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object:2.07 - I Also Try to Tell My Tale
author class:Italo Calvino
book class:The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I Also Try to Tell My Tale
I open my mouth, I try to articulate words, I grunt, this would be the moment for me to tell my tale, it is obvious that the cards of these other two are also the cards of my story, the story that has brought me here, a series of nasty encounters that is perhaps only a series of missed encounters.

To begin, I have to attract attention to the card called the King of Clubs, in which you see a seated person who, if no one else claims him, could very well be me: especially since he is holding an implement with the point downward as I am doing at this moment, and in fact this implement, on closer inspection, resembles a pen or a quill or a well-sharpened pencil or a ballpoint, and if its size seems excessive that must signify the importance this writing implement has in the existence of the above-mentioned sedentary person. As far as I know, the black line that comes from the tip of that cheap scepter is precisely the path that has led me here, and it is therefore not impossible that the King of Clubs is the appellative due me, and in that case the term Clubs must be understood also in the sense of those vertical lines children learn in penmanship class, the first stammering of those who try to communicate by drawing signs, or in the sense of the poplar wood from which the white cellulose is pulped and quires of sheets are unrolled, ready to be (and again meanings interlock) penned.

The Two of Coins for me too is a sign of exchange, of that exchange that is in every sign, from the first scrawl made in such a way as to be distinguished from the other scrawls of the first writer, the sign of writing wed to exchanges of other things, invented not accidentally by the Phoenicians, involved in the currents of currency as in the circulation of gold coins, the letter that must not be taken literally, the letter that transfers values that without a letter are valueless, the letter always ready to grow upon itself and deck itself with blossoms of the sublime, you see it here illuminated and beflowered on its meaningful surface, the letter as prime element of Belles-Lettres, though always enfolding in its significant coils the currency of significance, the letter Ess that twists to signify it is ready and waiting to signify significations, the signifying sign that has the form of an Ess, so that its significations can also assume the form of Ess.

And all those cups are nothing but dried-up inkwells waiting for the demons to rise to the surface from the darkness of the ink, the infernal powers, the bogeymen, the hymns to the night, the flowers of evil, the hearts of darkness, or else for the melancholy angel to glide by that distills the humors of the soul and decants states of grace and epiphanies. But no. The Page of Cups depicts me as I bend to peer into the envelope of myself; and I do not look content: it is futile to shake and squeeze, the soul is a dry inkwell. What Devil would accept it in payment to guarantee me the success of my work?
The Devil should be the card that, in my profession, is most often encountered: is not the raw material of writing all a rising to the surface of hairy claws, cur-like scratching, goat's goring, repressed violences that grope in the darkness? But the thing can be seen in two ways: this demoniacal teeming inside single and plural persons, in deeds done or thought to have been done, in words said or thought to have been said, can be a way of doing and saying that is wrong, and it is best to press everything down below; or else it may instead be what counts most and since it exists it is advisable to allow it to come out; two ways of seeing the thing which then, in turn, are variously mingled, because it could be, for example, that the negative is negative but necessary because without it the positive is not positive, or else the negative may not be negative at all, and the only negative, if anything, is what we believe positive.

In this case the man who writes can only try to follow an unattainable model: the Marquis so diabolical as to be called divine, who impelled the word to explore the black frontiers of the thinkable. (And the story we should try to read in these tarots will be that of the two sisters who could be the Queen of Cups and the Queen of Swords, one angelic and the other perverse. In the convent where the former has taken the veil, as soon as she turns around a Hermit flings her down and takes advantage of her charms from behind; when she complains, the Abbess, or Popess, says: "You do not know the world, Justine: the power of money (coins) and of the sword chiefly enjoys making objects of other human beings; the varieties of pleasure have no limits, like the combinations of conditioned reflexes; it is all a matter of deciding who is to condition the reflexes. Your sister Juliette can initiate you into the promiscuous secrets of Love; from her you can learn that there are those who enjoy turning the Wheel of tortures and those who enjoy being Hanged by their feet.")
All this is like a dream which the word bears within itself and which, passing through him who writes, is freed and frees him. In writing, what speaks is what is repressed. And then the white-bearded Pope could be the great shepherd of souls and interpreter of dreams Sigismund of Vindobona, and for confirmation, the only thing is to see if somewhere in the rectangle of tarots it is possible to read that story which, according to the teachings of his doctrine, is hidden in the warp of all stories. You take a young man, Page of Coins, who wants to drive from himself a dark prophecy: patricide and marriage to his own mother. You send him off at random on a richly adorned Chariot. The Two of Clubs marks a crossroads on the dusty highway, or, rather, it is the crossroads, and he who has been there can recognize the place where the road that comes from Corinth crosses the one that leads to Thebes. The Ace of Clubs reports a street-or, rather, road-brawl, when two chariots refuse to give way and remain with the axles of their wheels locked, and the drivers leap to the ground enraged and dusty, shouting exactly like truckdrivers, insulting each other, calling each other's father and mother pig and cow, and if one draws a knife from his pocket, the consequences are likely to be fatal. In fact, here there is the Ace of Swords, there is The Fool, there is Death: it is the stranger, the one coming from Thebes, who is left on the ground; that will teach him to control his nerves; you, Oedipus, did not do it on purpose, we know that; it was temporary insanity; but meanwhile you had flung yourself on him, armed, as if all your life you had been waiting for nothing else. Among the next cards there is The Wheel of Fortune, or Sphinx, there is the entrance into Thebes like a triumphant Emperor, there are the cups of the feast of the wedding with Queen Jocasta, whom we see here portrayed as the Queen of Coins, in widow's weeds, a desirable if mature woman. But the prophecy is fulfilled: the plague infests Thebes, a cloud of germs falls on the city, floods the streets and the houses with miasmas, bodies erupt in red and blue buboes and drop like flies in the streets, lapping the water of the muddy puddles with parched lips. In these cases the only thing to do is consult the Delphic Sibyl, asking her to explain what laws or taboos have been violated: the old woman with the tiara and the open book, tagged with the strange epithet of Popess, is she. If you like, in the Arcanum called Judgment or The Angel you can recognize the primal scene to which the Sigismundian doctrine of dreams harks back: the tender little angel who wakes at night and among the clouds of sleep sees the grownups doing something, he does not know what, all naked and in incomprehensible positions, Mummy and Daddy and other guests. In the dream fate speaks. We can only make note of it. Oedipus, who knew nothing about it, tears out the light of his eyes: literally, the Hermit tarot shows him as he takes a light from his eyes, and sets off on the road to Colonus with the pilgrim's cloak and staff.

Of all this, writing warns like the oracle and purifies like the tragedy. So it is nothing to make a problem of. Writing, in short, has a subsoil which belongs to the species, or at least to civilization, or at least to certain income brackets. And I? And that amount, large or small, of myself, exquisitely personal, that I believed I was putting into it? If I can call up an author's shade to accompany my distrustful steps in the territories of individual destiny, of the ego, of (as they now say) "real life," it should be that of the Egotist of Grenoble, the provincial out to conquer the world, whom I once read as if I were expecting from him the story I was to write (or live: there was a confusion between the two verbs, in him, or in the me of that time). Which of these cards would he point out to me, if he were still to answer my call? The cards of the novel I have not written, with Love and all the energy it sets in motion and the fears and the deceits, the triumphal Chariot of ambition, the World that comes toward you, the happiness promised by beauty? But here I see only the blocks of scenes that are repeated, the same, the routine of the daily grind, beauty as the picture magazines photograph it. Was this the prescription I was expecting from him? (For the novel and for something obscurely related to the novel: "life"?) What is it that kept all this together and has gone away?
Discarding first one tarot, then another, I find myself with few cards in my hand. The Knight of Swords, the Hermit, the Juggler are still me as I have imagined myself from time to time, while I remain seated, driving the pen up and down the page. Along paths of ink the warrior impetuosity of youth gallops away, the existential anxiety, the energy of the adventure spent in a slaughter of erasures and crumpled paper. And in the card that follows I find myself in the dress of an old monk, isolated for years in his cell, a bookworm searching by the lantern's light for a knowledge forgotten among footnotes and index references. Perhaps the moment has come to admit that only tarot number one honestly depicts what I have succeeded in being: a juggler, or conjurer, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a certain number of effects.

The trick of arranging some tarots in a line and making stories emerge from them is something I could perform also with paintings in museums: putting, for example, a Saint Jerome in the place of the Hermit, a Saint George in the place of the Knight of Swords, to see what comes out. They are, as it happens, the painting subjects that have most attracted me. In museums I always enjoy stopping at the Saint Jeromes. The painters portray the hermit as a scholar consulting treatises outdoors, seated at the mouth of a cave. A little farther on a lion is curled up, domestic, serene. Why the lion? Does the written word tame passions? Or subdue the forces of nature? Or does it find a harmony with the inhumanity of the universe? Or incubate a violence, held back but always ready to spring, to claw? Explain it as you will, painters have been pleased to show Saint Jerome with a lion (taking as genuine the old tale of the thorn in the paw, thanks to the usual mistake of a copyist), and so it gives me satisfaction and security to see them together, to try to recognize myself there, not particularly in the saint or even in the lion (though, for that matter, the two often resemble each other), but in the pair together, in the whole, in the picture, figures, objects, landscape.

In the landscape the objects of reading and writing are placed among rocks, grass, lizards, having become products and instruments of the mineral-vegetable-animal continuum. Among the hermit's bric-a-brac there is also a skull: the written word always takes into consideration the erasure of the person who has written or the one who will read. Inarticulate nature comprehends in her discourse the discourse of human beings.

But remember we are not in the desert, in the jungle, on Crusoe's island: the city is only a step away. The paintings of hermits, almost always, have a city in the background. An engraving by Drer is completely occupied by the city, a low pyramid carved with squared towers and peaked roofs; the saint, flattened against a hillock in the foreground, has his back to the city and does not take his eyes off his book, beneath his monk's hood. In Rembrandt's drypoint the high city dominates the lion, who turns his muzzle around, and the saint below, reading blissfully in the shadow of a walnut tree, under a broad-brimmed hat. At evening the hermits see the lights come on at the windows; the wind bears, in gusts, the music of festivities. In a quarter of an hour, if they chose, they could be back among other people. The hermit's strength is measured not by how far away he has gone to live, but by the scant distance he requires to detach himself from the city, without ever losing sight of it.

Or else the solitary writer is shown in his study, where a Saint Jerome, were it not for the lion, could easily be mistaken for a Saint Augustine: the job of writing makes individual lives uniform, one man at a desk resembles every other man at a desk. But in addition to the lion, other animals visit the scholar's solitude, discreet messengers from the outside world: a peacock (Antonello da Messina, London), a wolf cub (another engraving of Drer's), a Maltese spaniel (Carpaccio, Venice).

In these paintings of interiors, what counts is how a certain number of quite distinct objects are set in a certain space and allow light and time to flow over their surface: bound volumes, parchment scrolls, hourglasses, astrolabes, shells, the sphere hanging from the ceiling which shows how the heavens rotate (in Drer, its place is taken by a pumpkin). The Saint Jerome-Saint Augustine figure can be seated squarely in the center of the canvas, as in Antonello, but we know that the portrait includes the catalogue of objects, and the space of the room reproduces the space of the mind, the encyclopaedic ideal of the intellect, its order, its categories, its calm.

Or its restlessness: Saint Augustine, in Botticelli (Uffizi), begins to grow nervous, crumples page after page and throws them on the ground beneath the desk. Also in the study where there reigns meditative serenity, concentration, ease (I am still looking at the Carpaccio), a high-tension current passes: the scattered books left open turn their pages on their own, the hanging sphere sways, the light falls obliquely through the window, the dog raises his nose. Within the interior space there hovers the announcement of an earthquake: the harmonious intellectual geometry grazes the borderline of paranoid obsession. Or is it the explosions outside that shake the windows? As only the city gives a meaning to the bleak landscape of the hermit, so the study, with its silence and its order, is simply the place where the oscillations of the seismographs are recorded.

For years now I have been shut up in here, brooding over a thousand reasons for not putting my nose outside, unable to find one that gives my spirit peace. Do I perhaps regret more extroverted ways of expressing myself? There was also a time when, wandering through museums, I would stop to face and question the Saint Georges and their dragons. The paintings of Saint George have this virtue: you can tell the painter was pleased to have to paint a Saint George. Because Saint George can be painted without believing too much in him, believing only in painting and not in the theme? But Saint George's position is shaky (as a legendary saint, too similar to the Perseus of the myth; as a mythical hero, too similar to the younger brother of the fairy tale), and painters always seem to have been aware of this, so they always looked on him with a somewhat "primitive" eye. But, at the same time, believing: in the way painters and writers have of believing in a story that has gone through many forms, and with painting and repainting, writing and rewriting, if it was not true, has become so.

Even in the painters' pictures, Saint George always has an impersonal face, not unlike the Knight of Swords of the cards, and his battle with the dragon is a scene on a coat of arms, fixed outside of time, whether you see him galloping with his lance at rest, as in Carpaccio, charging from his half of the canvas at the dragon who rushes from the other half, and attacking with a concentrated expression, his head down, like a cyclist (around, in the details, there is a calendar of corpses whose stages of decomposition reconstruct the temporal development of the story), or whether horse and dragon are superimposed, monogram-like, as in the Louvre Raphael, where Saint George is using his lance from above, driving it down into the monster's throat, operating with angelic surgery (here the rest of the story is condensed in a broken lance on the ground and a blandly amazed virgin); or in the sequence: princess, dragon, Saint George, the animal (a dinosaur!) is presented as the central element (Paolo Uccello, in London and Paris); or whether Saint George comes between the dragon in the rear and the princess in the foreground (Tintoretto, London).

In any case, Saint George performs his feat before our eyes, always closed in his breastplate, revealing nothing of himself: psychology is no use to the man of action. If anything, we could say psychology is all on the dragon's side, with his angry writhings: the enemy, the monster, the defeated have a pathos that the victorious hero never dreams of possessing (or takes care not to show). It is a short step from this to saying that the dragon is psychology: indeed, he is the psyche, he is the dark background of himself that Saint George confronts, an enemy who has already massacred many youths and maidens, an internal enemy who becomes an object of loathsome alien-ness. Is it the story of an energy projected into the world, or is it the diary of an introversion?
Other paintings depict the next stage (the slaughtered dragon is a stain on the ground, a deflated container), and reconciliation with nature is celebrated, as trees and rocks grow to occupy the whole picture, relegating to a corner the little figures of the warrior and the monster (Altdorfer, Munich; Giorgione, London); or else it is the festivity of regenerated society around the hero and the princess (Pisanello, Verona; and Carpaccio, in the later pictures of the Schiavoni cycle). (Pathetic implicit meaning: the hero being a saint, there will not be a wedding but a baptism.) Saint George leads the dragon on a leash into the square to execute him in a public ceremony. But in all this festivity of the city freed from a nightmare, there is no one who smiles: every face is grave. Trumpets sound and drums roll, we have come to witness capital punishment, Saint George's sword is suspended in the air, we are all holding our breath, on the point of understanding that the dragon is not only the enemy, the outsider, the other, but is us, a part of ourselves that we must judge.

Along the walls of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, in Venice, the stories of Saint George and Saint Jerome follow one another, as if they were a single story. And perhaps they really are one story, the life of the same man: youth, maturity, old age, and death. I have only to find the thread that links the chivalrous enterprise with the conquest of wisdom. But just now, had I not managed to turn Saint Jerome toward the outside and Saint George toward the inside?
Let us stop and think. If you consider carefully, the element common to both stories is the relationship with a fierce animal, the dragon-enemy or the lion-friend. The dragon menaces the city; the lion, solitude. We can consider them a single animal: the fierce beast we encounter both outside and inside ourselves, in public and in private. There is a guilty way of inhabiting the city: accepting the conditions of the fierce beast, giving him our children to eat. There is a guilty way of inhabiting solitude: believing we are serene because the fierce beast has been made harmless by a thorn in his paw. The hero of the story is he who in the city aims the point of his lance at the dragon's throat, and in solitude keeps the lion with him in all its strength, accepting it as guard and domestic genie, but without hiding from himself its animal nature.

So I have succeeded in coming to a conclusion, I can consider myself satisfied. But will I not have been too pontifical? I reread. Shall I tear it all up? Let us see. The first thing to be said is that the Saint George-Saint Jerome story is not one with a before and an after: we are in the center of a room with figures who present themselves to our view all together. The character in question either succeeds in being warrior and sage in everything he does and thinks, or he will be no one, and the same beast is at once dragon-enemy in the daily massacre of the city and lion-guard in the space of thoughts: and he does not allow himself to be confronted except in the two forms together.

Thus I have set everything to rights. On the page, at least. Inside me, all remains as before.

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2.07 - I Also Try to Tell My Tale
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  object:2.07 - I Also Try to Tell My Tale
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