Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki
January 29, 2020

Light

Note to self: You will never remember to write it down later. And so this journal continues. Today I started reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a series of lectures written just before he died in 1985. In his essay on the quality of lightness, he describes the challenge of writing about the present:

Full of good intentions, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual. I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. Soon I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross.

It is too easy to let the world’s heaviness infect our writing, says Calvino. Adjectives for pain and suffering are endlessly rich and vivid. This brings to mind a line from Arthur Schopenhauer, the master of pessimism: “For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell out of it.”

And there is so much rich material these days. Pandemics, drones, climate change, tribalism, billionaires, electric scooters, and words like ‘retweet’. Anxiety spreads from screen to screen like a virus, thriving on the rage mechanics of social media. But where do we turn for light? Schopenhauer again: “But when, on the other hand, Dante came to describe heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this ”

Finding lightness becomes the job. And if it cannot be found, it must be invented. But it must be earned, or else it’s nothing more than the optimism of the delusional or the saccharine nonsense of a charlatan. Maybe these days of flux are preparing us to clear the stage for a better show. I do not want my writing to become so fixated on our modern unease that it reads like a compulsive inventory of the dark alleys of the psyche with little interest in seeking out any kind of light.

I’ve eaten at the same burrito place three days in a row.


Tim Hecker – In The Fog II

From Ravedeath, 1972 | Kranky, 2011 | Bandcamp

Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath 1972 provides the soundtrack for Calvino’s lightness. Recorded in a church in Reykjavík, the shudder and drone of a pipe organ is frayed by technology, shredded by filters, and buried beneath reverberated clouds—until the occasional clear note comes down, crisp as sunlight and sounding like grace.

Each night in 2020 I'm writing a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I want to etch these days into my memory before I forget them. Before the world changes completely.
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