colin f lane

Calvino: The Written World and the Unwritten World

Calvino, Italo. 'The Written World and the Unwritten World'. The Paris Review, January 5, 2023,

I think that in my youth, too, things went that way, but at the time I had the illusion that the written world and the unwritten world illuminated one another; that the experiences of life and the experiences of reading were in some way complementary, and every step forward in one field corresponded to a step forward in the other. Today I can say that I know much more about the written world than I once did: within books, experience is always possible, but its reach doesn’t extend beyond the blank margin of the page. Instead, what happens in the world that surrounds me never stops surprising me, frightening me, disorienting me. I’ve witnessed many changes in my lifetime, in the vast world, in society, and many changes in myself, too, and yet I can’t predict anything, not for myself or for the people I know, and even less regarding the future of the human race. I couldn’t predict the future relations between the sexes, between the generations, future developments of society, of cities and nations, what type of peace there will be or what type of war, what significance money will have, which of the objects in daily use will disappear and which appear as new, what sort of vehicles and machines will be used, what the future of the sea will be, of rivers, animals, plants. I know very well that I share this ignorance with those who, on the contrary, claim to know: economists, sociologists, politicians. But the fact that I am not alone gives me no comfort.

I take some comfort in the thought that literature has always understood something more than other disciplines, but this reminds me that the ancients saw in letters a school of wisdom, and I realize how unattainable every idea of wisdom is today.

Others, to escape the grip of the written world, turn on the television. But I know that all the images, even those most directly drawn from life, are part of a constructed story, like the ones in the newspapers. So I won’t buy the newspaper, I won’t turn on the television but will confine myself to going out for a walk.

But everything I see on the city streets already has its place in the context of homogenized information. This world I see, which is usually recognized as the world, appears to my eyes—mostly, anyway—already conquered, colonized by words, a world covered by a thick crust of discourses. The facts of our life are already classified, judged, commented on, even before they happen. We live in a world where everything is read even before it starts to exist.

Not only everything we see but our very eyes are saturated with written language. Over the centuries the habit of reading has transformed Homo sapiens into Homo legens, but this Homo legens isn’t necessarily wiser than before. The man who didn’t read knew how to see and hear many things that we no longer perceive: the tracks of the beasts he hunted, the signs of the approach of rain or wind. He knew the time of day from the shadow of a tree, the time of night by the distance of the stars above the horizon. And as for the heard, smelled, tasted, touched, his superiority to us can’t be doubted.

Having said this, I had better clarify that I didn’t come here to propose a return to illiteracy in order to recover the knowledge of Paleolithic tribes. I regret all we may have lost, but I never forget that the gains are greater than the losses. What I’m trying to understand is what we can do today.

An important international tendency in our century’s culture, what we call the phenomenological approach in philosophy and the alienation effect in literature, drives us to break the screen of words and concepts and see the world as if it were appearing to our gaze for the first time. Good, now I will try to make my mind blank, and look at the landscape with a gaze free of every cultural precedent. What happens? Our life is programmed for reading, and I realize that I am trying to read the landscape, the meadow, the waves of the sea. This programming doesn’t mean that our eyes are obliged to follow an instinctive horizontal movement from left to right, then to the left a little lower down, and so on. (Obviously I’m speaking about eyes programmed to read Western pages; Japanese eyes are used to a vertical program.) More than an optical exercise, reading is a process that involves mind and eyes together, a process of abstraction or, rather, an extraction of concreteness by means of abstract operations, like recognizing distinc tive marks, shattering everything we see into tiny pieces, rearranging them into meaningful segments, discovering around us regularities, differences, recurrences, singularities, substitutions, redundancies.

The comparison between the world and a book has had a long history starting in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What language is the book of the world written in? According to Galileo, it’s the language of mathematics and geometry, a language of absolute exactitude. Can we read the world of today in this way? Maybe, if we’re talking about the extremely distant: galaxies, quasars, supernovas. But as for our daily world, it seems to us written, rather, as in a mosaic of languages, like a wall covered with graffiti, writings traced one on top of the other, a palimpsest whose parchment has been scratched and rewritten many times, a collage by Schwitters, a layering of alphabets, of diverse citations, of slang terms, of flickering characters like those which appear on a computer screen.

In a certain sense, I believe that we always write about something we don’t know: we write to make it possible for the unwritten world to express itself through us. At the moment my attention shifts from the regular order of the written lines and follows the mobile complexity that no sentence can contain or use up, I feel close to understanding that from the other side of the words, from the silent side, something is trying to emerge, to signify through language, like tapping on a prison wall.