The Pen in the First Person

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The Pen in the First Person

For the Drawings of Saul Steinberg*

Introduction to Saul Steinberg, Still Life and Architecture (New York: Pace Gallery, 1982). Originally published in Derrière le Miroir (Paris), May 1977.

The first to consider the instruments and actions of his own work as its true subject was a thirteenth-century poet. Guido Cavalcanti wrote a sonnet in which his pens speak in the first person, along with the instruments used for cutting and sharpening them. They introduce themselves in the opening lines:

Noi siàn le triste penne isbigottite,

le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente

We are the sad, dismayed pens,

the scissors and the sorrowing knife… .

The poet (“the hand that moved us”) is too desperate to do anything but sigh, and his writing tools address the reader directly (perhaps the reader is a woman, the one to whom the previous sonnets and the present sighs are directed, or else a third person, an impartial witness), asking for sympathy.

The sonnet speaks of sorrows in almost every verse, and yet its music, its effect, is an allegro con brio of extraordinary lightness.

With these verses Guido Cavalcanti opens modern poetry. He opens it, and he closes it. After him, poets prefer to forget that while they write they are writing and not doing something else. Through more than three hundred sonnets, Petrarch pretends to believe he is walking in the open countryside, overwhelmed by suffering and anguish, whereas he is actually seated comfortably in his study, his cat on his lap, as he contentedly polishes his verses.

We have to wait until Mallarmé for the poet to realize that the place where his poem happens is “sur le vide papier que sa blancheur défend” (“on the empty paper protected by its whiteness”). With Mallarmé there are no doubts that written words are written words and that the night’s darkness is simply the black of the inkwell. This awareness, however, remains implicit; more than another fifty years must pass before it becomes evident.

The pen that Cavalcanti dropped is picked up by Steinberg. It is the pen as subject of graphic action. Every line presupposes a pen drawing it, and every pen presupposes a hand holding it. What lies beyond the hand is a debated question: the “I” who draws is identified with a drawn “I,” not the drawing’s subject but its object. Or, rather, it is the universe of drawing that draws itself, explores, tests, and redefines itself each time. (The physical universe proceeds in the same fashion, I believe.)

The drawn world has an aggressiveness of its own: it invades the desk, captures anything alien to it, joins all lines to its own line, overflows the page… . No, it is the outside world that enters and becomes part of the page. The pen, the hand, the artist, the desk, the cat—everything is engulfed by the drawing as if by a whirlpool, all the papers on the desk, letters, envelopes, postcards, rubber stamps, postage stamps, dollar bills with the truncated pyramid, the eye over it, and the Latin motto… . No, it is the substance of the graphic sign that is revealed as the true substance of the world, the flourish or arabesque or thread of dense, feverish, neurotic handwriting that replaces any other possible world… .

The world is transformed into line, a single line, broken, twisted, discontinuous. Man, too. And this man transformed into line is, in the end, master of the world, though he cannot escape his condition as prisoner, because, after many scrolls and curlicues, the line tends to close in on itself and entrap the man-line. But he is surely his own master, because he can construct or dismantle himself, segment by segment, and as a final way out he can commit suicide with two crisscrossed strokes of the pen, to discover that crossed-out death is made of the same substance as drawing-life, a movement of the pen on the page. Or else we can say that he always retains the supreme freedom of guiding the line in the least expected direction so that the drawing is no longer able to be closed. To draw a cube observing the rules of perspective, and then allow one corner to go off in a direction where it will never join up with the other corners: this incongruous corner contains the real proof of the existence of the “I,” the ergo sum.

This consubstantiality of the drawn world and the “I” is only relative, however, because within it many universes open up, parallel and incompatible with one another. In one dimension, linear, threadlike figures move; in another, minutely decorated figures. A world without thickness is detached from a world that is all volume; a continent where everything is suggested by outlines and one where everything is shaded do not seem to have any meeting place. And so the universes are multiplied by the number of instruments and techniques and styles that can be used to give form to figures and signs.

But perhaps, deep down, the styles know they are not self-sufficient; perhaps each of them knows it exists only in contrast with every other possible style. The geometry-book cubes dream of the thickness of matter that has lived and suffered as “artist’s cubes” have. And these, in their turn, dream of the diaphanous impassiveness of geometric diagrams. Abstract motifs dream of a figurative bed on which to consummate their loves: do you think a pattern of concentric circles drawn with a compass cannot be gripped by frenzied, amorous longing for a freehand spiral?

Steinberg’s irresistible vocation—or, let’s say, the historic mission to which he has been called—is to move in a space of limitless dimensions of the drawn and the drawable, to establish communication between the most contradictory stylistic universes, to make elements belonging to divergent figurative cultures or conventions of perception coexist within the horizon of the same page. A row of houses on the street, each of a different period and style, if it is to be depicted or even looked at, requires the employment of different graphic techniques. Just as the people who pass by on the sidewalk carry, each of them, the style of drawing that can portray their essence, a lighter or heavier pressure of the pen on the paper, the thickness of the ink, or the expanse of white that encloses their secret.

The countless and multiform ways of using pens and pencils and brushes are to be found on Steinberg’s page, including the countless and multiform ways in which pens and pencils and brushes can portray pens and pencils and brushes. Until the moment comes when the pens make their entrance into the picture, and the pencils and the brushes in their presence as physical objects, an absolutely modest presence, but absolutely sure of being, of being there. Here, then, are Cavalcanti’s dismayed pens, which return to testify in the first person the transfiguration of the artist in the practice of his art.

“Sometimes I think and imagine that among men there exists a single art and science, and that this is drawing or painting, and that all the others derive from it.” This is Michelangelo speaking, in his Roman Dialogues, reported by a Portuguese artist of his times, Francisco de Holanda. “Certainly, in fact, if you soberly consider everything that is done in this life, you will realize that each of us, unaware, is painting this world, whether by creating and producing new forms in figures, or by wearing varied garments, whether by constructing and occupying space with buildings and painted houses, or by tilling the fields, adding colors and signs, working the earth, by sailing the seas, fighting and dividing legions, and finally by deaths and funerals, as also by all other operations, achievements, and actions.”

These words of Michelangelo upset the relation between world and art. Here the world is not seen as an object portrayable by art and art as a portrayal of the world; a new horizon opens in which the living world is seen as a work of art and art proper is seen as art in the second degree or simply as part of the overall work. Everything man does is depiction, visual creation, spectacle. The world, marked by man’s presence in its every part, is no longer nature: it is produced by our hands. A new anthropology is announced whereby every activity and production of man counts as visual communication in its linguistic and aesthetic aspects.

But is man the only one who tends to create forms and figures? Doesn’t every animal have the same tendency, and every plant and inanimate thing, and thus the whole world, the universe? We could say, then, that man is an instrument the world employs to renew its own image constantly. The forms created by man, being always somehow imperfect and bound to change, guarantee that the world’s appearance as we see it is not definitive, but a phase, working toward a future form.

So much for the world. And art? Art will be a reflection on forms, a hypothesis of visual formalizations of a virtual world, a criticism of the permanent world’s fair in which we are involved, playing the triple role of exhibitors, exhibits, and audience.

These definitions all apply to the art of Steinberg. On the one hand, his drawing crosses the frontier between self and the world and invades space so that the draftsman finds himself caught in his drawing and the visitor to the exhibition is caught in the picture exhibited. On the other hand, a continuous “travel diary” assails with implacable irony the depicting world and the depicted world; every visual opportunity is carried to its extreme, paradoxical consequences; every contradiction of the plastic materials of our daily experience is exacerbated to the point of absurdity.

The past is added to the present in our cities like a collage of detailed engravings of objects overladen with ornaments in an old catalogue; they are enthroned over a sketch, done with the tip of the pen, of a street full of traffic. And the only image we can form of the future is marked by the visual mortgages that dty planners and comic strips, cubo-futuro-constructivism and science fiction have deposited on it, which give a face to our anguish at what lies in store for us.

Line as the trace of movement, as delight in movement, as paradox of movement. Galileo Galilei, who deserves to be as famous for his happy invention of imaginative metaphors as for his strict scientific thinking, among the many metaphors with which he enlivens the discussions of the earth’s movement around the sun in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, uses one in which he speaks of a ship, a pen, and a line.

A ship leaves Venice bound for Alexandretta: imagine on the ship a pen that traces the course in a constant line that stretches across the eastern Mediterranean. (The reader can imagine a pen the size of the ship’s rudder, drawing its line on a sea of paper; or else a very long strip of paper that crosses the Mediterranean and unrolls on the deck of the moving ship under a little pen that leaves its slender wake of ink.) This line will be a perfect are of a circle, even if “sometimes more curved, sometimes less, as the vessel had gone more or less fluctuating”: minimum inflections compared with the length of the line, just as the inflections would even be less perceptible if a hand holding the pen moved it this way and that during the voyage.

“And if a painter then, at our sailing from the port, had begun to draw on a paper with that pen, and had continued the drawing until Alexandretta, he would have been able to make by its motion a drawing of figures, perfectly surrounded on several sides with detailed landscapes, buildings, living creatures, and other things, though all the real, true, and essential movement traced out by the nib of that pen would have been no other than a very long but simple line… .”

The true line, corresponding to the movement of the ship, does not remain on the paper, because the grand movement of the ship is common also to the paper and the pen, while the small movements of the painter’s hand leave their sign: those drawn during the voyage in the same way as if the ship were motionless. Galileo uses this example to demonstrate that, being on earth, we are not aware of earth’s movement around the sun, because everything on earth shares in that same motion.

With this, the demonstration ends. But the image of the invisible line that the pen draws in absolute space, moving with the ship (or with earth)—a line whose signs left on the paper are only slight deviations and accidents—continues to enchant Galileo’s imagination; he abandons himself to a kind of digression or caprice on the movements of the pen. He assigns this to another character in the dialogue, the Aristotelian Simplicio, who, unable to follow the strict logic of his Copernican interlocutors, can allow himself to pursue an image merely for the pleasure it affords him:

I have nothing else to say, and I was well-nigh transported with that delineation, thinking how those strokes drawn so many ways, hither, thither, upward, downward, forward, backward, and interwoven with thousands of turnings, are not essentially or really other than small pieces of one sole line drawn all one way, and with no other alteration than the shift of the straight line sometimes a shade to the right and to the left, and the movement of the tip of the pen, now faster and now slower, but with the minimum unevenness. And I consider how in the same way one would write a letter, and how these more fanciful writers, to show the lightness of their hand, without lifting their pen from the page, in a single line draw with a thousand turns a charming interweaving, if they were in a boat sailing rapidly, they would convert all the movement of the pen, which in essence is a single line drawn all toward the same direction and very slightly inflected or departing from perfect straightness, into a curlicue… .

The metaphysics of the absolute line and the inexhaustible acrobatics of the graphic gesture: thus Galileo heralds the sidereal comet Steinberg, who traces his orbit across the sky of paper.