Scales of Responsibility
The Dark Side of Italo Calvino
Maria Anna Mariani, University of Chicago
Introduction by Rebecca Falkoff, NYU
This lecture offers a very different picture of Italo Calvino from the idea of fairy tales and lightness that has been etched into our collective imagination. For his entire career, Calvino was preoccupied with the problem of atomic energy and nuclear weapons and wrote extensively about it—and yet this subject matter, so intrinsic to his production, has been almost unanimously overlooked. This lecture proposes a possible atomic genealogy for the “cosmic turning point” in Calvino’s work—a break in his intellectual trajectory that has been widely discussed and at times denigrated as an evasion from the human and a nihilistic dispersal into the animate and inanimate objects of the universe. Against this common interpretation, the aim of Prof. Mariani is to demonstrate that escapist intentions are the furthest thing from his words. On the contrary, what comes through is the urgency of a moral imperative to adapt human’s behavior to the most expanded scales of time and space. It is precisely in a cluster of writings on nuclear power that we first encounter this moral imperative. By analyzing these texts—on the goats sacrificed for the Crossroad tests in Bikini island, on the neutron bomb, and on the eternity of nuclear waste—we will appreciate how Calvino exorts us to vastly expand our sphere of responsibility and to recognize the necessary interdependence between the human and the non-human.
Maria Anna Mariani is Assistant Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Chicago. She is the author of the scholarly books Primo Levi e Anna Frank. Tra testimonianza e letteratura (Carocci 2018), and Sull’autobiografia contemporanea. Nathalie Sarraute, Elias Canetti, Alice Munro, Primo Levi (Carocci 2012). She also published the fictionalized reportages Voci da Uber (Mucchi 2019) and Dalla Corea del Sud (Exòrma 2017). Her current book project, Italy and the Bomb: A Poetics of the Bystander, reconstructs the Italian cultural response to the nuclear threat, especially in the works of Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Leonardo Sciascia.