Six memos for THIS millennium (in Brazil)


Italo Calvino wrote five lectures with Memos for the next Millennium before he passed away in 1985. The lectures never happened, but the book on the Memos was released. He wrote 5 memos (lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity, and the last one, on consistency, was never written). The beauty of his work, at least to me, is his insightful effort to connect literature to society, by emphasizing the roles of literature in not only transcending life and constructing human relations, but also by restating time and again that literature is the result of intrinsic connections to hard sciences (such as exactitude), cultural studies and image from a sociological perspective (such as visibility), and societal relations (such as lightness and quickness).

As for lightness, he wrote: “whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space (…) the images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by realities of present and future” (p. 7). In quickness, he critiques: “The motor age has forced speed on us as a measurable quantity, the records of which are milestones in the history of the progress of both men and machines” (p. 45). Within a very self-critical movement, in exactitude, Calvino affirms that “It seems to me that language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner, and this distress me unbearably. Please don’t think that my reaction is the result of intolerance toward my neighbor: the worst discomfort of all comes from hearing myself speak” (p. 56). In relation to visibility, he presents us with this intriguing paradox: “we may distinguish between two types of imaginative processes: the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression” (p. 83). He also asks: “What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the ‘civilization of the image’?” (p. 91). With multiplicity, he beautifully ends the series of lectures with these questionings:

“Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable” (p. 124).

Well, inspired on Calvino’s Memos for the next Millennium, I would like to humbly share with the reader the same memos adapted for “the Brazil of 2021”, in which many of us witness the destruction of democracy and, even more sadly, we watch the death of more than 400,000 thousand Brazilians from COVID-19. Here we go:

LIGHTENESS: It is high time we started our relations (even with people we do not agree with) with lightness instead of heaviness. With the political arrangements (the President, the chamber of deputies and senators, the owners of mass media, and the richest 1%) of Brazil right now (and over the past centuries), things have gotten even heavier as Brazil has become a burden! Thus, perhaps Calvino’s choice of lightness might bring us not only hope, but comfort. QUICKNESS: Even though Calvino is mostly referring to short stories and poems as propellers of quickness in Literature, and although we recognize the value of the slow food movement, the slow yoga movements, amongst others, we – the progressives in this country – need this Memo if we are to unite and act against this dictatorship being implemented by Bolsonaro + supporters (by the way, all of them mentioned above). If we do not act quickly, the minority of “bolsonarians” – for their capacity to organize and shout on the streets followed by the incapacity of the left to quickly reunite and form a project –, they will tragically win again. Of course, this quickness is a first step; the second step is to fight against social and economic injustice – and this will be our fight. As for EXACTITUDE, I shall borrow Calvino’s critique on the use of words: “It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty – that is, the use of words” (p. 56) and, by doing this, I do not mean that language should be exact, but, along with Calvino’s, the use and manipulation of words (contemporarily known as fake news) is something that needs to be in the spotlight (in the polarized Brazil, one side is winning this game, and we know which side it is). In Brazil, it seems that, apart from the fields of Humanities, reading is not a daily practice for many Brazilians. There is quantitative research which indicates that the average Brazilian reads 2,4 books a year. Could this explain 1. the challenges of education in general, but also 2. The situation we are in right now, in terms of political choices and the level of critique of most Brazilians?

VISIBILITY: This is a short and striking one. We are in the society of the spectacle; we are in the society of fast images (Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook) in which youngsters avoid (more and more) written (long) texts. We can surrender to the manipulative power of images (specially in social media) or we can see images as micropolitics that have the potential to construct new worlds and new relations:

Finally, MULTIPLICITY: another short and striking Memo. We need multiple views of the world, of races, of genders, of sexualities, of peoples, of perspectives (this last one, however difficult it might be). As Calvino wisely stated: “Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable”.

I really struggled on how to end this text. I do think that Calvino’s memo has been a good exercise of thinking about sad Brazil of 2021. However, I will leave you with a final 6th Memo: HOPE, and an image:

Daniel Ferraz is a professor and teacher educator at the University of São Paulo.

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