Two Interviews on Science and Literature

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Two Interviews on Science and Literature

I. L’Approdo Letterario (Rome), January—March 1968; based on television interviews.

II. Interview for Kolo (Zagreb), October 1968. Topics were: (1) the term “Neo-Enlightenment”; (2) science and morals: “does substituting science for morals call into question all existing ethics, as in your story “The Pursuit”? (3) the need (as it might emerge from your t zero) for the avant-garde writer to become a scientist.


In your opinion, what is the relationship today between science and literature?

I recently read an article by Roland Barthes called “Literature versus Science.” Barthes tends to think of literature as the awareness that language has of being language, of having a density of its own, and its own independent existence. For literature, language is never transparent, and is never merely an instrument to convey a “meaning” or a “fact” or a “thought” or a “truth”; that is, it cannot mean anything but itself. Whereas, on the other hand, the idea of language given by science is that of a neutral utensil that is used to say something else, to mean something foreign to it. This different concept of language is what distinguishes science from literature. Proceeding along these lines, Barthes gets to the point of maintaining that literature is more scientific than science, because literature knows that language is never naïve, and knows that in writing one cannot say anything extraneous to writing, or express any truth that is not a truth having to do with the art of writing. The science of language, according to Barthes, if it wishes to remain a science, is destined to be transformed into literature, total writing, and will also lay claim to the pleasures of language, which are at present the exclusive prerogative of literature.

But can the science of today really be defined by such trust in an absolute code of references, or is it not in itself by this time a continual questioning of its own linguistic conventions? In his polemic against science Barthes appears to envisage a kind of science far more compact and sure of itself than it really is. And—as far as mathematics is concerned—rather than claiming to base an argument on a truth beyond itself, we find a science not guiltless of tinkering with its own formulative processes.

The above-mentioned article by Barthes is included in an issue of the Times Literary Supplement from a few months ago that was devoted to continental European literature, and in particular to the relations between literature and other fields of research. In the same issue another French writer, Raymond Queneau, older than Barthes and belonging to quite another cultural background, talks about science in a very different way. Queneau is a writer whose hobby is mathematics, and he has more friends among mathematicians than among men of letters. In his article he stresses the place that mathematical thought, through the increasing “mathematicization” of the human sciences, is now acquiring in humanistic culture, and therefore in literature as well. Along with a mathematician friend of his, Queneau founded the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, Oulipo for short, a group of ten people who carry out mathematico-literary research. Here we are in a totally different climate from the austere and rarefied atmosphere of the analyses of Barthes and the writings of the Tel Quel group of authors. The dominant feature here is play, and the acrobatics of the intellect and the imagination. It is no coincidence that Oulipo is an offshoot of the Collège de Pataphysique, that “academy” of mockery and practical joking founded in memory of Alfred Jarry. It is the (semiclandestine) magazine of the Collège de Pataphysique, Subsidia Pataphysica, that publishes the work of Oulipo, as for example a study of the mathematical problems posed by the series of rhymes in the metrical form of the sestina in the work of the Provençal poets (and in Dante), a series that can be represented as a spiral. I think that the two positions I have described define the situation pretty well: they are the two poles between which we find ourselves oscillating, or at least I find myself oscillating, feeling the attraction and being aware of the limitations of each of them. On the one side is Barthes with his followers, “enemies” of science, who think and talk with scientific precision; on the other is Queneau with his, friends of science, who think and talk in terms of caprice and somersaults of language and thought.

You recently said that the greatest Italian writer is Galileo. Why?

In the Zibaldone (Miscellany), Leopardi admires Galileo’s prose for being elegant and precise at one and the same time. And we have only to look at the choice of passages from Galileo that Leopardi includes in his Crestomazia (Anthology) of Italian prose to realize how much the language of Leopardi—even Leopardi as a poet—owes to Galileo. But, to get back to what I was saying a moment ago, Galileo uses language not as a neutral utensil, but with literary awareness, with a continuous commitment that is expressive, imaginative, and even lyrical. When I read Galileo I like to seek out the passages in which he speaks of the moon. It is the first time that the moon becomes a real object for mankind, and is minutely described as a tangible thing, yet as soon as the moon appears one feels a kind of rarefaction, almost of levitation, in Galileo’s language. One rises with it into an enchanted state of suspension. It was no coincidence that Galileo admired and annotated Ariosto, cosmic and lunary poet that he was. (Galileo also commented on Tasso, and in that case he was not a good critic, for the very reason that his downright partisan enthusiasm for Ariosto led him to criticize Tasso for the most part with unfair severity.) The ideal way in which Galileo regarded the world, even as a scientist, is nourished by literary culture. So much so that we can draw a line from Ariosto to Galileo to Leopardi and call it one of the mainstreams of our literature.

When I said that Galileo is still the greatest Italian writer, Carlo Cassola leaped to his feet and said, “What? I thought it was Dante!” Well, thanks a lot for telling us. In the first place, what I meant to say was “prose writer,” in which case the question boils down to Machiavelli or Galileo, and this puts me on the spot, because I also love Machiavelli very much. What I can say is that in the particular direction my work is taking at the moment I find more nourishment in Galileo, in his precision of language, his scientific-poetic imagination, his posing of conjectures. But Galileo, says Cassola, was a scientist, not a writer. I think we can dispose of this argument pretty easily. In the same way, though in a different cultural context, Dante created an encyclopedic and cosmological work, and he, too, tried to construct an image of the universe by means of the written word. This is a deep-rooted vocation in Italian literature, handed on from Dante to Galileo: the notion of the literary work as a map of the world and of the knowable, of writing driven on by a thirst for knowledge that may by turns be theological, speculative, magical, encyclopedic, or may be concerned with natural philosophy or with transfiguring, visionary observation. It is a tradition that exists in all European literatures, but I would say that in Italian literature it has been dominant in every shape and form, making our literature very different from others, very difficult but at the same time perfectly unique. In the last few centuries this vein has emerged less frequently, and since that time, certainly, our literature has diminished in importance. Maybe now is the time to find that vein again. I must say that recently, perhaps because of the kind of thing I have begun to write, Italian literature has become more indispensable to me than it was before. From time to time I get the feeling that the road I am taking is leading me back to the true but forgotten source of the Italian tradition.

From your latest books it appears that your sympathies are directed more toward the cell than toward mankind, more toward mathematical calculation than the reasons of the heart, and mental impulses rather than ideas. Why is this?

The cell rather than man—is that really the case? Because my cosmicomic stories might easily be reproached for exactly the opposite; that is, for making cells talk as if they were people, for inventing human figures and language in the primeval void, and, in short, of playing the old game of anthropomorphism. We remember that years ago Robbe-Grillet came out with a bitter attack on anthropomorphism, against the writer who still humanized the landscape and said that the sky “smiled” or that the sea “was angry.”

I, on the other hand, have fully accepted and vindicated this anthropomorphism as an absolutely basic literary procedure, and one that even before being literary was mythical, linked to one of primitive man’s earliest explanations of the world: animism. It is not that Robbe-Grillet’s argument didn’t convince me. It is just that in the course of writing I have come to take the opposite route in stories that are a positive delirium of anthropomorphism, of the impossibility of thinking about the world except in terms of human figures—or, more precisely, of human grimaces and human babblings. Of course, this, too, is a way of putting the laziest, most obvious, and most vainglorious image of man to the test: by multiplying his eyes and his nose in every direction until he no longer knows who he is.

Writers like me, who are not attracted to psychology, to the analysis of feelings, or to introspection, are greeted by horizons certainly no less broad than those dominated by characters with clear-cut personalities, or those revealed to people who explore the depths of the human mind. What interests me is the whole mosaic in which man is set, the interplay of relationships, the design that emerges from the squiggles on the carpet. Anyway, I know that there is no way that I can escape from what is human, even if I do not strain myself to sweat humanity from every pore. The stories I write come into being within a human brain, by means of a combination of signs worked out by the human cultures that have gone before me. And so, in the recent stories with which I end the volume t zero, I have tried to make narrative out of a mere process of deductive reasoning, and perhaps—in this case, yes—I have departed from anthropomorphism. Or, rather, from a certain kind of anthropomorphism, since these human presences defined only by a system of relationships, by a function, are the very ones that populate the world around us in our everyday lives, good or bad as this situation might appear to us.


(1) The term “Enlightenment” is rather unpopular at the moment. The Enlightenment is accused of being at the root of the technocratic ideology that wields power in the industrialized nations, against which youth is rebelling all over the world. The original text upon which this criticism is based is a book by Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in the United States some thirty years ago and in Germany some fifteen years ago. The authors go so far as to start with the Odyssey as the first manifesto of the enlightened, technocratic, bourgeois ideology. I am not very convinced by this thesis. I have always had a soft spot for Ulysses, but I don’t care, just like that, to accept the label of an exponent of the Neo-Enlightenment, which is one that a number of critics have attached to me, some in a positive sense and others in a critical one. Certainly the eighteenth century remains one of the historical periods that fascinate me most, but this is because I find it increasingly rich and many-faceted and full of contradictory ferments that are still going on today. I still very much feel the spirit in which, eleven years ago, I wrote Il barone rampante (The Baron in the Trees) about a kind of Don Quixote of the “Philosophy of the Enlightenment.”

(2) I do not think that modern science—and the theory of relativity in particular—provides us with any justification for moral relativity. On the contrary, our age is marked by a clear division between talk about science and talk about values. This means that moral responsibility cannot hide behind self-interested justifications. On the other hand, I believe that, even in the past, what has really counted, more than the weight of well-defined moralities, has been a process of ethical seeking, forever problematical and forever risky. A Christian too sure of himself about what is right and wrong has never, I believe, been a good Christian. And the most rational and all-embracing ethical construction ever attempted—that of Kant—demands that in every situation we should start again from scratch. For Marxists this problematical aspect of ethics is taken to its extreme consequences: a Marxist is a man who knows that in the process of history every value can be denied (or confirmed) by an antithetical value. Much of the work of Bertolt Brecht is based on these pitiless reversals.

However, moral problems reside not in the field of literature, but in that of practical behavior. Literature creates autonomous figures that may be used as terms of comparison with experience or with other constructions of the mind. It is only by means of such reflection on the part of the reader that literature can be linked to some ethical activity; that is, only by means of a comparison of the values the reader is looking for with those the work of literature seems to suggest or imply. But this has to be a critical reflection, which is why “moralizing,” “edifying,” or “educative” literature has never been any good as a moral stimulus, except for the reader who strips it of the hoax and discovers the falsity and hypocrisy of it.

If in my story “The Pursuit” I say that, in a system of pursuer and pursued, everyone pursued is also a pursuer (or must change into a pursuer), I am above all following a formal logic—almost geometric, I would say—and one that is implicit in my story. But I also say something that might stir the reader into some ethical activity. The reader may accept or reject this metaphor, but if he rejects it he will have a better knowledge of what it is he wants to rgect, whereas if he accepts it he will be forced into a critical examination of such an intolerable situation. The important thing is that the story provide the reader with imaginative materials that chime in with his own particular language, that provoke reactions and objections in him.

(3) Scientific writing tends toward a purely formal and mathematical language based on an abstract logic indifferent to its content. Literary writing tends to construct a system of values in which every word, every sign, is a value for the sole reason that it has been chosen and fixed on the page. There could never be any meeting between the two languages, but (on account of their extreme disparity) there can be a challenge, a kind of wager between them. In certain situations it is literature that can work indirectly as a spring to propel the scientist along, providing an example of imaginative courage in taking a hypothesis to its ultimate consequences, and so on. Similarly, in other situations it can work the other way around. At the moment the language of mathematics, of formal logic, can save the writer from the disrepair that words and images have fallen into as a result of being misused. Even so, the writer should not think that he has found anything valid absolutely. Here, too, the example of science can be of use to him, and teach him the patient modesty of considering each and every result as being part of a possibly infinite series of approximations.