When I think of quickness, I think about the stream of consciousness novel, which came into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century. Authors writing in this style wished to craft prose that captured the fragmentation and simultaneity of thought: in essence, consciousness itself. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is my favorite novel in this genre.
On a basic level, it tells the story of the Ramsay family and their activities at a seaside cottage, but it also encompasses World War One, the beginnings of the feminist movement, Lily Briscoe’s struggle to find her voice as an artist, new discoveries in quantum physics, and questions of faith and humanity’s place in the universe.
Woolf’s writing style can be difficult to comprehend at first; sometimes it feels as if she’s moving through the story a little too quickly. She constantly changes narrators and points of view, and she distorts our sense of linear time: the first half of the book covers the events of a single day, while all of World War One merits only a few pages. However, the quickness of the novel comes precisely from Woolf’s relentless drive to continue through the story. We experience one event after the other at lightning speed until all of a sudden, we arrive at the end, when Lily Briscoe fulfills her artistic vision in a sudden frenzy of creation and inspiration.
This novel, which moves along at a brisk clip, exemplifies quickness and efficiency of style in narrative. Woolf is clear and succinct: each paragraph is carefully crafted to evoke vivid images and further Woolf’s goal of emulating consciousness in prose.
In the novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Sophie learns about the Greek philosopher Democritus’s theory of atoms by playing with LEGOS. She realizes she can create an infinite number of objects from a finite set of building blocks. Further, the blocks themselves cannot be broken down into smaller parts, just like atoms.
LEGOS, like atoms, can teach us a lot about multiplicity. The universe is made of just a few basic elements, yet they combine in various ways to create stars, water, plants, animals, entire worlds. The universe has not exhausted itself; it continues creating and creating. We don’t know exactly how it began, nor do we know exactly how it will end. All we know is that we can learn about it during our lifetime. Our knowledge will be incomplete, like Calvino’s encyclopedic novel, but the quest for knowledge is a worthy end in itself, and a work of art.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lupton and Phillips state that “Modularity is a special kind of constraint. A module is a fixed element used within a larger system or structure. For example, a pixel is a module that builds a digital image. . . . A nine-by-nine grid of pixels can yield an infinite number of different typefaces. Likewise, a tiny handful of LEGO bricks contains an astonishing number of possible combinations. The endless variety of forms occurs, however, within the strict parameters of the system, which permits just one basic kind of connection.”
This relates to multiplicity in art because although humans are pretty much the same biologically, each human being has a different experience and attitude toward the world. This is what enables us to create such a stunning variety of art and literature; each of us has something unique to bring to the creative process, allowing for many facets of experience across one human “kind.”