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.
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.”
88 Constellations for Wittgenstein by David Clark possesses Calvino’s quality of multiplicity. Starting with a single subject (the biography of German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), Clark leaps off into digressions about tangential subjects. Connecting the dots between the stars to create constellations parallels connecting the disparate elements of 88 Constellations to create a mosaic of a single subject: Wittgenstein.
On the webpage, 88 Constellations is described as “a really well-made independent documentary, but one which swerves from seemingly normal biographical reportage into visual puns, fantastic associations, and quirky digressions.” This could well be the definition of Calvino’s encyclopedic novel: an attempt to capture all the knowledge of the universe in a single work of art.
In his memo on multiplicity, Calvino conceives of the contemporary novel as “an encyclopedia, a method of knowledge, a network of connections between the events, people and things of the world.” Recognizing the impossibility of completing such an exhaustive, all-encompassing work in the span of a single lifetime, Calvino acknowledges that these types of novels are unable to find an ending. Additionally, these works give rise to a multitude of different interpretations, which may all be valid. However, Calvino asserts that the future of literature lies in these overambitious projects, which attempt to “weave together” all the different forms of knowledge into one vision of the world.
While this type of literature is incomplete by definition, it is also constantly evolving: as we learn more about the world, so we must attempt to assimilate this information into our unified vision of the world. By reading (or writing) the encyclopedic novel, we ourselves become part of the encyclopedia which is the universe.
When I think of Calvino’s description of the encyclopedic novel, the first thing that comes to mind is The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. The narrator, who both is and isn’t Sebald, goes on an extended walking trip through East Anglia. As he journeys through the landscape, he shares his musings on the various country houses and failing seaside towns he passes through. He draws analogies from sources as diverse as Chinese history, the biology of silkworms, Renaissance medicine, and the writings of Joseph Conrad. All these disparate topics cohere into a mosaic of Sebald’s own melancholy; each example ultimately relates back to his preoccupation with death.
This picture is of the skull of Thomas Brown, a 17th century English doctor whose remains are kept in the museum of a hospital Sebald visits at the beginning of the book. The photographs are all Sebald’s; they serve as touchstones for his multifaceted writing. To me, it symbolizes the multiplicity of Sebald’s novel: he starts with something as simple as a skull, and from there, he encompasses all the tragedy of the human experience.