Sunday, September 19, 2010

Italo Calvino is What's Awesome Today: "Cosmicomics"

"If on a winter's night a traveler" is one of my favorite books. It's experimental fiction, to be sure. It's my kind of experimental fiction, to be surer. I had a smallish falling out with the works of Italo Calvino, however, when I hit a dead end with "Invisible Cities." "Invisible Cities" was not my kind of experimental fiction, to be surest.

And so I didn't know what of Calvino's to try next, to rekindle my enthusiasm, until a friend recommended "Cosmicomics." Glad he did. "Cosmicomics" righted my attitude about Calvino's fiction from the outset. The book amounts to a strung-together-in-premise series of short stories. And that premise is, in a nut shell: creation myths and all their usual whimsy bound to a kind of quasi-regard for modern astronomy. In fact, each story is prefaced with a paragraph-long exposition on some astrological (or in a few cases geo-primordial) phenomenon or another (I presume these expositions are factual. Most sound factual, at least). Then each story descends into the madness of Calvino's really pleasing and lyrical prose.

Much of Calvino's work in "Cosmicomics" reminded me of one or a few of Mark Twain's later short stories, in which Twain describes souls screaming across the ethereal realm of outer space, traversing the galaxy and then, often, coming upon Earth. I.e. e.g. "Extract From Captain Stromfield's Visit to Heaven." But this isn't about that, about Twain. It is about Calvino and his similar tales to those of Twain, or so I have argued. Souls or whatever you wish to refer to them as exist in the galaxies of "Cosmicomics" likewise, having names like xzcsds or some such.

"A Signal From Space" was probably my favorite of the collection, although as said, they're all very good. But "A Signal From Space" had something slightly additional, slightly beyond that of the others which resonated with me. It's also the story most concerned with simulacra, said in terms of this strange artful philosophical tract and combining the other two elements I put forth above (i.e. myths and empirical science). I don't want to go all Jean Baudrillard on you, reader(s), but still I feel I must express my interest in the phenomenon of simulacra vis-a-vis semiotics.

The final supposition of the narrator speaks both of the long history of humanity's tendency to interpret surroundings and the end result of attaching our own method for divining all meaning, creating with it our own signs and symbols. (Hell, for evidence of this egocentrism look no further than the fact that I'm assuming the narrator is human, despite the non-human characteristics it possesses (like being probably immortal).) The ending sentence is long and well wrought, going a little something like this:

There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference: the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that independent of signs, space didn't exist and perhaps never existed.

The question then might be: is everything subject to the same immutable artificiality of signs devoid of meaning? That is, as purely constructs of conscious thought? The story refers only to a sign as the thing in itself throughout the narrative, not what it is beyond that or what it might be as a nuomenon (i.e. as a thing apart from senses)? Does any of this speculative, theoretical hogwash matter? Possibly not, but I enjoy being given the opportunity to think about it in certain occluded locales like that of a written work, and so has Calvino provided for such interpretation in "A Signal From Space."

I realize I have given you very little to chew on here in terms of what the stories are "about." They're all about something less abstract than my ruminating here, but I'm tired in general and uninterested in what all about these stories might be. Read them and you'll see, though uninitiated Calvino readers might also start with "If on a winter's night a traveler."

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