Literature as Natural Philosophy: Italo Calvino's (Post)modern Re-Evaluation of Cosmogony

By Pilz, Kerstin | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Literature as Natural Philosophy: Italo Calvino's (Post)modern Re-Evaluation of Cosmogony


Pilz, Kerstin, Annali d'Italianistica


One of the foremost concerns of Italo Calvino's work--both in his fictions and in his essays--was the quest to recuperate a unified view of knowledge, akin to the traditional cosmogony which preceded the (post)modern fragmentation of knowledge into separate branches and fields of specialization. Focusing on Lezioni americane, this essay analyzes Calvino's concept of interdisciplinarity and the link he makes between literature and cosmogony as the earliest literary genre. Calvino called for literature to return to "its original specific vocation as 'natural philosophy'"; namely, a cultural unifier that negotiates meaning across disciplines and genres. This essay demonstrates the extent to which the American lectures, which became the author's literary testament, constitute an important example of literature's role as a unifying framework situated within the broader context of emerging, new, interdisciplinary sciences, notably complexity science.

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September 2005 marks the twentieth anniversary of Italo Calvino's death. It is an opportune moment at which to re-evaluate the legacy of one of Italy's most celebrated and best known contemporary authors. Internationally Calvino is perhaps best known as a prominent postmodern author/icon. (1) His manifold literary experimentations amount to a textbook-like illustration of the passage from literary modernism to postmodernism: his narratives become gradually more fragmented, open-ended and non-linear, geometrical narrative structures that turn into interdependent webs, where order is challenged by disorder and characters submit to an increasing sense of disorientation, perplexity and dispersion.

Yet pigeonholing Calvino in this way would not do him justice and indeed would betray the central theme of his oeuvre. His most important legacy and the overarching ambition of all his works have been that of remaking and reevaluating literature as a source of knowledge and as a cultural unifier: "Vogliamo dalla letteratura un'immagine cosmica" (Saggi 1. 123), he pledged in 1962. First and foremost Calvino needs to be remembered and celebrated as a pioneer who advocated an interdisciplinary approach to culture and knowledge, long before this tendency became fashionable. Only a dialogue of literature, science and philosophy, he argued in 1967, could save culture from the perceived ideological and epistemological impasse that dominated the second half of the twentieth century: "Una cultura all'altezza della situazione ci sara soltanto quando la problematica della scienza, quella della filosofia e quella della letteratura si metteranno continuamente in crisi a vicenda" (Saggi 1. 193-94). In this article I propose to examine Calvino's notion of interdisciplinarity and illustrate its link to traditional cosmology. (2) I will do so by taking a closer look at the posthumously published Lezioni americane: sei proposte per il prossimo millennio, which amounts to an intellectual balance sheet of the thought models, ideas and writers that nourished and inspired Calvino's work and the points of contact he made between different forms of knowledge. While Calvino's concern to integrate literature with other branches of knowledge is not restricted to those works that make direct reference to science, but is in fact evident in all his prose fictions, it is the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that provide the most complete and fascinating example of a true dialogue between literature, science and philosophy.

After his untimely death in September 1985, on the eve of his departure to Harvard University where he was to deliver the prestigious Norton lectures, several obituaries paid tribute to Calvino as a uniquely interdisciplinary writer and thinker, whose interest and knowledge of science went well beyond a merely superficial acquaintance. Massimo Piattelli Palmarini, a philosopher of science and a personal friend of Calvino, who had been looking forward to exchanging ideas with Calvino during his stay at Harvard, stresses the writer's lifelong interest in science:

Insaziabile curioso per ogni cosa, lo era in particolar modo per i fatti della scienza. …

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