Calvino

(1923-1985)

Introduction - Text - Group Work

Introduction

We’ll be using Calvino’s short story to analyze rhetorical structure and to compare the effects of TV and the Net. Keep in mind that your second essay deals with TV structure (see Migglebrink’s article on Mad Men as TV serial) and that your third essay requires you to think about the difference between the Net and previous media (TV, books, newspapers, etc.). Many of your final essay topics are the same ones Calvino looks at in this story — cognition, psychology, media, human relations, romance, religion, and politics.

On the surface, Calvino is writing about addiction to channel-surfing, yet he’s also suggesting a number of things about living in reality versus fantasy. He applies his points directly to media, psychology, politics, and romance, yet they can also be applied to religion and philosophy.

Style & Structure

Calvino’s unstable narrator follows in the tradition of “Diary of a Madman” (Gogol, 1835), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (Poe, 1843), and “The Diary of a Madman” (Lu Xun, 1918). Why does Calvino use a narrator who is psychologically unstable? Why does he initially hint that his narrator may be criminally insane? How does his remote resemble a gun?

Looking at the text as a long block structure (see “Block & Splice” in Rhetoric), notice how the love story enters very late — in paragraph 8. Why?

Where does the narrator shift from concrete detail to abstraction? Where does he go from abstract (theoretical or detached) to abstruse (obscure or confusing)? Why? Where does he shift from being reasonable to being unreasonable? What insight can be gleaned from even his strangest, most abstruse points?

TV & the Net

In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr begins by noting that he gets distracted when reading a longer text. He says, “my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages … what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (paras. 2, 4). How does this compare to what the narrator says in paragraph 3? (The complete text is below these questions; I’ve numbered the paragraphs).

The first wrong idea they fabricated about me is that my concentration can’t follow for more than a few minutes a coherent flow of images, and that my mind is only capable of grasping fragments of stories or arguments, as if they had no beginnings or endings. In brief, as if the thread in my mind that connected the fabric of the world had snapped. (3)

What happens if in reading Calvino you switch channel to website, changing the channel to surfing the Net, and remote to keyboard or mouse? When the narrator talks about a perfect version of romance with Volumnia (8-10), how might this be similar to searching for that perfect match on Badoo, Plenty of Fish, Match.com, Tinder, OkCupid, Ashley Madison, Adult FriendFinder, eharmony, etc.?

McLuhen & the Surfboard

The term for electronic surfing may have been anticipated by Marshall McLuhen, who wrote in 1962 that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (The Gutenberg Galaxy). In 1964, McLuhen coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to suggest that the medium we use affects us more than any particular message we get or give in that medium.

Media may appear to change our view of the world with its powerful lens, yet the real power may also reside in the structures of the world around us, which are biological, geographical, historical, economic, parental, familial, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, religious, social, political, etc. Calvino refers to these larger — and perhaps more powerful — structures toward the end of his story:

it’s fine to change channels, but the programme is always the same — or it might as well be. Whether it’s a film or news or an ad that gets transmitted, the message from all the stations is the same because everything and everybody are part of the same system. Even outside the screen, the system invades everything and only leaves space for apparent change. (7)

The ideas of Calvino’s protagonist apply most obviously to media, psychology, politics, and romance, yet they can also be applied philosophically and religiously. For instance, he perhaps hints at alternate dimensions, parallel universes, or even the religious notion that there’s a higher plane of existence (as in Augustine’s famous fifth-century City of God):

I’m convinced that there’s a meaning to the events of this world, that there’s a coherent story, justified in all of its series of causes and effects, taking place right now somewhere out there, not out of reach, and that this contains the key to judge and understand everything else. (3B)

If I don't stop to watch any of these programmes it's because the one I’m searching for is a different one. I’m sure it’s there, and I’m sure it’s none of these — which they transmit for the sole purpose of drawing us into deceit, or discouraging people like me who believe that it’s what’s on the other channel that counts. (3C)

Meanwhile the real programme is travelling along the paths of the ether on a frequency I don't know, perhaps losing itself in space where I won’t be able to intercept it. (4)

I know that our city could be the happiest in the world, I know that it already is — not here on the wavelength where I operate, but on another band of frequency. (5B)

Maybe by changing channel I wasn't trying to disrupt all the other channels but looking for something that any programme could communicate if only it were not corroded within by the worm that perverts everything that surrounds my existence. (6)

Text

The Farthest Channel

“The Farthest Channel” was first published in la Repubblica, January 31, 1984. I’ve numbered the paragraphs, and for three of the long paragraphs I’ve included lettered sub-sections. Trans. RYC]

The Farthest Channel

1 —- My thumb presses down independently from my will: from moment by moment, at irregular intervals, I feel the need to push, to press, to release an impulse sudden as a bullet. If this is what they meant when they conceded to me partial insanity, they got it right. But they’re mistaken if they believe that there was no design or clear intention in my actions. Only now, in the padded and varnished calm of this small hospital room, can I deny the strange things that I was forced to hear about me at the trial — spoken as much by the defence as by the prosecution. With this report, which I hope to send to the appeal magistrates (though my defence lawyers are determined at all costs to prevent me), I intend to reinstate the truth — the only truth, my own truth — if ever anyone is able to understand it.

2 —- The doctors also flounder in the dark, but at least they look with favour on my intention to write, and have given me this typewriter and this ream of paper. They think this represents an improvement, and that this is due to the fact that I now find myself confined to a room that doesn’t have a television. They attribute the ending of the spasm that contracted my hand to their having deprived me of the small object that I was holding when I was arrested, and that I succeeded (the convulsions I threatened when they grabbed it from me were real) to keep with me throughout my detention, interrogation, and trial. (How else could I have explained — albeit without convincing them — what I did and why I did it, if not by showing them that the instrument of my crime had become a part of my body?)

3 —- A —- The first wrong idea they fabricated about me is that my concentration can’t follow for more than a few minutes a coherent flow of images, and that my mind is only capable of grasping fragments of stories or arguments, as if they had no beginnings or endings. In brief, as if the thread in my mind that connected the fabric of the world had snapped. But that’s not true. The proof they gave to support their thesis — the way I sit frozen in front of the television for hours without following any one program, driven by an impulsive tic to jump from one channel to the next — can also be used to prove the opposite. —- B —- I’m convinced that there’s a meaning to the events of this world, that there’s a coherent story, justified in all of its series of causes and effects, taking place right now somewhere out there, not out of reach, and that this contains the key to judge and understand everything else. It’s this conviction that keeps me nailed to one spot, staring at the screen with dazzled eyes while the frenetic clicks of the remote control make things appear and disappear — interviews with ministers, the embrace of lovers, deodorant ads, rock concerts, people being arrested and hiding their faces, rocket launches into space, gunfights in the Wild West, pirouettes of dancers, boxing matches, quiz shows, Samurai duels. —- C —- If I don't stop to watch any of these programmes it's because the one I’m searching for is a different one. I’m sure it’s there, and I’m sure it’s none of these — which they transmit for the sole purpose of drawing us into deceit, or discouraging people like me who believe that it’s what’s on the other channel that counts. That’s why I continue to go from one channel to the next — not because my mind is no longer capable of concentrating for even the time it takes to follow a film, or a dialogue, or a horse race. —- D —-Quite the opposite: my attention is already completely directed on something that I absolutely can’t miss, something unique that’s happening in this moment — while at the same time my TV is being cluttered with superficial and interchangeable images, with a show that’s already started and of course I’ve therefore missed the beginning, and if I don’t hurry up I run the risk of missing the end. My finger jumps on the buttons, rejecting the wrappings of vain appearance like the superimposed layers of a many-coloured onion.

4 —- Meanwhile the real programme is travelling along the paths of the ether on a frequency I don't know, perhaps losing itself in space where I won’t be able to intercept it. There’s an unknown station that’s transmitting a story about me, my story, the only story that can explain to me who I am, where I come from, and where I’m going. The only relation that I can establish with my story is a negative one — to reject the other stories, to discard all the lying images they propose to me. The press of the button is the bridge I throw out to that other bridge that opens like a fan in the void, and that my harpoons still haven’t been able to hook onto — two unfinished bridges of electromagnetic pulses that don’t connect and that lose themselves in the dust of a fragmented world.

5 —- A —- It was when I understood this that I started brandishing the remote not at the TV but out the window — at the city, its lights, its neon signs, the façades of the skyscrapers, the pinnacles of the roofs, the legs of the cranes with their long iron beaks, the clouds. Then I went out in the streets with the remote control hidden under my coat, pointed like a weapon. At the trial they said I hated the city, that I wanted to make it disappear, that I was driven by an impulse of destructive. That's not true. I love, I’ve always loved our city, its two rivers, the precious little squares treed like lakes in the shade, the heart-rending miaows of its ambulances, the wind that threads into the avenues, the crumpled newspapers that flit along the ground like tired hens. —- B —- I know that our city could be the happiest in the world, I know that it already is — not here on the wavelength where I operate, but on another band of frequency. It's there that the city I've lived in all my life finally becomes my home. That's the channel I was trying to tune into when I was pointing the remote at the sparkling windows of the jewellers', at the majestic façades of the banks, at the awnings and revolving doors of the big hotels. Guiding my actions was the desire to save all the stories in one story that would also be mine — not the threatening and obsessive malevolence of which I’ve been accused.

6 —- All of them floundered in the dark — the police, the magistrates, the psychiatric experts, the lawyers, and the journalists. “Conditioned by the compulsive need to change the channel continually, a maddened TV viewer goes crazy and tries to change the world with his remote” — that’s the characterization that with few variations served to define my case. But the psychological tests always ruled out that there was in me any aspiration to be subversive. Even my response to programmes presently transmitted is not far off average levels of acceptance. Maybe by changing channel I wasn't trying to disrupt all the other channels but looking for something that any programme could communicate if only it were not corroded within by the worm that perverts everything that surrounds my existence.

7 —- A —- So they contrived another theory, one that would bring me back to my senses, or so they say. They even claim that my having convinced myself created the unconscious brake that stopped me from committing the criminal acts they thought I was going to commit. This is the theory according to which it’s nice to change channels, but the programme is always the same — or it might as well be. Whether it’s a film or news or an ad that gets transmitted, the message from all the stations is the same because everything and everybody are part of the same system. Even outside the screen, the system invades everything and only leaves space for apparent change; so that whether I get restless with the remote or whether my hands stay in my pockets, it doesn’t make a difference, because I'll never escape from the system. —- B —- I don't know if those who support these ideas believe in them or if they only talk about them to get me involved; in any case, they never had any hold over me because they can’t even dent my conviction about the essence of things. For me, what counts in the world aren’t the similarities but the differences — differences that can be big or small, minuscule, even imperceptible — but what matters is to bring them out and compare them. I also know that going from channel to channel creates the impression that it's the same old story; and I know that the circumstances of life are narrowed by a necessity that doesn’t allow for much variety — but it’s in this gap that the secret lies, the spark that puts into motion the machine of consequences, and as a result the differences become noticeable, big, huge, even infinite. —- C —- I look at the things around me — all twisted — and think that the tiniest nothing would have made the difference. An error avoided at a certain moment, a yes or a no, would have led to a completely different outcome, even while it left intact the general frame of circumstances. Things so simple, so natural that I was constantly waiting for them to reveal themselves at any moment. Thinking this and pressing the buttons of the remote were the same.

8 —- With Volumnia I believed that I’d finally hit on the right channel. In fact, during the early days of our relationship, I gave the remote a rest. I liked everything about her — the tobacco-coloured bun, the deep voice, the baggy trousers and pointed boots, the passion she shared with me for bulldogs and cactuses. I found her parents equally pleasing — the places where they invested in real estate and where we spent invigorating vacations, as well as the insurance company in which Volumnia's father had promised me a creative job with profit-sharing after our marriage. All doubts, objections, and conjectures that didn’t lead in the right direction I tried to chase from my mind. Yet when I realized that they returned even stronger, I started to ask myself if the little cracks, misunderstandings, and embarrassments that had so far seemed vaguely momentary and marginal might not be interpreted as omens for our future prospects. Hidden within our happiness was perhaps the feeling of contrivance and boredom that’s like a bad TV serial. Yet this didn’t lessen my conviction that Volumnia and I were made for each other. Perhaps on another channel an identical couple — but to whom destiny had granted ever so slightly different gifts — was about to live a life a hundred times more attractive . . .

9 —- It was in this spirit that I raised my arm that morning, grasped the remote control, and pointed it at the basket of white camellias, at the bonnet garnished with blue grapes worn by Volumnia's mother, the pearl on her father's ascot tie, the stole of the priest, the veil embroidered with silver and worn by the bride … The gesture, at the moment in which the whole congregation awaited my 'yes', was misunderstood — first of all by Volumnia, who saw it as a rejection, an irreparable wound. But all I meant was that over there, on that other channel, the story of Volumnia and I was racing away from the jubilant notes of the organ and the flash of the photographers, and that it had many more things that made it resonate with the truth of her and I . . .

10 —- Perhaps on that farthest channel our story isn’t over. Volumnia continues to love me, while here in this world I can’t get her to understand my reasoning. She doesn't even want to see me any more. I never recovered from that violent rupture. Ever since then I started living the life that the newspapers describe as that of a homeless mental case who wanders the streets armed with his queer gadget… And yet my reasons were as clear as ever: I understood that I had to start at the top. If things go wrong on all the channels, there has to be a farthest channel that isn’t like the others, one on which the government isn’t so different from our own, yet on which it has within it a small difference in character, in mentality, in questions of conscience, and on which they could stop the cracks that creep into the foundations, and with these the mutual suspicion, the degradation of human relations …

11 —- But the police had me in their sights for some time now. I made room for myself among the crowds pressing in to see the Heads of State get out of their cars for the big meeting. I snuck through the glass doors of the building, and tried to get passed the security. I didn’t have time to raise my arm with the remote pointed, before they were on top of me and dragged me away, even though I protested that I didn’t want to interrupt the ceremony. I just wanted to see what was on the other channel, out of curiosity, just for a couple of seconds.

Group Work

Choose one of the six topics below, develop a thesis statement in response to the final question, and provide support from the text.  

1. Narrator & Frame. Why does Calvino use a narrator who is psychologically unstable? Why does he initially hint that his narrator may be criminally insane? How does his remote resemble a gun? What do you think Calvino is saying, in light of the opening and closing scenarios?

2. Romance & Structure. Why does the love story enter so late? When the narrator talks about a perfect version of romance with Volumnia (8-10), how might this be similar to searching for that perfect match on the Net? What is Calvino suggesting about human psychology?

3. Carr. In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr begins by noting that he gets distracted when reading a longer text. How does this compare to the narrator’s experience? What is Calvino suggesting about obsession and addiction?

4. Media. What happens if in reading Calvino you switch channel to website, changing the channel to surfing the Net, and remote to keyboard or mouse? What common point about media emerges from the text?

5. Politics & Society. Media is powerful, yet in paragraph seven (and elsewhere) Calvino suggests that more power resides in the structures of the world around us. What is Calvino suggesting about the relation of media to these other structures?  

6. Religion. What do you think Calvino is suggesting about alternate dimensions, parallel universes, or even the religious notion that there’s a higher plane of existence?

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