Archive for February 12th, 2018

“My weight is my love”: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht

Monday, February 12th, 2018
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One of the weightiest minds at Stanford.

Over the weekend, more than forty speakers from Europe, Latin America, and the United States addressed the state of literary studies after 1967, its methods and moods. The reason for the fête: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a.k.a. “Sepp.” At Stanford, he is also known as the “Albert Guérard Professor in Literature in the Departments of Comparative Literature and of French & Italian and by courtesy, he is affiliated with the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, the Department of German Studies, and the Program in Modern Thought & Literature.” The reason for the fête: we were celebrating 50 years of his life as a thinker, mentor, and indefatigable writer. It doubled as a splendid retirement party.

Heavy, man.

All that gives you an idea of his weight – but not of his lightness. He is one of the gentlest and pleasantest personalities at the whole university – as well as one of the most brilliant. And he also possesses one of the most memorable and remarkable faces on campus. (See photo.)

One of the most impressive and moving talks was given by Robert Pogue Harrison, who discussed “Pondus Amoris,” taken from Augustine‘s “my weight is my love [pondus meum amor meus].” Robert has often spoken of Italo Calvino‘s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, published in 1986, which identified six literary qualities, or values, that he believed would enable literature to survive into the next millennium – “that is to say, our millennium,” he added. Those qualities are lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. (He died before he finished describing his final one – consistency.) 

But because he often references the Six Memos (and I have come to, as well) I assumed  that Robert was on the side of lightness. Not so. From Robert’s talk:

I admire Calvino greatly, yet here too, as with Augustine, my sensibilities lean in another direction. If I had to choose, I would opt for slowness, heaviness, and vagueness over quickness, lightness and exactitude in literature. Be that as it may, in his lightness memo Calvino claims that we live in a leaden age, an age that would petrify us with its Medusa head:

Petrifying.

“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals…. To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.”

I’m sorry to be so contrarian today, but I don’t agree with Calvino on this score. I believe that our age is in fact determined by free-floating bits and bites of information, and by the aerial vectors of telecommunications. The massive mainframe computers that Atlas himself couldn’t lift a few decades ago have become so light and fast that nowadays we carry them around in our shirt pockets. Modernity is an ongoing striving for lightness, and our world today is threatened not so much by the petrifying weight of reality but by the photoelectric pulsations of the virtual. Our Medusa head is the cell phone screen. We need a new kind of shield to protect us against the miniaturization of reality – a heavy, non-reflective Realometer, to borrow a term from Thoreau, to counter the increasing rarefaction of lived experience.

Did Augustine get it right?

In his memo, Calvino exalts Shakespeare’s character Mercutio, from Romeo and Juliet, as a hero of lightness.  … I would also like Mercutio’s dancing gait to come along with us across the threshold of the new millennium.

Calvino quotes only five lines from Mercutio’s long speech in Act One of Romeo and Juliet. It’s the scene when a group of Montague youngsters are heading toward the Capulet’s costume ball, where Romeo and Juliette will meet for the first time. What Calvino doesn’t mention is that Mercutio’s speech is over ninety lines long. By the end of it, the metaphors and conceits are spinning out of control, and his rave comes dangerously close to leaving the earth’s orbit altogether. It takes Romeo to bring Mercutio back down to earth: “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!” Romeo says as he grabs hold of his friend. “Peace, peace, Mercutio, thou talkst of nothing.”

That’s the trouble with lightness, it can easily wisp away into nothing.

More in the coming days from Stanford’s celebration for one of its most eminent professors.