Category Archives: Lightness

Emblem

Salisbury_Cathedral

I chose Salisbury Cathedral as my emblem for lightness. One of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world, Salisbury Cathedral is also the tallest medieval building in northern Europe. Its spire soars 404 feet off the ground; together with the tower, it adds 6,397 tons to the building.

How did medieval architects, using nothing more than hand tools and basic math, manage to create such an impressive structure? The answer lies in the development of the flying buttress. Before these were invented, builders compensated for height by making the walls of a structure thicker to provide enough support for the roof. Take a look at any Romanesque cathedral and you’ll see what I mean; they’re all squat and dark like fortresses. With the advent of the Gothic style, however, builders wanted to build cathedrals that were tall, but without the weight of the walls. They wanted the walls to be thin enough for stained glass windows, which would open up the inside of the building, letting in light and color.

The pointed arch allowed walls to bear the weight of higher buildings, but it was the flying buttress that really revolutionized cathedral building. The buttress is connected to the wall of the cathedral; it provides support by transferring the weight from the wall into the buttress, which is then anchored to the ground. By shifting the burden off the walls, the buttress allowed for tall cathedrals whose walls were composed almost entirely of stained glass.

Cathédrale_Salisbury_intérieur

To me, this perfectly exemplifies Calvino’s definition of lightness. The cathedral as an object seems to defy the laws of the universe, when in fact, it merely manipulates those laws to its own advantage. When I walk inside a cathedral, my eyes are immediately drawn up, and I’m filled with a sense of awe. Going inside a cathedral is a spiritual experience for sure, whether the visitor is religious or not. Personally, I’m amazed at the extraordinary amount of human effort and ingenuity that went into building a cathedral. It’s incredible that people could dedicate their whole lives to building a cathedral they might not live to see completed. It’s very like Calvino’s description of lightness in literature symbolizing a flight to another world, a momentary transfiguration from a mortal human to an infinite being. The feeling may last only for a moment, but it is a testament to the power of literature that it evokes this sense of awe and wonder in us.

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Analogy

When I started thinking about lightness, the image of ice  immediately came to mind. Because of the hydrogen bonds in water molecules, solid water (ice) is actually less dense than liquid water, thus enabling ice to float. This seems counterintuitive, but water is an exceptional molecule. When water freezes, the molecules create a crystal lattice structure which is about 9% less dense than liquid  water.

submerged iceberg

This accords with Calvino’s definition of lightness. The apparently massive ice rises to the top of the liquid water because of chemical interactions at the atomic level. This is similar to how good literature rises above the heaviness of living because of the interaction between language and the human imagination. Good literature seems to defy the laws of this world while at the same time firmly anchoring us in the world through its ability to relate universal human experiences.

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Graphics

"The form of an object is not more important than the form of the space surrounding it. All all things exist in interaction with other things." --Malcom Grear

“The form of an object is not more important than the form of the space surrounding it. All all things exist in interaction with other things.” –Malcom Grear

As I have said before, lightness is not a mode of escape, but a way of looking at the world. I related this to the concept of figure and ground in graphic design. What you “see” is often a question of perspective: in the photograph, the sky, which we would normally think of as a background to the buildings, actually forms letters when we look more closely. This connects to the two, ultimately converging perspectives in Flight Paths: in the fourth episode, we’re not sure at first whether Yacub is flying or falling to his death. It is only after he gets up off the car that our mental perspective “adjusts” to the fact that he is not dead after all.

Our eyes do a similar thing when we look at these letters; this lightness in design challenges us to reframe our way of seeing the world. It also encourages us to be on the lookout for new perspectives, in art and in life, which both surprise us and make the work more interesting and engaging.

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E-Lit Example

For my E-Lit example, I chose Flight Paths by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph. As in the Kafka story Calvino mentions, Yacub’s privation leads to a flight to another world. In this case, it is a literal flight: Yacub stows away onto a cargo plane to escape his miserable life in Dubai. By contrast, Harriet’s life seems mundane: we first meet her as she’s driving to the grocery store to shop for her family. The lightness comes in when the two characters’ storylines converge.

plane

Calvino says that lightness is a way of looking at the world, and the parallel perspectives in the fourth episode of the story illustrate two completely different viewpoints. Yacub, falling from the sky, feels light and free. Rather that be alarmed, he reflects rather poetically, “I am flying.” Harriet, however, sees that Yacub is clearly falling to his death. Nothing could be more fatal than smashing into a car roof after falling from a plane, yet surprisingly, Yacub does not die. Through the power of the story, Yacub is  able to transcend mortality and survive the fall. Even more amazingly, he and Harriet bypass all language barriers and can communicate perfectly in English. She is surprised by this, but Yacub immediately announces he is hungry, and the two go off in search of food. leaving little time for us readers to be incredulous.

The lightness of the story allows Yacub to overcome the laws of physics. It also allows us, like Harriet, to suspend our disbelief and accept Yacub’s survival. Since this is a work of literature, we can read his flight and escape from poverty as a metaphor rather than an actual event. In any case, the lightness in Flight Paths surprises us because it interrupts our normal patterns of thinking and allows us to exercise our imaginations.

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Calvino’s Lightness

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino lists some essential qualities of good literature. The first of these is lightness, or literature’s ability to rise above the heaviness of living. Through the lightness of literature, we as readers can take flight into another world: the world of the story, poem, or play. Far from being wishful thinking or escapism, lightness is a new way of looking at the world, Calvino says. His image for the new millennium is taken from Boccaccio’s Decameron, an Italian classic. In the story, the poet Cavalcanti leaps over a tombstone to escape some approaching men who wish to engage in a philosophical argument. For Calvino, Cavalcanti’s leap over the tombstone exemplifies how the lightness of poetry leaps over the heaviness of mortality.

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Calvino also uses Franz Kafka’s story “The Bucket Rider” as an example of lightness: the protagonist, a poor boy unable to afford the coal necessary to stay warm, flies away in an empty coal bucket to a world of his own imagination. Surrounded by the utmost privation, the boy literally flies to another world. The lightness of his fantasy enables him to rise above the heaviness of his circumstances. 81a45416fc

Calvino draws analogies from the scientific world as well: the “heaviness” of matter is made of atoms, which, paradoxically, are mostly empty space. Also, computers run programs via software, an intangible sequence of commands which nevertheless produces concrete results when we run the program.

As a competitive opera singer, I see lightness in the arias I have performed. I chose “Der Holle Nacht,” or the Queen of the Night aria, from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute as my example of lightness. Everything about opera is theatrical and over the top, from the storylines of the operas themselves to the makeup and costumes to the sound of the music. In order to produce such a light, high pitched sound, the singer who plays the Queen of the Night must provide her voice with an extraordinary amount of bodily support. She must sing with good posture, an open rib cage, strong diaphragm, lifted soft palate, correct tongue and lip placement, and controlled air supply. While paying attention to vocal technique, she must also bring her acting skills and artistic interpretation to the role, all the while making her performance look effortless.

I chose Natalie Dessay’s performance of the aria because I think she does the best job combining vocal technique with artistry. Click on the link below to watch.

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