Butterfly and Crab

Calvino:

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly. Perhaps what attracted me, even more than the words and the idea, was the suggestiveness of its emblems. You may recall that the great Venetian humanist publisher, Aldus Manutius, on all his title pages symbolized the motto Festina lente by a dolphin in a sinuous curve around an anchor. The intensity and constancy of intellectual work are represented in that elegant graphic trademark, which Erasmus of Rotterdam commented on in some memorable pages. But both dolphin and anchor belong to the same world of marine emblems, and I have always preferred emblems that throw together incongruous and enigmatic figures, as in a rebus. Such are the butterfly and crab that illustrate Festina lente in the sixteenth-century collection of emblems by Paolo Giovio. Butterfly and crab are both bizarre, both symmetrical in shape, and between them establish an unexpected kind of harmony.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium (translated by Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 48. (Apparently there’s a newer translation—Guardian review here.)

A few years ago I lay half asleep early on a Saturday morning, as I often do, too tired to get up but too wired to sleep, listening to Mind Over Matters, the excellent public affairs program on KEXP. The speaker was telling about his experience mapping the Pacific Northwest coast from an airplane, taking photographs to produce what would then have been the most detailed map of the region yet made.

In the course of photographing miles of coastline he noticed what appeared to be a highly regular structure just below the water line, a kind of wall or line of some sort that stretched along the coast for some distance. I don’t remember now how long it was or if there was more than one such structure; I just remember it was noticeable enough to catch his attention and pique his curiosity. It seemed to him it must be a human construction: it was far too regular to be a product of nature.

He went to the experts, archeologists and such, and asked them about it, but they all told him that he was mistaken. There was never any kind of structure like that—a wall underwater? What would be the point? Who would have built it? It must be a natural formation of some kind.

It wasn’t until he spoke to Native Americans who’d lived on that coast for generations that he was able to confirm what his eyes told him. Oh, yes, they said, we know about those. They’re oyster hatcheries. We built them.

That, at least, is how I remember the story, years later. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the details—the name of the author, the exact location, the tribe or tribes he spoke with. But the gist of it—he saw these structures, he recognized them as structures, and they were completely unknown to the experts but quite familiar to the native peoples, part of their history—of that, I’m reasonably confident.

Reasonably. But I was half asleep, and the whole memory has the quality of a dream, or one of those luminous experiences whose strangeness and rightness (or wrongness: experiences of abuse have the same quality) is so unlike mundane experience that its memory seems to float outside of time, in a bubble of amber, preserved but also—by virtue of that very preservation—detached from reality and so always a little in doubt. Did it really happen? I know it did. But did it? Could it really?

This unreality is not helped by the fact that I kept slipping in and out of a dream. As the story went on he spoke of the oyster “larvae” hatching on these structures he’d learned about, and in my half-asleep, half-awake state, I assimilated that word to the context with which I most strongly associate it. Soon I was dreaming of a strange aquatic species of butterfly that, like mosquitoes, lay their eggs and hatch and pupate in water, only to emerge as adult butterflies. I had visions of butterflies fluttering up from the waves and vanishing over the hills, even as somewhere in the back of my mind I struggled to come to terms with the idea that this was salt water we were talking about, and highly agitated salt water at that. Hardly ideal for insect eggs or larvae. That oddity added to the beautiful strangeness of the vision, the sense of something magical, something just beyond the edges of normalcy, if only I could figure out a way to carry it to the other side of waking. Being already half on the other side accentuated that tantalizing sense of the almost-possible.

This dream came back to me just now as I read Calvino’s remarks about the rebus and Festina lente, the butterfly and crab. I felt compelled to put the dream and the passage together, in the spirit of his remarks earlier in the same book, in the first essay (“Lightness”), where he writes,

I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory…. But I know that any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it. With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images. The lesson we can learn from the myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside (4).

But as I copied out the passage about the butterfly and the crab, and as I described the story I heard and the dream I had, I couldn’t help thinking about how the image and the idea resonate both with the story and with my experience of reading—trying to read—Calvino in Italian. And so, at the risk of reducing the dream to allegory, here are some thoughts about the ways these images correspond.

On a literal level, we can see an analogy: The airplane is to the hatchery as the butterfly is to the crab. True, the hatchery is stationary, while a crab does scuttle, but it exists under water and its immobility can be seen as an extreme expression of the slowness of the motto. And for that matter, the airplane’s wings are fixed; it’s heavier than air; it fouls the air it flies in… It’s static or immobile in its own way, arguably more so than the hatchery.

But I’m tempted to go further and find some sort of correspondence in the irony—already richly suggestive—of the hatcheries being unknown to the experts but quite familiar to the indigenous people of the coast. If I were to reduce this irony to a moral, it would be something to the effect that the native peoples hurried slowly, while the experts—and the culture for which they are a synecdoche—simply hurried, and in so doing missed the truth that lay, literally, under their noses.

 

Six Memos… is the second book of Calvino’s I’ve read in the original. The first was Invisible Cities. I’m really not ready for this level of reading; arguably, I should be starting out on simpler texts, building my vocabulary and my grammar (not to mention my pronunciation and comprehension). But I got bored with the various means for doing that on my own, and I don’t have the time to take a class, and decided to just do something I enjoy, because life is short, after all. And reading Calvino is one of the great pleasures in life.

Nevertheless, it’s also a slog for someone with my limited fluency. I scuttle along the sentences like a crab, stopping at every third word or so to reach for the dictionary or puzzle over some idiom, some unfamiliar syntax. Six Memos is a bit easier; sometimes I can go for whole paragraphs without needing a dictionary: there may be a few words I don’t know, but I can get the gist from the context. But with Invisible Cities those easy passages were fewer, largely because of the vocabulary—all those “mullioned windows and peacocks, … saddlers and rug-weavers and canoes and estuaries…” (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974, p. 62). Not exactly the stuff of beginner vocab lists.

Now, the thing about Calvino’s prose is that it has precisely that light touch and rapidity he celebrates in Six Memos. But that’s not all. Invisible Cities bears obvious traces of his work with OULIPO, the “workshop for potential literature” that experimented with various forms of constraint. In Calvino’s case, both here and in If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the constraint is structural. In Invisible Cities it’s a series of series of vignettes arranged in a precise mathematical latticework (not coincidentally, he’s fond of the image of lattices, grills, networks).

So there’s a certain similarity about the stories or images that make up the book. I hesitate to use the word “predictability,” because of its negative connotations, but the fact is that they are, to some extent, predictable, because they are constantly reshuffling a finite, if large, set of images and ideas into new but recognizable forms. (And, in fact, this is another of the themes of the book, as various cities are described as simply reshuffling their elements, their buildings, rulers, occupations, histories, inhabitants, living and dead, and so on.)

When I read the book in English, I’m aware of these echoes and resonances, the way I’m aware of rhyme in a poem that uses it lightly, deftly, unobtrusively. But my attention is mostly occupied with the inventiveness and the dexterity of Calvino’s images and ideas, the “lightning flashes” (Six Memos, 48) of his “narrative on a smaller scale” (49). I am carried along so easily, so thrillingly, that I only belatedly and wryly notice the similarities among the ideas and the images, and then simply to enjoy the skill with which they’ve been deployed.

Thrillingly:

The motor age has forced speed on us as a measurable quantity, the records of which are milestones in the history of the progress of both men [sic] and machines. But mental speed cannot be measured and does not allow comparisons or competitions; nor can it display its results in a historical perspective. Mental speed is valuable for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives to anyone who is sensitive to such a thing, and not for the practical use that can be made of it. A swift piece of reasoning is not necessarily better than a long-pondered one. Far from it. But it communicates something special that is derived simply from its very swiftness (Six Memos, 45).

When I slog through the Italian, on the other hand, my mind cannot help but push ahead. In all that putting down of the book, flipping through the dictionary, scratching my head over the little structural words that do so much relational work—useless to look up in the dictionary—I’m also noticing and anticipating the patterns that structure the book. Only a few lines into, say, “Cities and the Dead 3,” I’m already aware that the dichotomy with which it presents me, between the city of the dead and the city of the living, will by the end of this short passage have been inverted, because that sort of reversal is one of Calvino’s most common tropes. Reading it in English, I’m savoring the richness of the imagery: “the skeleton [that] remains sheathed in yellow skin,” “the clockmaker, amid all the stopped clocks of his shop, [who] places his parchment ear against an out-of-tune grandfather clock,” “a girl with a laughing skull [who] milks the carcass of a heifer” (109). In Italian, these images are what I struggle with, while the broad outlines (the living and the dead change places; every city is a sign of itself; to travel is to remain in one place) stand out.

I’m reminded of Terrence Deacon’s description of language learning in The Symbolic Species. (He’s recapitulating a line of argument against the dominant, “innatist” theory first articulated by Chomsky in the 50s. The exposition takes several pages and depends on groundwork laid in previous chapters. This is just a taste.)

This [the research he’s just summarized] provides some novel clues about why children might be more facile language learners than adults…. Being unable to remember the details of specific word associations, being slow to map words to objects that tend to co-occur in the same context, remembering only the most global structure-function relationships of utterances, and finding it difficult to hold more than a few words of an utterance in short-term memory at a time may all be advantages for language learning. … Precisely because of children’s learning constraints, the relevant large-scale logic of language “pops out” of a background of other details too variable for them to follow, and paradoxically gives them a biased head start. Children cannot tell the trees apart at first, but they can see the forest and eventually the patterns of growth within it emerge.

Terence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, W. W. Norton & Co., 1997, p. 135.

So there I am, a crab scuttling along after a butterfly, not trying to catch the butterfly in my claws so much as hoping against hope that if I flap them hard enough, they’ll turn into wings…

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