Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics: Qfwfg's Postmodern Autobiography

by Kristi Siegel
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Title:
Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics: Qfwfg's Postmodern Autobiography
Author:
Kristi Siegel
Year: 
1991
Publication: 
Italica
Volume: 
68
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1
Start Page: 
43
End Page: 
59
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English
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Abstract:

Italo Calvina's Cosmicomics: Qfwfg's Postmodern Autobiography

KRISTI SIEGEL

osmicomics' whimsical tales of beginnings seem like stories written in response to a child's questions, myths imaginatively designed to illuminate our earliest origins. Despite their fanciful, often humorous beginnings, Italo Calvino's stories often end in loss. Calvino's penchantfor lightness, "to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud" (Six Memos 15), demonstrable in the weightless style of the stories in Cosmicomics, nonetheless points to emptiness, a void stemming from the irrevocable linearity of our lives. Qfwfg's actions set in motion consequences far beyond his imagination, while his inability to repeat any of his actions creates a negative weightlessness similar to the "unbearable lightness of being" Milan Kundera articulates in his novel bearing the same name. In that novel, Kundera also describes the essentially sober nature of a child's questions: "indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers" (139). The kind of questions that might have generated the tales in Cosmicomics (What is the origin of language? How did the world begin?) typify the simple questions of childhood that have no answers.

Cosmicomics foregrounds these unanswerable questions of existence, ontological questions that Brian McHale cites as characterizing the dominant mode of postmodernism. McHale sees the postmodernist writer abandoning "the intractable problems of attaining reliable knowledge of our world" (10) in favor of projecting possible worlds, fictional worlds that posit such questions as "What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ? ... What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects? ..." (10).

Calvino projects a different world-or a different perspective on the world-in each of Cosmicomics' twelve stories. All of the stories begin with a scientific hypothesis concerning the development of the

43

universe. As a number of critics have noted, Calvino's interest in the

twelve scientific hypotheses cited is cursory at best. Calvino merely

extracts the kernel idea from a scientific theory in order to speculate

playfully on a specific moment in the universe's origin. The big bang

theory enables Calvino to imagine a time before space and matter

when a number of absurd characters are literally compressed into a

single point. George H. Darwin's theory-positing that the moon was

once very close to the earth-prompts Calvino to envision a dream

like story where people climb back and forth from the earth to the

moon collecting lunar milk. Consistently, Calvino's emphasis rests

less on physics than metaphysics, on a philosophical inquiry into be

ing and existence.

Calvino fashions the book into a fictional autobiography. Like

most autobiographies, Costnicomics traces the autobiographer's de

sire to undertake an elusive quest for self in hopes of constructing

himself as a stable subject. In Cosmicomics, that self is Qfwfg, Calvi

no's garrulous, sometimes naive, sometimes wise narrator who re

counts his struggles to interpret the materials and substances emerg

ing in an embryonic universe. Despite his many non-human

manifestations, Qfwfg succumbs to a very human temptation: to un

derstand the world around him. Whether Qfwfg appears as a mollusk,

a dinosaur, or an amphibian, his consciousness is unmistakably hu

man, his world postmodem. Qfwfg constructs his notion of self in

terms of a phenomenological world that often lacks any "reference

points" (115), a world where "nobody really knew anything" (119).

In short, the world of here and now. Like ourselves, Qfwfg continu

ously and obsessively interprets his world in relation to himself.

Qfwfg's consciousness, the source of unity among Cosmicomics' twelve tales, displays his postmodern impulse to immediately translate experience into text. The postmodem transformation of an "authorial self" into a "textual self" (Caramello 57) threatens to undo Qfwfg's autobiographical quest. As·several of the stories in Cosmicomics demonstrate, language both orders and dis-orders identity. In each story, Qfwfg moves from a point of unity to a point of differen-tiation, from an undifferentiated world to an articulated world. Qfwfg's chief conflict concerns his desire for cultural change-the world of differentiation-versus his nostalgia for a world uncomplicated by signification, a pre-symbolic/prelinguistic era. Neither world offers a solution. Qfwfg loses his selfhood in an entirely textual world in much the same way as Beckett's Unnamable, whose desire "to arrest the story of identity, to cease the proliferation of selfimages, constitutes his very existence as a self and comprises all terms of his appeal. Such is the cruelly paradoxical universe of the

Trilogy: the Unnamable cannot descend within himself because he is self as the verbal process of defining self, or, in this case, The Unnamable" (Caramello 31). Qfwfg, who repeatedly seeks to name himself-to stabilizehis signature-findshimselfsimilarlylostin the process of language, in its inherently slipping chain of signification that forever changes even as he writes it, speaks it or thinks it.

Calvino, consciously or unconsciously, through the character of Qfwfg, plays out the postmodern dilemma Charles Caramello articulates. Accordingly, Qfwfg frequently yearns for a pre-symbolic world, the "stage of a magical and animistic thought mode when primitive man and the young child have no sense of difference between self and other, subject and object worlds," the state Freud termed entropy, "the desire for undifferentiation" (Jackson 72, 73). The pre-symbolic, rather than stabilizing Qfwfg's version of self, as hehopes, wouldinstead erase his identity altogether, since as Calvino demonstrates in "A Sign in Space," consciousness is not possible without symbol. Jacques Lacan similarly describes the longing for undifferentiation as "an eternal desire for the nonrelationship of zero, where identity is meaningless" (Jackson qting Lacan 77). In short, Qfwfg's desire for a pre-symbolic world translates into a desire for death, our only guarantee of stability: "when we wish to attain in the subject what was before the serial articulations of the Word, and what is primordial to the birth of symbols, we find it in death" (Hassan qting Lacan 152, emphasis added).

Qfwfg's desire to abolish the proliferation of signs clogging his textual world may point to a source of nostalgia inherent in postmodernism: the desire for an ultimate origin, an unthinkable, impossible origin anterior to all other origins. In Silverless Mirrors, Charles Caramello discusses this nostalgia in the work of such postmodernist writers as Samuel Beckett and Raymond Federman:

There is a tone quite other than the joyful in this view of Beckett, one that inheres in Federman's decentered fiction as well. As Leo Bersani has noted, Beckett's work, however obsessive as textuality, reveals a "yearning for a center of being behind all centers." This center, of course, is impossible. "For what the Unnamable hates in expression," Bersani later suggests, "is that it is not expression, but, inevitably, invention. More exactly, every expression is an invention. It violates the purity of being with the accidents of personality, language and Time." If man is logos, a voice made of words, "simply the sum of his words," as Federman has suggested, than any desire for a prelinguistic purity of being or for an Ur-Ianguage remains nostalgia for a presence that never was. (135)

The price postmodernism may have paid to posit our inherent textuality, our displacement by language, is a perverse desire for what this knowledge has taken away, since, as Caramello notes, postmodernist fiction "remains nostalgic, if not for a writing that can be grounded in the self and in the book, then for precisely the self and the book that this writing has dismembered" (14).

Calvino's Cosmicomics may be seen as an enactment of postmodernism's paradoxical awareness and nostalgia. Accordingly, Qfwfg's autobiography vacillates between his desire for change, the textuality of experience (differentiation) and his desire for no change whatsoever, a return to the pre-symbolic (entropy). Qfwfg's desire for mastery-to achieve recognition and to stabilize his version of selfmotivates both his desire for differentiation and entropy. It is only in the last story, "The Spiral," that Calvino suggests a way out. Here, Qfwfg in some sense satisfies his desires by finally mastering his desire to master at all.

In "A Sign in Space," Qfwfg has not yet learned to master his desire for recognition. When Qfwfg carves the first sign into the undifferentiated void of space, he sets in motion all the double-edged qualities of written language. As JoAnn Cannon has similarly noted in Italo Calvina: Writer and Critic, the ability to write-to generate symbols that survive our absence-also enables our words to be appropriated, distorted, effaced, and judged (56-58). The positive aspects embodied in the creative act of writing are checked by the more negative emotions writing sows: competition and mastery, engendered by one's desire to create the best sign, to have this sign and its creator reflected in the admiring gaze of others, and to stabilize the sign in its original configuration and intention through time.

Qfwfg demonstrates his desire for recognition and mastery when he describes his anticipation just prior to viewing the sign he etched inspacesix hundredmillionsolaryearsbefore: "...Itraveled through the light-years, galloping over the planetary and stellar orbits as if I were on a horse whose shoes struck sparks; I was in a state of mounting excitement; I felt I was going forth to conquer the only thing that mattered to me, sign and dominion and name . . ." (34, emphasis added). When Qfwfg again sees his sign, he finds it has already fallen prey to appropriation and effacement: "... in the place of my sign, there was a shapeless scratch, a bruised, chipped abrasion of space"

(35).

Qfwfg thus learns of the inherent loss and absence accompanying the creation of language: "The words of the writer are always stolen. This (inevitable) theft establishes the writer's ineradicable secondariness and deprives him of originality" (Taylor 16-17). For Qfwfg, this knowledge already comes too late. With this very first sign, Qfwfg's identity and consciousness are caught up in the web of language. Qfwfg cannot turn back-the loss of his sign threatens the loss of his identity and existence: "I had lost everything: the sign, the point, the thing that caused me-being the one who had made the sign at that point-to be me. Space, without a sign, was once again a chasm, the void, without beginning or end, nauseating, in which everythingincluding me-was lost" (35).

Paradoxically, Qfwfg's sign/signature remains his only means of recognition as well as markinghis absence, the duality of creation and erasure Geoffrey Hartman articulates (qting Jacques Derrida in passim) in Saving the Text: " 'What does the death knell of the proper name signify?' We can now answer: it signifies the birth of the literary text. The fading of the name leaves no legacy ... except for the paranomasia of a text" (77).

Qfwfg-finally-can only comment on the dense proliferation of signs he has initiated, a universe where "anybody who had an opportunityinvariablylefthis markinspace..." (38). Further, the density of signs causes people to see everything as signs, to transform their landscape into text: "... living among signs had led us to see signs in countless things that, before, were there, marking nothing but their own presence; they had been transformed into the sign of themselves and had been added to the series of signs made on purpose by those who meant to make a sign" (38). Ironically, language-created to establish reference and order-becomes in Qfwfg's world and our postmodern world so maniacally immanent that it loses its ability to create sense and instead disperses non-sense: "... the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference" (39).Or, as Ihab Hassan articulates in The Postmodern Turn, "Languages, apt or mendacious, reconstitute the universe-from quasars to quarks and back, from the lettered unconscious to black holes in space-reconstitute it into signs of their own making, turning nature into culture, and culture into an immanent semiotic system" (172).

Qfwfg's tone of exhaustion-his dismay with a world so cluttered with meaning that it has no meaning-evident in the conclusion of "A Sign in Space," also surfaces in the conclusion to "How Much Shall We Bet?" Here, Qfwfg looks back, nostalgically, to the universe's beginnings when events still evolved logically and thus retained some meaning: "And I think how beautiful it was then, through that void, to draw lines and parabolas, pick out the precise point, the intersection between space and time where the event would spring forth, undeniable in the prominence of its glow" (93). Conversely, the present/postmodern world offers only confusion, a chaos of events "flowing down without interruption, like cement being poured ... legible in many ways but intrinsically illegible, a doughy mass of events without form or direction, which surrounds, submerges, crushes all reasoning" (93). Roland Barthes, referring to himself in the third person, articulates a similar exhaustion, a desire to escape from the tyranny of signification altogether:

Sometimes he feels like letting all this language rest-this language which is in his head, in his work, in other people, as if language itself were an exhausted limb of the human body; it seems to him that if he could take a rest from language, he could rest altogether, dismissing all crises, echoes, exaltations, injuries, reasonings, etc. (177)

The state Barthes longs for-a life divested of all the shocks and jolts of existence-amounts to entropy.

"The Light-Years" follows the same structural pattern as "A Sign in Space" or "How Much Shall We Bet?": a progression from simplicity to complexity, concluding with a sense of loss or nostalgia for a pre-symbolic era. "TheLight-Years" presents a vision of ultimate narcissism. Here, Qfwfg (or we assume it is Qfwfg-he is not named in this story) inverts Michel Foucault's panoptic model by making the figure in the tower (himself) the cynosure of the universe's gaze. "The Light-Years" plays on the deferral inherent in written language and the transmission of images by exaggerating the time involved into millions of years. Qfwfg's story begins in tranquility; he is peacefully observing the sky with his telescope when he notices a sign from a distant galaxy containing the message: I SAW you. By consulting his diary, Qfwfg is able to reconstruct the exact day he had been observed: "... exactly two hundred million years before, not a day more not a day less, something had happened to me that I had always tried to hide" (127). Qfwfg consequently begins a futile exchange of signs and counter-signs in an attempt to correct and improve his image. Qfwfg's frantic maneuvers to enhance his reputation, to overpower his interpreters by presenting what he terms "... the true image of me that should be remembered" (131) blinds him to the risks built into discourse:

To enter language means to risk being named, or recognized by name, to struggle against false names or identities, to live in the knowledge that reconnaissance and mepris(e) are intertwined, and that self and other are terms that glide eccentrically about an always improper ("metaphoric") naming of things or persona. There is no ultimate recognition scene. (Hartman 62)

Accordingly, Qfwfg's carefully wrought self-representations are greeted with such replies as "WE CAN'T SEE ADAMN THING" (130) or, even worse, "TRA-LA-LA-LA" (133). We laugh, of course, at Qfwfg's extreme paranoia and narcissism and then recognize ourselves in that laughter. Our speech, too, is largely predicated on a game of oneupmanship, each statement and counter-statement representing a "higher bid," a bid that "is never anything but Narcissus' cry: Me! And me! What about me!" (Barthes Reader 448).

Eventually, to Qfwfg's great relief, all the galaxies that had most intimately observed him would travel so far away messages could no longer be sent or received. Their final interpretation of Qfwfg would at last remain fixed, or, in what amounts to the same thing, Qfwfg would no longer be aware of what their interpretation was. He would, in effect, be dead, cut off from the gaze of others into a post-symbolic realm, a future akin to a past before signification (the pre-symbolic). Qfwfg thus learns the only way to escape the infinite regression inherent in creation and reception is to remove the mirror altogether:

To submit to the authority of the Other as sole arbiter of the self is to sentence oneself to self-reflection in perpetuum, like the dandy frozen before his mirror, or Estelle and Garcin of Huis Clos, desperately seeking their images in the eyes of those around them. It is, like Kierkegaard's aesthete or de Man's ironist, to be caught in the spiral of a "selfescalating act of consciousness," first observing the self to evaluate and criticize the image it is projecting, then splitting again to observe the observing self, denouncing any self-delusions it might harbor, then redoubling oneself, and so on, ad infinitum. (Lang 181)

Qfwfg's fluctuation between his desire for stasis versus his desire for change also arises in the story, "Without Colors." Here, Calvino depicts the gray and silent world before the emergence of atmosphere. Ayl, the female who is the object of Qfwfg's pursuit, represents a static, pre-symbolic world. Ayl totally rejects Qfwfg's desire for change and identifies completely with her mute, womblike world, finding in its uniform, unarticulated surface the standard of beauty: "... Ayl was a happy inhabitant of the silence that reigns where all vibration is excluded; for her anything that looked likely to break the absolute visual neutrality was a harsh discord; beauty began for her only where the grayness had extinguished even the remotest desire to be anythingotherthangray"(55).All Qfwfg's attemptsto force Ayl into accepting the new world, to make her, in effect, into him, prove futile. Intuitively, Ayl senses the complexity the arrival of sound/ speech and colors will trigger and flees into "the bowels of the Earth" (59).By thestory'send, Qfwfg accepts-evenwelcomes-thechanges in his increasingly articulated universe while also realizing Ayl and her simple world are gone forever:

... all of a sudden, those pea-green lawns where the first scarlet poppies were flowering, those canary-yellow fields which striped the tawny hills ... all seemed so trivial to me, so banal, so false, so much in contrast with Ayl's person, with Ayl's world, with Ayl's idea ofbeauty, that I realized her place could never have been out here, that I would never again be able to escape those gilded and silvered gleams, those little clouds that turned from pale blue to pink, those green leaves that yellowed every autumn, and that Ayl's perfect world was lost forever ... (59-60)

Calvino's portrayal of women in Cosmicomics opens itself up to a feminist critique. Repeatedly, Calvino presents women in accordance with the traditional male/female binary: men are associated with "Activity, Sun, Culture, Day, Father, Head, Intelligible, Logos" while women are associated with "Passivity, Moon, Nature, Night, Mother, Emotions, Sensitive, Pathos" (Moi 214). Like Ayl, G'd(w)n, Qfwfg's sister in "At Daybreak," flees from the sun, a "paternal image" that sheds light, and acts as the "agency of language" (Kristeva 29). Ayl's affinity withdarkness and nature is so strong Qfwfginitially fails to distinguish the outline of her body from the contours of their world's undifferentiated topography:

Depending on the point from which you looked at them, the crests of the dunes seemed the outlines of reclining bodies. There you could almost make out the form of an arm folded over a tender breast, with the palm open under a resting cheek; farther on, a young foot with a slender big toe seemed to emerge. As I stopped to observe those possible analogies, a full minute went by before I realized that, before my eyes, I didn't have a sandy ridge but the object of my pursuit. (52)

Ayl, completely "colorless," lying on "colorless sand," represents passive, unarticulated space, suggestive of the formless undifferentiated flow of the semiotic chora, the phase preceding a subject's entry into a symbolic system, the paternal order of language (Kristeva 9496). Lll, in "TheAquatic Uncle," also rejects culturalprogress infavor of immobility, by mating with Qfwfg's less evolved uncle and returning to the dark primal recesses of the lagoon, an environment offering almost complete stasis:

... lagoons and seas and oceans represented a future with security. Down there, changes would be very few, ... the temperature would always be steady; in short, life would be maintained as it had gone on till then, in its achieved, perfect forms, without metamorphoses or additions ...(79)

Commenting similarly on the characterizations of Lll, G'd(w)n and Ayl, Francesca Bernardini Napoletano notes how Calvino consistently associates the primal world with women and the cultural world with men (80-82).

The introduction of a feminist reading in the midst of a discussion centering on postmodernism serves to raise two important issues: "Can a work that appears to reinforce a male/female binary be considered 'postmodern'?" and/or "Does Calvino's use of the binary serve purposes beyond those uncovered by a feminist reading?" Teresa de Lauretis highlights the relation offeminism to postmodernism in her article, "Calvino and the Amazons: Reading the (Post) Modern Text." De Lauretis-discussing primarily Calvino's If On a Winter's Night-comments on the novel's ostensibly postmodern technique: "[postmodern] literary writing has become a 'paracritical' practice, as Ihab Hassan suggests and, I might add, Calvino's text perfectly exemplifies" (73). Yet, postmodernism also works, in theory at least, to break down and subvert "familiar dichotomies" (e.g., the male/ female binary). De Lauretis asserts, however, that Calvino appears to side with Lacan, viewing women who write (who engage with language/logos) as acting against their essential natures:

Now, we know from Lacan as well as Calvino that writing is the masculine activity par excellence, because it exists in the order of the symbolic where language, the circulation of the signifiers, and signification itself are subject to the name of the Father, to the structure of symbolic castration in which the phallus is the signifier of desire. Writing thus presupposes possession of the phallus-symbolically speaking, of course; and for a woman to write is to usurp a place, a discursive position, she does not have by nature or by culture. (81)

Consequently, Calvino's consciousness, de Lauretis argues, is basically that of a modernist "emerging in the palimpsest of the postmodern text" and even "in the rewriting ofhis own modernist works" (82). While Calvino may, "in rewriting his own texts" (superficially changing his modernist texts to postmodernist texts), thus feel "the necessity on the one hand to engage or deal with feminism," he still, de Lauretis asserts, serves "to put us [women] in our place" (82).

Calvino's desire to put women in their place-as de Lauretis suggests-stems from fear, the feeling that" 'the discourse of the others [women]' is indeed challenging, disturbing, a threatening of the status quo" (82).In part, de Lauretis is right, though in the case of Cosmicomics the fear she identifies would appear to emergefrom Qfwfg's consciousness. If Calvino were not aware of the reductive, fearful nature of Qfwfg's consciousness in these earlier chapters, the evolution Qfwfg's thinking undergoes in the last story, "The Spiral," would be pointless. Throughout Cosmicomics, Qfwfg engages in a radical confrontation with Otherness, in the form of language and in the form of a [feminized] pre-symbolic. Qfwfg's struggles in the tangle of signification drive him to yearn for a pre-symbolic world, while his attempts to unite with a feminized pre-symbolic space in turn drive him back to the world of symbol and cultural change. Calvino's use of the feminine to represent the wholeness and unity embodied by a pre-symbolic world may be demonstrated in the novel's first story, "The Distance of the Moon."

"TheDistanceoftheMoon" drawsback thecurtainsofreality onto the world of dream. Here, both heavenly bodies and human bodies interact in a network of attractions and regulations. The moon-at this mythical point in pre-history-Iooms so close that Qfwfg describes "her" like a large sexual body ("We had her on top of us all the time" [3]), a body that also provokes some fear: 'I... it looked as if she were going to crush us" (3). Significantly, the person most in tune with the moon's mysterious surface is the Deaf One, whose inability to speak or listen effectively excludes him from symbolic discourse (logos). The Deaf One operates at the level of intuition, his skill in manipulating the moon's surface amounting to a form of artistry, the ability to invoke and use the poetic potential of "the maternal chora so that it transgresses thesymbolicorder"(Kristeva115).Themoon'ssurface is explicitly eroticized, its feminized surface both maternal and sexy: under the Deaf One's knowing hands milk spurts from the Moon's scales "as if from a nanny goat's teats" or reveals "gaps between two scales, naked and 'tender folds of lunar flesh" (6-7).

Qfwfg yearns for the Captain's wife, whose feminine charms are repeatedly equated with those of the moon's. Qfwfg longs to be "on" her just as the moon is on them and Mrs. Vhd Vhd's "round and firm" breasts have "an attraction as strong as the Moon's" (9). As Curtis White notes, Qfwfg's attraction for Mrs. Vhd Vhd's moonlike breasts point to his desire for"a happy original state": "Thus, Calvino's cosmic character settles on the breast of the lover, in the breast of the mother, in the breast of nature, in the breast of the cosmos" (136). Mrs. Vhd Vhd, however, loves the Deaf One who, in turn, is in love with the Moon. For each of them-Qfwfg, Mrs. Vhd Vhd and the Deaf One-desire organizes itself around lack. Mrs. Vhd Vhd-like the moon-symbolizes the potential for wholeness as well as a type of radical otherness. When Qfwfg attempts to satisfy his desires by possessing Mrs. Vhd Vhd on the moon's alien surface, he finds the only way to completely unite with the Other is to relinquish self, a form of death:

I [Qfwfg] should have been happy: as I had dreamed, I was alone with

her ... Mrs. Vhd Vhd was now my exclusive prerogative, a month of

days and lunar nights stretched uninterrupted before us.... and yet,

and yet, it was, instead, exile.

I thought only of the Earth. It was the Earth that caused each of us

to be that someone he was ... tom from its earthly soil, my love now

knew only the heart-rending nostalgiafor what it lacked: a where, a sur

rounding, a before, and an after. (14)

To regain his sense of identity, Qfwfg returns to Earth. The Deaf One, again intuiting the true nature of things, recognizes desire may only be maintained through lack, and helps to drive the Moon-the object of his desire-away. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, whose passion proves stronger than Qfwfg's, remains on the moon, deciding that if the Deaf One loved "the distant Moon, then she too would remain distant on the Moon" (IS). As the moon swirls farther and farther away, Qfwfg can just make out Mrs. Vhd Vhd's body, already taking on the color of the moon. In renouncing her selfhood by uniting with the Moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd becomes the symbol for unattainable desire: "[it is] she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them" (16). As Qfwfg's tale of loss demonstrates, "The Distance of the Moon" is really the distance between desire and fulfillment, the distance between the impossible pre-symbolic unity Qfwfg yearns for and the rational world in which he must function.

Calvino's use of the Feminine serves to mark the space of the Other, to suggest the desire for a lost unity before the alienating arrival of sign and symbol. For Qfwfg, the pre-symbolic cannot be read or controlled-it eludes and exceeds the economy of textuality. Qfwfg's desire to control his identity-to master his circumstancesremains caught between two worlds. In stories such as "A Sign in Space" or "The Light-Years," Qfwfg loses himself at the level of signification; in stories such as "Without Colors," "The Aquatic Uncle" or "The Distance of the Moon," Qfwfg learns his identity may not bemaintainedat thelevelofpre-significationeither.In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan articulates Qfwfg's dilemma similarly:

We choose being, and the subject disappears, escapes us, falls into nonmeaning: we choose meaning, and it only survives shorn of the part of non-meaning which, strictly speaking, constitutes the unconscious in the construction of the subject. In other words, it is meaning's fate, as it emerges from the field of the Other, to be for a large part of its field eclipsed by the disappearance of being which has been induced by the very function of the signifier. (Smith qting Lacan 74)

Jane Gallop in a sense re-states Qfwfg's problem as well as suggesting an alternative to a subject's entrapment in either textuality or the presymbolic: "I hold the Lacanian view that any identity will necessarily be alien and constraining. But I do not seek some liberation from identity. That would lead to another form of paralysis-the oceanic passivity of undifferentiation. Identity must be continually assumed and immediately called into question" (Smith qting Gallop 149).

Two stories, "The Dinosaurs" and "The Spiral," serve to call identity into question, to unsettle Qfwfg's quest for self. "The Dinosaur," depicting Qfwfg's struggle to control an identity he cannot even assert, highlights such postmodern concerns as power, knowledge and the dynamics of interpretation. Qfwfg's story opens onto a landscape of death. As the last dinosaur, Qfwfg wanders alone in the midst of "a cemetery of fleshless carcasses, where only a crest or a horn or a scale of armor of a fragment of horny skin recalled the ancient splendor of the living creature" (97). Qfwfg thinks back, nostalgically, to apasterawhenheand hisspecieswieldedabsolutepower:"... ifyou were a Dinosaur in those days, you were sure you were in the right, and you made everyone look up to you" (97).

When Qfwfg re-emerges into the world, he finds it changed, populatedby"aflockof theNewOnes, smallspecimens,butstrong"(98). The dinosaur, long extinct, has become part of the New Ones' narrative memory, no longer an aspect of the "real" world. Consequently, Qfwfg is not recognized; the New Ones cannot make the connection between an actual dinosaur and the dinosaur of their myths. Their inability to recognize Qfwfg arouses both his fear and vanity: on the one hand, he fears their ultimate identification and its consequences and on the other, he desires to assert his identity, to say to them, in essence, "I am what you fear!"

Further,asQfwfglistensto theNewOnes'endlessnarratives about the dinosaurs, he also yearns to deny his identity altogether-to sever himself from his past. Qfwfg feels, finally, nothing but repugnance for their tacit admiration of the dinosaurs' past power and might. He realizes the New Ones' world is not new at all, but simply another version of the lost world of the dinosaurs, in all its pettiness and selfinterest:

... I knew the life of the Dinosaurs from within, I knew how we had been governed by narrow-mindedness, prejudice, unable to adapt ourselves to new situations. And I now had to see them take as a model that little world of ours, so backward and so-to tell the truthboring! ... Safe in their village with their dams and their ponds, they had also taken on a smugness, a presumptuousness ... and the more I heard them admiring the Dinosaurs the more I detested Dinosaurs and New Ones alike. (104)

Yet, Qfwfg cannot let go of the past. Over and over, he invites the New Ones to recognize his true identity. Even the discovery of a dinosaur fossil does not prompt their recognition, and instead the skeleton, ". . . those bones, those claws, those murderous limbs spoke a language now become illegible; they no longer said anything to anyone, except that vague name which had remained unconnected with the experiences of the present" (109).

For Qfwfg, however, the skeleton provokes profound recognition. He sees, finally, himself-in all his imperfections, power and poignancy: "I continued looking at the skeleton, the Father, the Brother, my Counterpart, my Self; I recognized my fleshless limbs, my lineaments carved in the stone, everything we had been and were no longer, our majesty, our faults, our ruin" (109). The skeleton, Qfwfg realizes, would become a hieroglyph, a new signifier the New Ones would incorporate into their ongoing narrative of the dinosaur. Qfwfg (re)buries the skeleton, but his attempted erasure does not stop the proliferation of narrative and interpretation. As the dinosaur stories at last appear to cease, Qfwfg realizes the real impact of the dinosaurs has only just begun. To his dismay, Qfwfg sees the dinosaurs' trace in all relations of power, fear and ignorance:

... now I knew that the more the Dinosaurs disappear, the more they extend their dominion, and over forests far more vast than those that cover the continents: in the labyrinth of the survivors' thoughts. From the semidarkness of fears and doubts of now ignorant generations, the Dinosaurs continued to extend their necks, to raise their taloned hoofs, and when the last shadow of their image had been erased, their name went on, superimposed on all meanings ... (111)

Ultimately, Qfwfg perceives he can no more control the dinosaurs' identity than he can control his own. This story, however, does not end in nostalgia. In a gesture that startles even in the context of Cosmicomics' fabulative world, Qfwfg abruptly turns his back on the old world and steps into the present: "I traveled through valleys and plains. I came to a station, caught the first train, and was lost in the crowd" (112).

Qfwfg's journey through the cosmos proceeds in spirals, his multiple origins marking higher and lower spots along the evolutionary chain. There is no clear progress in the course of Qfwfg's various lives, his stories overlay each other "in a drift of circularity," playing out the pattern of unity, complexity, loss and acceptance over and over again in a widening helix, enacting a spiral's "twofold movement of separation and renewal" (Barthes Reader 388). Repeatedly, Qfwfg's reach exceeds his grasp. His experience with sign and symbol demonstrates a world so steeped in meaning that it has lost all meaning, a world where textuality becomes "only a general thickness of signs superimposed and coagulated" (39), threatening to mark the same undifferentiated space as the pre-symbolic. We sense, however that Qfwfg's humorous and poignant attempts to control his world will not end in closure. Like the helical form the narrative follows, Qfwfg's consciousness begins to open to new possibilities, to a liberation realized in the book's radiant ending, "The Spiral."

"The Spiral" traces the genesis of artistic creation and aesthetic perception. Qfwfg, who at this point is only a cluster of undifferentiated cells, shows no desire to assert his identity, to relinquish the freedom of formlessness:

When you're young, all evolution lies before you, every road is open to you, ... if you compare yourself with the limitations that came afterwards, if you think of how having one form excludes other forms, of the monotonous routine where you finally feel trapped, well, I don't mind saying that life was beautiful in those days. (142)

But Qfwfg falls in love. His primal world enables him to sense the essence of a female mollusk, to receive her unique vibrations through the water:

... through that unmistakable part ofher still in solution in the sea water, which the waves placed about at my disposal, I received a quantity of information about her, more than you can imagine: not the superficial, generic information you get now, seeing and smelling and touching and hearing a voice, but essential information, ... (144-45).

In his desire to make her notice him, Qfwfg becomes motivated to "make" something, to create a form that she will be able to distinguish from "the indiscriminate instability of all the rest" (146). Qfwfg's creation of a shell to house his mollusk pulp not only punctuates his being-setting him apart from all the rest-but also brings to attention the question of form itself. The form Qfwfg creates is a spiral, the form Vladimir Nabokov refers to as a "spiritualized circle" for "in the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free" (275).

If, somewhat whimsically, a form could be used to depict the spirit of postmodernism, it would be the spiral. A line might represent thelogical progression of events in the realistic narratives of the nineteenth century, while the ironic mode of modernism might be depicted by a circle, its narrative line turning back on itself to enclose the modern novel's hollow core.

Theorists of postmodernism tell the same story: postmodernist writers have diligently learned the lessons of semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, etc., narratives that reiterate the cry of Beckett's Unnamable: "I'm in words, made of words, others' words ..." (386). Like both Qfwfg and the Unnamable, however, the postmodernist writer/critic yearns to escape his self-created prison-house of textuality, perceiving that the "immanence of language, the loss ofliterariness, and the denial ofhermeneutics, all three disperse our meanings" and give us "... no way to make sense of our texts or our lives, immersed as they are in an ever-changing sea of signifiers" (Hassan 202). The postmodernist writer thus circles around and around in his enlightened sea of signification, while continually striving both upward and outward to find a way around language and, at the same time, sensing there is something more than language. Calvino describes this impulse, the spiraling drive of [postmodern] Iiterature in his essay, "Cybernetics and Ghosts":

Did we say that literature is entirely involved with language, is merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions? But is the tension in literature not continually striving to escape from this finite number? Does it not continually attempt to say something that it cannot say, something that it does not know, and that no one could ever know? ... The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits ofwhatcan besaid; whatstirsliteratureis thecalland attentionofwhat is not in the dictionary. (The Uses of Literature 18)

There is something, the postmodernist senses, that eludes and/or transcends the economy of language: "The word 'and' trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes" (Mellard qting William James 135).

Qfwfg's creation of the spiral shell enacts the transcendence of the rnaterialsinvolved.Usingalanguageof "calcareousmatter" and" certain glands" (146), Qfwfg creates a spiral shell that becomes the subur-text for all future creation. Although Qfwfg makes the shell, "simply to express himself" (146)-again seeking to fix his identity-his creation enables the emergence of every subsequent form, for the world itself. Rather than arresting his identity-the object of an autobiographical quest-Qfwfg's spiral shell serves to disperse his essence throughout time and space; in effect, Qfwfg realizes he has become a part of everything: "... in making the shell, I had also made the rest" (148). The essence of his beloved, the female mollusk he sought to possess, becomes similarly dispersed-five hundred million years later, Qfwfg finds her everywhere: ".... in the photograph of the actress made up as Cleopatra, or perhaps in Cleopatra as she really was in person, for what part of the true Cleopatra they say every representation of Cleopatra contains, or in the queen bee flying at the head of the swarm ..." (149)

Yet, Qfwfg feels no loss. Transformed by love, Qfwfg can find her traces in everything feminine: "I might say I am in love with each of those girls and at the same time I am sure of being in love with her alone" (149). Though they are excluded from perceiving the forms they enabled-their creation results in everyone's vision but their own-Qfwfg and his female mollusk share a deeper union:

And at the bottom of each of those eyes I lived, or rather another me lived, one of the images of me, and it encountered the image of her, in that beyond that opens, past the semiliquid sphere of the irises, in the darkness of the pupils, the mirrored hall of the retinas, in our true element which extends without shores, without boundaries. (153)

Through love, Qfwfg finds an identity that exceeds his aborted textual constructions of himself. Like Borges, Qfwfg finds that in the midst of his struggles to articulate himself and world, he has been shaping his presence all along:

A man sets himself the task of drawing the world. Through the years he populates a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavens, horses, and persons. Shortly before dying, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face. (Heiney qting Borges 74)

ForQfwfg thisidentity incorporates theuniverse, an essence that"extends without shores, without boundaries."

Qfwfg's autobiography raises many postmodernist issues and dilemmas. In Qfwfg's comic confrontations with textuality, he highlights postmodernism's potential to create a form of II • writing that shimmers just a hair beyond utter blanknessJJ (Said343). Qfwfg's failure to possess the Other, to escape textuality altogether through an impossible union with the pre-symbolic, points to a nostalgia that may be inherent in postmodernism-the desire for an "at-one-ment" its theories have eradicated. Postmodernism yearns, therefore, to escape its own traps, or else risks becoming merely words colliding meaninglessly in space. To achieve its potential, to travel beyond the endless circling of language games, postmodernism must spiral towards renewal:

The time for sterility is past, grateful as we must remain to the masters of demystification. Derrida's carte postale does have both destiny and destination: it is the universe, a universe movingly informed by human will, mind, belief, whatever else may have formed it. Without some radiancy, wonder, wisdom, we all risk, in this postmodern clime, to become barren. (Hassan 229-30)

Though Calvino toys with beginnings in Cosmicomics-ostensibly the book treats various points of creation-the impasses Qfwfg repeatedly encounters during his thwarted autobiographical quest also suggest endings. Perhaps, the book's real beginning is in its ending, "The Spiral, JJ a story transcending both endings and beginnings, and suggesting in its "radiancy" and "wonder," an imaginative course for postmodernist renewal.

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE

WORKS CITED

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--.A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Bernadini-Napoletano, Francesca. I Segni Nuovi di Italo Calvino. Roma: Bulzoni, 1977. Calvino, Italo. Cosmicomics. San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt, 1965. --. The Uses of Literature. San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt, 1986.

--. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna: Longo Editore, 1981. Caramello, Charles. Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self, and Postmodern American Fiction. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1983. De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987. Hartman, Geoffrey. Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981. Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Culture. Ohio State UP, 1987. Heiney, Donald. "Calvino and Borges: Some Implications of Fantasy." Mundus Artium 2 (1971): 80-87. Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London and New York: Methuen, 1981. Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

--. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper, 1984. Lang, Candace D. Irony/Humor: Critical Paradigms. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988. McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London: Methuen, 1987. Mellard, James M. The Exploded Form: The Modernist Novel in America. Urbana, Chicago, London: U of Illinois P, 1980. Moi, Toril. "Feminist Literary Criticism." Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction. Ed. Anne Jefferson and David Robey. London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd., 1982. Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Capricorn Books, 1966. Said, Edward. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. Taylor, Mark C. Erring:A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1984. White, Curtis. "Italo Calvino and What's Next: The Literature of Monstrous Possibility." Iowa Review 14 (1984) 3: 128-39.

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