Definitions of Territories: Comedy

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Definitions of Territories: Comedy

Il Caffé (Rome), February 1967; contribution to a symposium on “The Grotesque, Satire, and Literature.”

The “comic” element in literature is very important to me, but satire is not the approach that I find most congenial.

One component of satire is moralism, and another is mockery. I would like these two components to remain foreign to me, partly because I do not appreciate them in others. Anyone who plays the moralist thinks he is better than others, whereas anyone who goes in for mockery thinks he is smarter—or, rather, he believes that things are simpler than they appear to be to others. In any case, satire excludes an attitude of questioning and of questing. On the other hand, it does not exclude a large dose of ambivalence, which is the mixture of attraction and repulsion that animates the feelings of every true satirist toward the object of his satire. And if this ambivalence helps to give satire a richer psychological depth, it does not on this account make it a more flexible instrument of poetic knowledge. The satirist is prevented by repulsion from gaining a better knowledge of the world he is attracted to, yet he is forced by attraction to concern himself with the world that repels him.

What I look for in the comic or ironic or grotesque or absurd transformation of things is a way to escape from the limitations and one-sidedness of every representation and every judgment. A thing can be said in more than one way. There is one way in which whoever is saying it wants to say precisely that thing and no other, and another way in which he also wants to say that, certainly, but at the same time wants to point out that the world is far more complicated and vast and contradictory. Ariosto’s irony, Shakespeare’s comedy, Cervantes’s picaresque, Sterne’s humor, or the fantasy of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Jarry, or Queneau, are all precious to me insofar as they help one attain that kind of detachment from the particular, that sense of the vastness of the whole.

Nor can one say that this result is obtained only by the greatest. It is, rather, a method, a special kind of relationship with the world, capable of imbuing the most varied and everyday manifestations of a civilization. Think how much the sense of humor has counted for in English civilization; and not only that, but how much it has done to enrich literary irony with fundamental dimensions unknown to the classical world. And I am not referring so much to a sort of undercurrent of melancholy good feeling toward the world as to that primary quality of every true humorist: the involvement of himself in his own irony.

It is from these preferences of mine that my reserves about satire arise, for satire is concentrated with exclusive though ambivalent passion on the negative pole of its own world, careful to keep the person of the author out of its protest. But I admire and love the satirical spirit when it emerges without any specific intention, marginal to some broader and more disinterested representation of things. And most certainly I admire satire, and feel homuncular in comparison, whenever the charge of derisive fury is taken to the utmost limits, leaving the threshold of the particular to call the whole human race to account, as in Swift and Gogol, who border on the tragic vision of life.