two notes towards “in the penal colony”

“Let no one praise Perillus, crueler than the tyrant Phalaris, for whom he built a bull, promising him that a man locked inside it would bellow when a fire was lit beneath it, and who was the first to test on himself this torture as the fruit of a cruelty more just than his. To such an extent had he distorted a most noble art, destined to represent gods and men. Thus many of his workers had labored to build an instrument of torture! Actually, his works are preserved for only one reason: so that whoever sees them will hate the hands of their creators.”

(Pliny, Natural History, 37.89, quoted in Primo Levi, “Hatching the Cobra,” p. 172 in The Mirror Maker, trans. Raymond Rosenthal.)

 

“Catherine [the Great] made this point, as only she could, in a conversation with Denis Diderot, the editor of the Encyclopédie and the Enlightenment’s most original and radical thinker. ‘While you write on unfeeling paper,’ she told the philosophe, ‘I write on human skin, which is sensitive to the slightest touch.’ ”

(Robert Zaretsky, “ ‘I Write on Human Skin’: Catherine the Great and the Rule of Law,” https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/write-human-skin-catherine-great-rule-law/)

god, a discrete looter

“Indeed, of all the dreams that have ever been told to me – and I am not a willing audience – I think that only one was worth the hearing. It was a dream which came to that good gentleman of Rome, Flaminio Tomarozzo, who was by no means uninstructed or unimaginative, but was an enlightened man of shrewd intelligence. He dreamed that he was seated in the house of one of his neighbours, a rich chemist. After he had been there a little while, for some reason or other the mob began to riot and set about looting everything. They seized the pills and potions, some taking one thing and some another, and swallowed them there and then, so that in a short time there was not a phial or a jar, a beaker or a bowl, that was not drained dry. Only one little flask, full of a clear liquid, remained, and though many of the people put it to their noses none would dare to taste it. Presently there came upon the scene an old man of great stature and venerable appearance. He looked around gravely at the chemist’s bottles and gallipots, which were empty or spilled and for the most part broken, until his eye fell upon the small flask which I have mentioned. He lifted it to his lips and at once drank all the liquid until not a drop remained. Then he went out of the house just as all the others had done.

Flaminio was greatly intrigued by this and turning to the chemist asked ‘Master chemist, who is this man and why did he drink all the liquid in the flask with such relish after all the others had refused it?’ ‘My friend’, replied the chemist, ‘that was Almighty God. The water which, as you saw, He alone drank and everyone else rejected was discretion, which men will not taste at any price, as perhaps you are aware.’ ”

(Giovanni della Casa, Galateo, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, chapter 12 (“The reprehensible habit of telling one’s dreams”), pp. 43–44.)

books & paper

“The economic wisdom of this century can be measured by what happens with the so-called ‘compact’ editions, where there is little consumption of paper, and endless wear and tear on the eyesight. However, in defence of saving paper on books one might mention that it is the custom in this century to print much and read nothing. To this custom belongs also the abandonment of those round letters which were used generally in Europe in past centuries, and the substitution for them of long letters, to which we might add the gloss on the paper. These are things which are the more beautiful to look at the more harmful they are to the reader’s eye. But all this is very reasonable at a time when books are printed to be seen and not to be read.”

(Giacomo Leopardi, Thoughts, § 3, p. 7 in J. G. Nichols’s translation.)

calvino in new orleans 

“In short, this is a place that would make you shoot yourself; the only thing to do is act like the Italian professor at the local university, a young man called Cecchetti, about whom I have no idea whether he’s any good as a literary critic, and who in his opinions is very conservative (‘I would not send my children to school with black kids, but not for racial reasons, you know, only for social reasons: the blacks all belong to the lower classes’), but he is someone who does the only intelligent thing to be done to justify the fact of living in America: he plays the stock exchange. Spending the mornings at the local branch of Merrill Lynch, Fenner, Pierce and Smith, following on the ticker-tape the dealings on the New York stock exchange, the fluctuations on the electronic noticeboard, studying the right moment for buying and selling, with the tele-printer in the room displaying the latest news on which to base your dealings, studying the ups and downs of all the major American firms, reading the Wall Street Journal the minute it arrives, that is the only way to live the life of a big capitalistic country in a way that is not passive, it is in fact the real democratic aspiration of America, because even if it does not give you any chance of influencing events, other than speculation on the financial markets, nevertheless it keeps you plugged into the mechanism in its most advanced and active area, and requires constant attention – in this country of frighteningly local and provincial interests – to the whole system.”

(Italo Calvino, “American Diary 1959–1960,” in Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings.)

to reactivate for a second

“Travelling does not help us much in understanding (I’ve known this for a while; I did not need to come to the Far East to convince myself that this was true) but it does serve to reactivate for a second the use of our eyes, the visual reading of the world.”

(Italo Calvino, “The Old Woman in the Purple Kimono,” p. 154 in Collection of Sand, trans. Martin McLaughlin.)

there has not always been snow outside

“And what I really wish to record – as if otherwise I might forget it – is merely that there has not always been snow outside, that much else has occurred during this past year, bloom and harvest and the fragrance of resin throughout the woods, water dripping and trickling down over the rocks of the face of the Kuppron, wind blowing from afar and dying away, light that flamed and faded, and skies that changed from day to night and back again to day. All this occurred while my heart was beating, while wind and sun and clouds were there, all of them flowing through my hands and my heart.”

(Hermann Broch, The Spell, trans. H. F. Broch de Rotherman, p. 6.)

other than the world that is

“You may think novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement: as skilled furniture-makers enjoy making furnitures, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy’s back. I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true at all. Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.”

(John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, p. 86.)

a kind of television with a keyboard

“We locked our­selves in her of­fice and sat at the com­puter, a kind of tele­vi­sion with a key­board, very dif­fer­ent from what she had showed me and the chil­dren some time be­fore. She pressed the power but­ton, she slid dark rec­tan­gles into gray blocks. I waited, be­wil­dered. On the screen lu­mi­nous tremors ap­peared. Lila began to type on the key­board, I was speech­less. It was in no way com­pa­ra­ble to a type­writer, even an elec­tric one. With her fin­ger­tips she ca­ressed gray keys, and the writ­ing ap­peared silently on the screen, green like newly sprouted grass. What was in her head, at­tached to who knows what cor­tex of the brain, seemed to pour out mirac­u­lously and fix it­self on the void of the screen. It was power that, al­though pass­ing for act, re­mained power, an elec­tro­chem­i­cal stim­u­lus that was in­stantly trans­formed into light. It seemed to me like the writ­ing of God as it must have been on Sinai at the time of the Com­mand­ments, im­pal­pa­ble and tremen­dous, but with a con­crete ef­fect of pu­rity. Mag­nif­i­cent, I said.”

(Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, trans. Ann Goldstein, chapter 101, p. 289.)