A Challenging Nostalgia in Search of Reunion: Desire in Calvino's "The Distance from the Moon"

Article excerpt

Naturalmente omini boni desiderano sapere *

In 1959 at a well-known conference in Cambridge, Charles Snow proclaimed that between the worlds of science and literature a profound gap had formed, reaching according to him the point of reciprocal incommunicability. He famously labeled them "the two cultures," and when his discussion came to speaking of possible resolutions to the problem, he formulated a hypothetical "third culture" that could somehow reconcile their differences. While viewed by some to be a bit incomplete theoretically, Snow's ideas did go to the heart of an issue that had been for some time growing in urgency and brought it to the public's attention.1

In effect, during the 1950s and 1960s one could clearly perceive in all of Europe (in particular Italy) a growing mistrust in science's optimistic vision for the world, especially championed by Positivism, when the economic boom gave rise to a sense of alienation in the industrial workplace, increased industrialization, and consumerism. In fact, the entire twentieth century up until the 1960s, with the aftermath of the two world wars and problems of abject poverty, is characterized by a negative image of science that was spread via mass communication and eventually became common cultural heritage. Pirandello, for instance, used to consider science as a source of deception, unhappiness, and death, and in his view science and nature were opposites.

The Italian intellectuals and authors who addressed this crucial issue at that time numbered, among others, Elio Vittorini, Sergio Solmi, Umberto Eco, Primo Levi, and Dino Buzzati. In addition, of particular importance is Italo Calvino's literary and theoretical contribution, the dedication to which, bringing science closer to the world of literature, became concrete during the 1 960s. Witness Le cosmicomiche (1965) and Ti con zero (1967), two works which revealed his interest in a variety of scientific topics such as geometry, astronomy, and botany.

In a historical period that had definitely exhausted the expressive potentialities of neorealism, Calvino adopted an anti-mimetic writing style with a pronounced imaginary component, present m his writing from the very beginning. However, what distinguishes Calvino's writing style from that of the other authors of the period is the pronounced Fairy-tale element in his narration. Pagetti notes that it was, in fact, the interpretation of science fiction given by Sergio Solmi that constituted the intellectual transition from the phase in which Calvino published Lefiabe italiane (1956) to the scientific phase of ten years later. Pagetti also notes that Solmi, in the preface to Meraviglie del possibile (1959), comparing science fiction to novels of chivalry, 1400-1500, suggested an interpretation of "le nuove mitologie scientifiche" as "simboli, trasposizioni inconsciamente allegoriche delle fonde aspirazioni e inquietudini dell'oggi."(2) The fairy-tale, being linked with the fantastic, turned out to be an ideal c oupling in Calvino's "scientific" style which, because of its multilayered nature, became a model for a new way of producing and reading literature.

In this way of conceiving writing, an important key to interpreting Calvino's literary works is his use of humor, through which he reestablishes equilibrium between the two fields. This element is particularly central in the Cosmicomiche (as the title suggests) and is clearly indicated from the beginning by the selection of the twelve scientific theories about the origin of the universe that introduce each story. This sampling of theories portrays the uncertainty that shadows the entire field of cosmology and comically highlights unsolved mysteries that limit our knowledge of the cosmos. Through his humorous writing style Calvino frees literature from its inferiority complex towards science, creating on the page a dialogue between the two, in order to reassign to literature the task of evaluating the models upon which culture is shaped. …