we see into minimal elements, assembling them in meaningful segments, discovering all around us regularities, differences, recurrences, exceptions, substitutions, redundancies.
The comparison between the world and a book has a long history, since the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In which language is the world’s book written? According to Galileo, it was the language of mathematics and geometry, a language of absolute rationality and exactitude. Is that the way we can read today’s world? Perhaps it might be so, but only for the extremely far: galaxies, quasars, supernovae. As to our everyday world, it appears to be written rather in a mosaic of languages, like a wall crowded with graffiti, filled with scribblings one upon the other, like a palimpsest whose parchment was scratched and rewritten several times, like a Schwitters collage, an arrangement of alphabets, heterogeneous quotations, slang terms, computer printouts. Should we try for mimesis of the world’s language in our writing? Some of the most important writers of our century have done this: we may find examples in Ezra Pound, or in Joyce, or in some vertiginous page by Carlo Emilio Gadda, always driven by an obsession with connecting every detail to the whole universe.
But is mimesis the right way? My starting point was the irreconcilable contrast between the written and unwritten world; if their two languages merge, my argument goes to pieces. The true challenge for a writer is to speak about the tangled mess of our century using a language so transparent that it reaches a hallucinatory level, as Kafka did.
In France, when Francis Ponge wrote prose poems about such humble things as a piece of soap or a lump of coal, the philosophical question of “the thing in itself” began to mark literary research.
To renew a relationship between language and world perhaps the first operation is the simplest: fixing our attention on an object, any object, to the most trivial and familiar, and describing it minutely, as if it were the newest and most interesting thing in the world.
One of the lessons we can derive from the poetry of our century is the investment of all our attention, all our love for details, in something very far from any human image, an object, a plant, an animal, then identifying in it our sense of reality, our morals, our self, as William Carlos Williams did with a cyclamen, Marianne Moore with a nautilus, Eugenio Montale with an eel.
My present interest in descriptions is due to the fact, I must confess, that the book I’m writing includes several descriptions. I try to make description turn into a story while remaining just a description. In every story of this book there is a character who thinks only insofar as he sees, and mistrusts every thought coming to him by any other means.
My problem in writing this book is that I’m not what can be called an observer; I am very absent-minded, so the first thing I have to do is to concentrate my visual attention on something and then describe it, or rather do both at the same time because, not being an observer, if I observe, for instance, an iguana at the zoo and I don’t write about it at once, I forget it.
I must say that most of the books I have written and those I intend to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it.
That’s what happened with my last novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: I started imagining all the kinds of novels I would never write because I couldn’t; then I tried to write them and for some time I felt in myself the energy of ten different imaginary novelists.
Another book I’m writing is about the five senses, in order to demonstrate that contemporary man has lost the use of them. Writing it, I have the problem that my sense of smell is not very sharp. I lack really keen hearing, I am not a gourmet, my sense of touch is unrefined, and I am nearsighted. For each one of the five senses, I have to make an effort in order to master a range of sensations and nuances. I don’t know if I shall succeed, but my efforts, in this case as in the others, are not merely aimed at making a book but also at changing myself, the goal of all human endeavor.
You may say that you prefer books conveying an actual experience, real and guaranteed. Well, I do too. But in my experience, the urge for writing is always connected with the longing for something one would like to possess and master, something that escapes us. Now, since I know very well this sort of urge, I have the impression that I recognize it also in the great writers whose voices seemed to reach me from the summit of an absolute experience. What they succeeded in conveying to us was an approach to experience, not an arrival; this kept intact all the seductions of desire. That may be the way great authors give us that precise feeling of knowledge that we cannot find anywhere else.
In a certain way, I think we always write about something we don’t know, we write to give the unwritten world a chance to express itself through us. Yet the moment my attention wanders from the settled order of the written lines to the movable complexity no sentence is able to hold entirely, I come close to understanding that on the other side of the words there is something words could mean.
Poets and writers we admire have built up in their works a world we feel as the most meaningful, opposing it to a world they too felt lacking in meaning and in perspective. Believing that their gesture was not too different from ours, we raise our eyes from the page to look into the darkness.
—translated by William Weaver