Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar

2 thoughts on “On Light and Lightness

  1. Salut, Alison!,

    I’m compelled to comment because this article threads in a theme I’ve often thought of. I’m Portuguese, you see, and I grew up mostly learning those heavy Romantic languages, French and Italian, which I know best. English came a little after.
    There are many common dissonances in the way I emote and neuro-linguistically experience emotional realities within different languages, and English is perhaps the one with most; “lightness”, as you put it, has always struck me as insufficient to the extensive breadth of conceptual space within its contents, as it is both weightlessness and luminosity, which are incredibly charged mytho-poetic concepts.
    Eugénio De Andrade, for example, was a Portuguese poet I’ve always associated with lightness, but not so much in the lack of weight or density or power, but in his gentility, the levity of his touch, almost as if he nearly hovers above the space he creates as to not disturb it. Others I’ve seen, like Rimbaud, are exurgent beings, they arise in light not because they are enlightened but because they manufacture the oneiric garden in which they bring themselves to visibility. How does one convey these nuances (nuances which are not exclusive to great authors, they’re also embosses of many personalities within and outside the creative world), how does one transmit it with such a lithe word?
    Great post Alison, I loved it.


  2. Thanks so much, Johnny, for commenting. I haven’t thought of whole languages feeling “light” or not; I love that idea. I wonder does it have to do with how easily you express yourself in the language, or is it about the sounds themselves. I started in English, then went to French and Latin, then Germanic languages. And now I’m off to read some Eugenio De Andrade. Cheers!


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