Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics
November 20, 2002 8:17 AM   Subscribe

"I was willing to bet that there was going to be a universe, and I hit the nail on the head." The other day we had Avram Davidson, which got me thinking of Calvino's Invisible Cities, but all the recent talk about black holes made me remember that Italo Calvino is at his most charming when he's playing with physics, math, and cosmology in Cosmicomics.
posted by vraxoin (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
During my college days, I was surprised by the number of students who couldn't appreciate Calvino's (or even Umberto Eco's) works; in their eyes, he wasn't a storyteller relating his craft onto text, but an author incapable of sticking to the story.

Which just goes to show how the literal mind can often be its own prison...
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:51 AM on November 20, 2002

I just re-read Cosmicomics (again) a couple of weeks ago... It's my absolute all-time favorite Calvino, a perfect little book. Here is the work of one artist who has been inspired by it.

Also, Calvino's Reality: Designer's Utopia is an essay advocating Calvino's "Six Memos for the Next Millennium" as a guideline for graphic design.
posted by taz at 8:53 AM on November 20, 2002

I love Calvino, esp. Baron in the Trees.
posted by drobot at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2002

is it that there's a certain cachet in being a polymath? i think it must be - surely people don't think that physicists or mathematicians are genetically predisposed to write great literature. or is there some other explanation for the claim that this is playing with "physics, math, and cosmology"? because there's not one of any of those in the excerpt in that link. unless writing a story about the earth being near the moon is, by that alone, physics and cosmology, i guess. but then why isn't every book that mentions one thing being close to another a book about physics? why not claim any reference to two legs as witty mathematical erudition?

the gulf between the sciences and the arts is not closed by making such extravagant claims. saying that this work is about physics, maths and cosmology is as hopeless as comparing phys rev b to war and peace. so stop it.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:17 AM on November 20, 2002

Cosmicomics is a beautiful book. Highly recommended.
posted by anathema at 9:18 AM on November 20, 2002

I never understood the gap between the sciences and the arts. What a strange place to put a gap. I usually ignore it.
posted by Nothing at 9:30 AM on November 20, 2002

Andrew, I'd say read the book, and then see what you think. Describing Cosmicomics as "playing with physics, math, and cosmology" doesn't seem at all overstated to me.
posted by taz at 9:36 AM on November 20, 2002

Baron of the Trees and Mr. Palomar are two of my all time favorite books. It's too bad that so many people know nothing about his work.
posted by batboy at 11:17 AM on November 20, 2002

I read Cosmicomics periodically whenever I need to exercise the ol' imagination. The 'science' in the book is deliberately stretched or completely broken in the same way as our preconceptions are supposed to be stretched and broken in a zen koan. I don't see this as flaw.
posted by wobh at 11:18 AM on November 20, 2002

i read what, 16 pages or so, on amazon, before making my comment. does it suddenly change?

nothing - if you ignore gaps, you might fall into them. take care.

taz - but what do you know of physics, maths and cosmology? does any later part of this book show any greater awareness of the physical consequences of what he's describing? if not, then how is this different to, say, a painting by chagall? do his flying characters play with physics, maths and cosmology too?

in other words: there's a lot more to cosmology than knowing that the moon has gravity. this is primary school stuff.

i think this is important for two reasons. first, if people really believe this shows a deep play on ideas from cosmology (say) then they can't be aware just how rich and complex the sciences are. second, bad science makes books like this difficult to read when you do have some knowledge.

in this case, there's so little physics, maths or cosmology in the text that the second point is almost irrelevant. a better example is mulisch's discovery of heaven, which includes a radio astronomer as a central character. mulisch makes a serious attempt at inter-relating ideas from a wide range of subjects (often he succeeds - it's a very good book), but when he makes an embarrassing mistake about astrophysics i start to worry about his competence handling areas where i have less knowledge.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2002

Andrew, I think you’re expecting something different from Calvino when you hear “playing with physics, maths, and cosmology”. That’s not really all that Cosmicomics is about, it’s just part of the pretext, from which Calvino can propel a narrative that stretches from (before) the beginning of time to the present. Gore Vidal (who led me to Calvino with his essay Calvino’s Death) wrote a good appreciation of Calvino’s Novels which deals very well with Cosmicomics. I’d say give it a read (followed by a few of Calvino’s books) if you want to see how rich and complex Calvino is.
posted by sherman at 1:13 PM on November 20, 2002

Of COURSE science and the arts are different...otherwise this and this could have been combined into one.
posted by rushmc at 5:29 PM on November 20, 2002

As I mentioned earlier, Calvino's works are an acquired taste, trading facts for metaphor at every given opportunity. Cosmicomics is no more concerned with the actual minutae of Terra and Luna than Invisible Cities can be said to accurately describe the history, geography, and technological development of the Yuan Dynasty.

That said and done, Andrew, I hope you could help ptermit and myself in one of the prior threads; your understanding of astronomy & physics would be well appreciated.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:27 PM on November 20, 2002

"I think you’re expecting something different from Calvino when you hear 'playing with physics, maths, and cosmology'. "

Indeed. Calvino is just playing here, using these concepts not for their intended purpose, but rather to frame human relationships in a different context. Calvino was first and foremost a literary stylist and that may be why his appeal has never spread outside of academia the way Eco's has. What I have always loved about him, though, is that his style is always light and readable (even when slogging through the original Italian for college credit), so that yeah he's a postmodernist but he's also fun and readable, so I don't hold it against him the way I do with someone like, say, John Barth.
posted by vraxoin at 7:26 PM on November 20, 2002

To me Cosmicomics is one of the least engaging of Calvino's works - I've started it a couple of times but have yet to finish it. The deployment of physics & math in it (as far as I read) struck me as a fairly superficial literary conceit, playful yes, but not in a way that pushed my buttons. Invisible Cities, on the other hand, is one of my favourite books ever.
posted by misteraitch at 5:15 AM on November 21, 2002

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