Calvino’s Page

By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?

Italo Calvino

Every morning and evening I draw a picture of my hand. It only takes a few minutes. I look at my hand, try out a few different positions, settle on one, and then try my best to render it on the page. I’m not a great artist and it is probably too late to become an even halfway capable illustrator. There is something about my lines that just feels amateurish. I know people who draw with much greater confidence and whose drawings look like there is a real “causal” relationship with the things they depict. It’s like they are able to project their visual image onto the page and then simply trace it. It’s like the light from the object that hits their eye somehow directly impacts the page.

That’s not how it works, of course. Or, at least, I assume that’s not how it works. Artists learn to draw like the rest of us by looking at the world and training their hands to make lines that we all recognize as pictures of it — two dimensional shapes on a plane that indicate three dimensional objects in space.

In his lecture, “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” from 1967, which I had hoped to write much more about last week, Italo Calvino describes his struggle with writing in similar terms. “Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to get one word to stay put after another,” he tells us. Notice that this removes a dimension from my description of the problem of drawing. In fact, writing is more difficult (if it is) than drawing because it is usually an attempt to render a four-dimensional object (a story unfolding in time) along a one-dimensional line (one word after another). The artist only has to flatten the object once; the writer has to do it three times, transforming the breadth, the depth, and the duration, of an experience into a sentence. Then again, perhaps both operations are infinite in their scope. As Calvino suggests, whatever lines we choose to draw or write, we’re putting our eternal soul on the ephemeral page.

I’m going to have to leave it there for a while. The semester is beginning and I have to turn my attention to teaching students how to write paragraphs about the things they learn. I have to teach them to appreciate the finitude of the problem, get them to see the limits of the page as a friend, help them to use it to get the words to stay put.

See also: , “One-Dimensional Prose”, “The Two-Dimensional Page”, “The Three-Dimensional Book”, “The Fourth Dimension”

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