[Khan Lee, "Red, Green and Blue" (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2017). Foto Rb]

That Italo Calvino anticipated posthuman concerns is a matter that has recently sparked much interest in Calvino’s scholars. As Serenella Iovino maintains, from the trilogy Our Ancestors of the Fifties until Palomar in the Eighties there is an underlying reference to matters of borders in Calvino’s narrative and, more specifically, to the borders of the “human”. Iovino states that in Calvino “rather than being a fixed essence in its purity, the human is indeed a porous category of ‘becoming’, open to hybridization and negotiations” with other species, inanimate beings, technological artefacts.[1]

Given the multiple definitions of “posthumanism” within the humanities’ debate, I should clarify that, with the term “posthuman subject”, I refer to the new vitalistic, unbound, relational being that emerged in post-modernity following the loss of centrality of the human. This is a subject that defies the traditional epistemology grounded in the centrality of the human and in the primacy of consciousness and language over inert matter. In this new scenario, inert matter, animals and technological artefacts negotiate their agency with the human. In this context, borders and boundaries between the human and non-human world become blurred.

Based on these premises, the purpose of my article is not to prove that Calvino anticipated posthumanism, which has already been done, but rather to link his prefiguration of posthumanism in the Fifties to his adoption of a narrative model of the 18th century which - at the precise moment when humanism was canonized - managed to challenge the very foundation of it. I am talking about Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767).

All of Calvino’s narratives of the trilogy Our Ancestors can be seen as displaying a strong interest towards the boundaries and limits of the human, but especially The Baron in the Trees (1957) and The Non-Existent Knight (1959). In the latter, a shiny armour acts and lives without a body in it, thus Calvino seems to give agency to an inanimate object. In The Baron in the Trees, a boy climbs up a tree and lives in the treetop for the rest of his life without ever getting down once. Cosimo Piovasco becomes therefore a hybrid, half monkey and half human, who defies the law of gravity and all possible rules of social conduct through his decision of living on a threshold, sustained by a pure act of self-determination.

What makes the The Baron in the Trees particularly interesting for Calvino’s scholars is that it is also his conceited intellectual autobiography and therefore is a fitting text to explore Calvino’s ideological and political positioning, as well as his poetics.

If we accept that Calvino’s reflections on posthuman topics started more or less around the mid-Fifties, it does not seem to be a coincidence that The Baron in the Trees is set in the time of Enlightenment, in the 18th century. It seems perfectly becoming of Calvino’s playful and analytical mind that as he set to reflect upon, and possibly challenge, the principles of humanism, he decided to set his novel precisely in the time when humanism consolidated itself: “It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, my brother, sat among us for the last time”.[2]

It is in the time of Enlightenment when the humanistic conceit of human primacy that has shaped Western consciousness took hold and grounded itself in the Cartesian cogito: Cogito ergo sum. The Cartesian cogito, first formulated in Discours de la method (1637) and then in Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641), posits the centrality and omnipotence of the human, his ability to rule the irrational chaotic ontology of passive matter and give it a shape and a voice through linguistic articulation. Thus the Cartesian cogito validates man’s centrality and his superiority over other beings in light of his ability to reflect upon the self and express identity through language. Within this paradigm, human language is the tool to signify this progressive tension to perfectibility through creation of knowledge and also to assert the dominance of the human subject over what is deemed to be inert matter: the environment, non-human animals and, up to a certain point, the female subject.[3]

From this viewpoint, we could be led to believe that The Baron in the Trees suggests a celebration, rather than a condemnation, of the Cartesian principle. The protagonist, Cosimo Piovasco, decides to colonize an area of the world in which no other human beings had permanently set their homes, thus exemplifying the ability of the human to dominate nature and matter by an effort of self-determination. It is the primacy of thought and will-power over nature. It points to the perfectibility of human beings.

However, Cosimo will be precisely the one to question this paradigm when, at the time of the French Revolution, proposes his own project of ecumenical constitution with posthuman undertones:

“Cosimo, by the way, had at that time written and published a ‘Constitutional Project for a Republican City with a Declaration of the Rights of Men, Women, Children, Domestic and Wild Animals, Including Birds, Fishes and Insects, and All Vegetation, whether Trees, Vegetable, or Grass.’ It was a very fine work, which could have been a useful guide to any government; but which no one took any notice of, and it remained a dead letter”.[4]

Also - and this is the crucial aspect enabling us to link The Baron to Tristram Shandy - at the end of the novel the narrator Biagio reveals the fictional nature of the story we have just read. After Cosimo ends his life carried away by two aeronauts on a hot-air balloon, Biagio stares at the mesh of leaves and branches which had been the stage of Cosimo’s existence, and notes:

“Ombrosa no longer exists. Looking at the empty sky, I ask myself if it ever did really exist. That mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth, minute and endless, with the sky glimpsed only in sudden specks and splinters, perhaps it was only there so that my brother could pass thorugh it with his tomtit’s tread, was embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps […] surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves and clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends”.[5]

Calvino/Biagio addresses the reader directly and disrupts his suspension of disbelief using what generations of scholars after the Russian Viktor Shklovsky have called “defamiliarization effect” or ostranenie.[6] Essentially, Calvino calls a spade a spade, and a tale a tale. He warns the reader that Cosimo’s story was a fiction and that his life was none else than a thread of ink.

In addition, and interestingly so, the thread of ink observed by Biagio is not a linear and straight one, as could be expected of a narrator who deemed himself a supporter of the “straight line”;[7] instead, it is a wandering, windy and intermittent line similar to the scribble drawn by Sterne upon completing volume VI of his Tristram Shandy. What follows are two drawings of the line accompanied by the narrator’s comment:

“I am now beginning to get fairly into my work; and by the help of a vegetable diet, with a few of the cold feeds, I make no doubts but I shall be able to go on with my uncle’s Toby story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line. Now,
These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third and fourth volumes. In the fifth volume I have been very good, the precise line I have described in it being this:”[8]

Why is it so interesting for us that Calvino was thinking of Tristram Shandy as one of his models? More to the point, why is this so important in relation to the posthuman discourse which Calvino seems to undertake through The Baron in the Trees?

We can say that around the time in which the new “species of writing”, that is the novel, was born, the majority of novelistic texts seemed to be intent at demonstrating the authenticity of the Cartesian principle, “I think therefore I am”. If one thinks of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, these are all Bildungsromans centred on the idea of self-examination or self-reflection. The identity of the subject is built through reflection upon his/her actions and thoughts, and is expressed through a linear, chronologically sound and reasonably rational account.

Instead, Sterne’s novel is a masterpiece of procrastination and digression. After the first two volumes in which the author expresses his opinions and attempts to recount Tristram’s story, the protagonist is not even born! Indeed, Tristram Shandy’s account emphasized

“how individual existence was crucially linked to experience and duration, the individual being no longer conceived as a stable moral and social fact, but as the result of a progress and a series of exchanges. The Cartesian Cogito was replaced by a new proposal:  ‘I experience myself in time, therefore I am’”.[9]

In other words, in Tristram Shandy, despite the domineering stamina of the narrating voice, subjectivity is seen as elusive, hence the gap between thought and action is constantly underlined. Dragged away by his opinions, “Tristram is a creature of time prior to being a creature in time”,[10] that is Tristram is subject to the tyranny of his own senses and “fancies” through which his identity manifests as fluctuation, instability and procrastination. Thus Sterne’s squiggly line symbolizes the limits of the Cartesian cogito in the struggle between man and pen…

Equally, when Calvino emphasizes at the end of his novel that Cosimo’s subjectivity is no more than a thread of ink whose existence is no longer certain, what he does is to challenge the primacy of man and his ability to dominate existence, human and non-human, through language.

What is indeed remarkable is that neither Calvino seems to acknowledge Sterne as one of his models at these early stages, nor he adopts in The Baron in the Trees any of the distinctive features of Sterne’s digressive narrative style. However, as I demonstrated elsewhere,[11] by the time Calvino wrote The Baron in the Trees, published in 1957, he had either read Sterne’s novel in the English original or had just read the manuscript of the Italian translation published by Einaudi in 1958 with a foreword by his friend Carlo Levi.

In essence, Calvino’s adaptation of the Tristram Shandy’s invention in The Baron can be gleaned in the adoption of a suspended dwelling for his protagonist Cosimo. Like his ancestor Tristram, who commits himself to the constant procrastination of his narrative time and lives in the dimension of an unlimited duration, Cosimo also chooses to spend his entire life in the obstinate seclusion of his own existence-in-time where he can experience his own “becoming”.

In a sense then, whilst adopting a straight line in his narrative, Calvino seems to playfully accept the challenge which Sterne throws at the end of volume VI, when the narrator announces that he is about to give an account of his uncle Toby’s love affairs in a reasonably straight line, and adds:

“Pray can you tell me, - that is, without anger, before I write my chapter upon straight lines - by what mistake - who told them so - or how it has come to pass, that your men of wit and genius have all along confounded this line, with the line of GRAVITATION”.[12]

Despite his conscious adoption of a straight narrative line, Calvino invents a character - an autobiographical one - which represents a constant challenge to the law of gravity and, like Tristram, exists in his own posthuman space and time.

[1] S. Iovino, “Storie dell’altro mondo. Calvino post-umano”, MLN 129 (2014), p. 118.
[2] I. Calvino, The Baron in the Trees, translated by Archibald Colquhoun, Orlando, Harcourt Brace, 1976, p. 3.
[3] On this topic, see at least R. Braidotti, The Posthuman, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013. Also, by the same author, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti, New York, Columbia University Press, 2011.
[4] I. Calvino, The Baron in the Trees, p. 205.
[5] Ibid., p. 217.
[6] First coined by Shklovsky in 1917, the concept of ostranenie is illustrated in V. Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, Normal, Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
[7] I. Calvino, Lezioni Americane, in Saggi, vol. I, Milano, Mondadori, 1995, pp. 669-670.
[8] L. Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, edited with an introduction and notes by Ian Campbell Ross, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 379-380.
[9] “‘That Infinite Variety of Human Forms’: Modern Identity and Portraiture in Enlightenment England”, in Life Forms in the Thinking of the Long Eighteenth Century, edited by Keith Michael Baker and Jenna M. Gibbs, University of Toronto Press, 2016, pp. 97-98.
[10] G. Alfano, L’umorismo letterario. Una lunga storia europea (secoli xiv-xx), Roma, Carocci, 2016,  p. 112. This book is a recent ground-breaking investigation of the root of humour and its mercurial subject, which Alfano traces all the way back to Petrarch.
[11]E. M. Ferrara, Calvino e il mare dell’altro, Napoli, Magma, 1999; digital edition 2008, http://www.euromedi.org/home/azioni/pubblicazioni/cultura/calvino/
[12] L. Sterne, Tristram Shandy, p. 381.