July 15, 2008

The Cloven Viscount

Italo Calvino's novel, the Cloven Viscount, is a fascinating gedankenexperiment. Calvino imagines a character- the Viscount Medardo who goes to the Turkish wars and in a battle in Bohemia is split in half with a cannon ball. One half of Medardo, the bad un, is a savage tyrant who returns to his people to kill and maim- to split everyone in half who is not already a half person- to cut flowers in half, animals in half, to hate the world and everything in it that is not halved. The other half of Medardo, the good un, is a pious and saintly beggar who takes his halfness as a signal to respect everyone else that lacks, but is so saintly that his very example irritates and his preaching alternately irritates and bores. Calvino follows the two halves through the novel- they seek the same girl who they both fall in love with and inhabit the same semi feudal landscape- they do so until a denoument that reflects the real nature of Medardo and closes the circle of the story.

As you can imagine this gives Calvino an opportunity to explore various types of human division. There is a metaphor in here for the Cold War- this was written in 1951 when the prospect of the two halves of humanity destroying each other was not so unlikely as it seems now. The novel is novel about a postwar situation and though the war is against the Turks, not the Germans, the idea of a Europe sweating from the aftermath of atrocity and the memories of madness would not have been foreign to audiences reading this novella in the 1950s. The description of the surroundings of the camp of the Imperial troops in Bohemia are graphically disgusting- they parallel the images of terror in Kadare's siege and suggest an appreciation for the horrible reality of chivalric warfare- horses lying with their guts hanging out, camps of prostitutes infected with the gruesome pox surrounding camps of soldiers, the men themselves approaching a battle in which they have nothing to look forward to but dying. And so the story's grisly approach constructs the surroundings for the split of the man- the surroundings for the inevitable tragedy to come- this is a postwar novel and in a way is about the condition of modern man- the condition of man lying under the threat of the horror of total war.

The Viscount in his split personality lives as one person within two bodies- Stevenson's (a novelist that Calvino admired) Jekyll and Hyde come to mind instantly as parallels to the Viscount. But using this device is merely a method to explore the world of whole persons: what Calvino is doing is twofold here- he explores the nature of good and evil and explores the nature of personality. Let us get into these two distinctions. What he demonstrates through his exploration of good and evil is that pure moral good is often something we idealise but do not actually like- a kind of pious disdain for mocking jokes or constant attempts to remind everyone in the midst of enjoyment that there are others who are not enjoying the world- takes all the enjoyment out of life itself- rendering life a husk. If goodness is a lonely business then by neccessity- so Calvino demonstrates is evil, evil creates fear and fear creates difference. Moral persons do not make actual persons- and a pure good person or worse a pure evil person is not merely likely to be a fool, they are unlikely to be human. It is this which moves us onto our second point- what Calvino is doing here is telling us something about what it is to be human. Humanity comes out not merely of our moral good or bad qualities but also of our ability to get on with others- to be comradly. Empathy rather than puritanism is a way out of our dilemmas- and empathy means recognising and sympathising with the moment that morality is less important than sitting on a couch reading. The saint at that point becomes a nagging parent- and an uncomfortable colleague for any adult.

Calvino's vision is an interesting one- its a brief story and there is more subtlety in these issues than the space of this article allows or the space of Calvino's story allows- but what this indicates is how humanity is not easily reduced into any theoretical or moral construction- dissection is not a useful theoretical tool!


Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Obviously summer, Tiberius.