CALVINO’S CLAIM

One of my absolute favorite writers, Italo Calvino, would have been 88 today, had he not kicked the bucket in ’85. I secretly entertain the idea that he would have lived longer had he gone Zen. The ‘don’t think’ doctrine would have saved him from the brain explosion that he suffered.

Calvino thought too much. Couple that with a heightened sense of play, and you’re in trouble. For, you end up tormenting yourself about whether to think or to play. The thinker, by definition, has a hard time with play that allows for all sorts of contradictions. For the thinker, the aim is often to say something instructive and clear.

The player, even when following a strategy for play, has his eyes on something else. Self-expression may be part of it, but the smart player will ditch that in favor of creating a space where other things can happen rather than merely deploying the actualization of one’s own ego in popular recognition.

After all, the player, also by definition will do anything to escape becoming entombed and impotent within the very world of self-imposed constrictions. The art is, and has always been to rise above limits.

What I like about Calvino is that he was obsessed with Tarot. Especially Tarot de Marseille. In his great book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969), a bunch of people – wanderers – end up in a castle on a dark and stormy night.

They want to have dinner together and chat like normal people, when they realize that they’ve lost their speech. The owner of the castle provides them with a deck of cards, Tarot cards, and they all start speaking in visual tongues.

The stories they tell are most truthful and accurate, heartfelt and hilarious, and there’s no ambiguity about anything at all. Everybody gets the picture. Speaking the visual language thus seems to leave no room for misunderstanding.

This is a very nice move. That the image can communicate its message in a more direct way than its verbal counterpart is rather liberating. One is free from having to make stupid assumptions, or having to ask all the time what the meaning of it all is.

What an image invites us to consider is the possibility that we might just experience a revelation. And the beauty of a revelation is still this one: that it needs no ‘rational’ discourse to explain it. It’s magical.

Since Calvino wrote his book there seems to be consensus among the serious Tarot de Marseille readers that he raised the bar on sophisticated interpretation. What is more, this sophistication is all about keeping it simple. You have the cards in front of you. There are pictures on them. You look at them and you have two options: to go the cultural way, or the free way.

Cultural preconditioning creates a preponderance for readings that rely on repeating set phrases. The gypsies and the occultists prefer this practice. The free-way types of reading prefer the space between your eyes and your nose, and the leading questions are always of observation.

What is happening? And how does it make you feel? In my opinion, the best Tarot de Marseille reader right now is Enrique Enriquez, who, following Calvino and other no nonsense men, argues for the efficiency of engaging the picture at the querent’s own level. According to Enriquez, the ideal situation in a one-to-one Tarot session is this one: the cards fall on the table.

The reader sees them, the querent sees them, and they both know it. Words are redundant. By following the simple rules of observing what elements rhyme with one another when going from one card to the other, and by looking at the shape, color, sound, and rhythm of these elements, we should be able to remember what we already know. Enriquez has even truncated the whole reading method to the idea that:

“Once Upon a Time” and “Happily Ever After”

is about going

from warm to cold

from cold to warm

about contracting if you have expanded

about expanding if you are contracted

because you are a lump of clay

(and I mean it nicely).

(from Tarology 101)

Calvino was a poststructuralist and a postmodern man. This means that while he appreciated all the binary opposites and beautiful symmetries he was not buying any mythologies.

He was no occultist, concerned with learning heavy stuff between heaven and earth by heart, and he didn’t give a damn about the symbol. Calvino was a man of letters. And he took the visual image’s own word for it.

For instance, and unlike some Golden Dawn folks who decided that the now 400 years old card of the Lover in the Marseille lore is about the marriage between heaven and earth, Calvino took a good look at what the image communicates beyond the symbol and decided that not only are we dealing here with a man unable to decide between two women, but that if we also looked carefully we could see that that choice has already been made.

The Lover, with his hand firmly planted onto the blonde woman’s crotch, while flirting with the smart one over his shoulder, is nothing other than a deceitful bastard merely enforcing what some other clever writers have emphasized ever so eloquently.

In the words of Nabokov: men always want to fuck Eve – as she looks like their mother – while being forever fascinated with Lilith – who doesn’t give a damn about reproduction. In the face of having to choose, or pretending that we do, for whatever reason, we have Calvino’s word for it that things are really much simpler than we imagine.

Thus he says in the Castle: “Every choice has its obverse, that is to say a renunciation, and so there is no difference between the act of choosing and the act of renouncing.”

In honor of Calvino’s birthday, I pulled 3 cards for him, wishing to see what he might communicate from beyond the grave, and what might be Calvinesque par excellence.  Here’s what I got:

CINQUE DE DENIERS (FIVE OF COINS), LE FOV, CINQUE DE COUPES (FIVE OF CUPS)

Keeping with the tradition, here’s the 30-second interpretation – as it really doesn’t take any longer to figure things out:

Don’t be impressed by the exciting core of things, material or emotional, that are seemingly external to you. You are yourself this very center, forever caught in the paradox of ‘no difference between the act of choosing and the act of renouncing.’

Squeezed between the fives, now you let go of the money – and renouncing the establishment’s cat scratching your balls – now you’re ready to get drunk, giving in to the temptation of believing that love can make you feel special.

The Fool is what has always been: the truest to his unstable nature, and therefore the most stable. The one who believes nothing and assumes no responsibility for any claims, except perhaps this one: freedom doesn’t have to cost anything at all.

While writing these words, I’m thinking of yesterday’s event, when, over fancy beer at the local pub, The Bishop’s Arms in Jönköping in Sweden, I pulled these cards for myself in connection with musing over the freedom to do what Calvino did, whatever the fuck he wanted. Read more Tarot.

But how? There’s no tradition for it here in Scandinavia, not any that is worth much. I got these cards:

LA PAPESSE (THE HIGH PRIESTESS), LE CHARIOR (THE CHARIOT), JVSTICE (JUSTICE)

‘Jolly good,’ I said to myself: forge ahead with the knowledge you have, and go goddamn professional.

We bow to Calvino tonight, to Enrique Enriquez, and to our partners, who, although not Marseille’ists, pay close attention.

§

Here’s a treat, an animation of Calvino’s novel on tarot.

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Note on the deck: Jean Noblet’s Tarot de Marseille, 1650, as restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy

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  1. Here are some comments left of Facebook:

    Fortune Elkins
    Don’t you wish Calvino had written the third part as well? That would have been an interesting extension of the Perec technique and a cute juxtaposition of text vs. image.Yesterday at 10:50pm · Like · 1 person

    Camelia Elias
    Absolutely. It would have been interesting to read what Calvino would have further made of the idea of putting constraint at the service of chance.23 hours ago · Like

    Fortune Elkins
    An interesting thing to remember is that Calvino in his teen years explored a career in illustration, taking drawing courses. But he found it unsatisfying, and turned to playwriting. But he soon also tired of the constraints of theater and moved to fiction once the war had interrupted his practical studies (he at one time was interested in fruit-growing; his father had been an agronomist). So in a certain sense the image vs. text thing had been with him a long time, even before he joined Oulipo. The planned 3rd part of Castle was to be called “Motel” – stories based on random newspaper clippings laid out like spreads.

    Camelia Elias
    Perhaps one can detect in Calvino’s resignation a fear related to the idea that stories as found in the newspapers, for all their sensationalist function, fail ultimately to provide a background that can be perceived as a platform for higher things beyond the purely trivial. In other words, the Motel subjects, may not have been as interesting as the hypocrite aristocrats or the petty merchants when it comes to delivering material for story-telling.

    Fortune Elkins
    Interesting idea Camelia. Calvino later said that he gave up on the third part because he found his focus on it exhausting and obsessional. He was also moving away from Perec’s techniques a bit; his next book after all was Difficult Loves, in which he leaves the abstract literary ludics to return to human beings for a bit.

    Camelia Elias
    Difficult Loves was actually published in ’58, ten years before The Castle. So, Calvino made his move already then, to follow the word not the thought, so to speak, where the word can be taken at the playful level, and the thought at the cultural level. For, for the most part, people play the sentimental card, which they think is their individual voice, rather than the pleasure card, which exceeds cultural constraints. Calvino remained true to this latter aspect of freedom to the last.

    Fortune Elkins
    Can you post the picture of that 58 edition, Camelia? I’m staring right here at Gli amori difficili. Turin: Einaudi, 1970. And the standard bibliographies all have 1970, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italo_Calvino#Selected_bibliography andhttp://www.sodsbrood.com/calvino/calbib.htm altho’ it appears several of the stories in Difficult Loves were written earlier, such as Adam.

    Selected bibliography – Italo Calvino – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    en.wikipedia.orgA selected bibliography of Calvino’s writings, listing the works that have been translated into and published in English, and a few major untranslated works. More exhaustive bibliographies can be found in Martin McLaughlin’s Italo Calvino, and Beno Weiss’s Understanding Italo Calvino.[43][44]

    Fortune Elkins
    Ah! Now we see: Einaudi appears to have done 3 versions of Difficili, with additional stories each time: one in 49, one in 58, and one in 1970, which had a 4th edition in 75. The 75 version is one apparently translated by Weaver into English in 84. Mystery solved! 🙂

    Greg LeFever
    Calvino was a great influence for me several years ago. My interest in Tarot developed afterward. Though I’ve thought about re-reading Calvino several times in recent years, your essay has convinced me the time time is now. Thank you, Camelia, for the push. And the little I know of Enrique’s methodology convinces me you are totally correct in ranking him among the premier Marseille readers of our day!19 hours ago

    Enrique Enriquez
    Hi Camelia, thanks very much for your kind comments.

    I like to think that we invented language so we can talk about words. I couldn’t think that without the Oulipians and their work. To me “The Castle…” is a link (or a wink) between theoulipan wordgames and the Marseille Tarot’s image play. Thanks to Oulipo, among others, I understood that words and trumps are interchangeable: the games we deploy with the former can also be played with the later and vice versa.

    Everything is in Calvino’s book. Those who need to be told what to say when they are looking at the tarot will improve the sound of their readings by reciting Calvino’s lines. Those who see the tarot as a springboard for narratives will find “The Castle…” to be a very apt model for that. Those who like to meditate on the tarot will find profound insights about the images in every one of Calvino’s stories. Those see the tarot as a practical application of analogical thinking will see such strategy deployed with flying colors in “The Castle…”. There is something in there for everybody, which is a lot to say for a book that wasn’t supposed to be about the tarot, nor to be written for tarot readers.

    The third section of the book: “the Motel of Crossed Destinies”… That would be a great assignment for a creative writing workshop (or word chop?).

    Camelia Elias
    “We invented language so that we can talk about words.” What can I say? I search myself to find the words, the right words. This is an impossibility that the Oulipians were concerned with. What they could intuit is that we use words externally to mark our place in the world. For the inside, we need the image. To express things about our innermost core, we need metaphors. It is also for this reason that we say that only what comes from inner conviction has the potential to be revelatory. While words may reveal a state of relations, the image reveals the fullness of being. Through image we get a better sense of what we mean when we say, the moon is in my belly, or, the sun triangulates my constellations, or, some people’s generosity makes the trumpets of my soul blow. Thanks go to you, Enrique.

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