Conservatives, Progressives, and the Natural Law

by Michael Potemra


Cosmicomics, a series of stories by Italo Calvino published in 1965, is one of the most charming works of fiction of the 20th century. (You don’t need to take my word for it. A few years ago, Salman Rushdie concurred: “It’s a book I’ve gone back to again and again. It is possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve.”) I just reread it for the first time in a couple of decades, and it’s even better than I remembered. Basically, it’s a series of short memoirs written by an eyewitness to the early stages of the formation of the universe, and of the process of evolution on Earth.

One of my favorite chapters is an account of the era in which aquatic creatures first started to experiment with living on dry land. The narrator, named Qfwfq, reminisces: “Our family, I must say, including grandparents, was all up on the shore, padding about as if we had never known how to do anything else. If it hadn’t been for the obstinacy of our great-uncle N’ba N’ga, we would have long since lost all contact with the aquatic world. Yes, we had a great-uncle who was a fish, on my paternal grandmother’s side, to be precise. . . .”

Qfwfq eventually becomes engaged to Lll, a young creature who has even less connection to the life aquatic and is, as a consequence, a notorious land-snob; and he dreads the day he will have to introduce her to great-uncle N’ba N’ga, who is terribly bigoted against the land-dwellers, whom he condemns as short-sighted and faddish. The day finally arrives:

Lll, with her questions, tried to make him talk as much as possible about life under water; and, to be sure, this was the theme that elicited the most tightly knit, even emotional discourse from my great-uncle. . . . [In the water, he claimed], life would be maintained as it had gone on till then, in its achieved, perfect forms, without metamorphoses or additions with dubious outcome, to arrive at the essence of himself and of all things. My great-uncle spoke of the aquatic future without embellishments or illusions, he didn’t conceal the problems, even serious ones, that would arise (most worrying of all, the increase of saline content); but they were problems that wouldn’t upset the values and the proportions in which he believed.

At this point in the story, the reader is clearly meant to sympathize with the land-dwelling narrator and his fiancée; and in reading great-uncle N’ba N’ga’s opinions about the “achieved, perfect forms” of aquatic life, which help an individual “arrive at the essence of himself and of all things,” I couldn’t help thinking of American politicians who assert with great confidence their own opinions about “how things are supposed to be.” Calvino appears to pointing to these ideologists, and asking: Aren’t they like the sea creatures who refused to take the next evolutionary step, to live on land?

Ah, but the story doesn’t stop there. Qfwfq’s fiancée falls in love with the old man’s romantic presentation of underwater life; she breaks off the engagement, turns her back on her land-dwelling family, and takes to the sea. Qfwfq remonstrates with her: “Stop repeating that old fool’s nonsense. The world belongs to those with legs, not to fish, and you know it.” To which she responds that old great-uncle N’ba N’ga is “somebody who is somebody.”

Qfwfq must now face the future bravely:

It was a hard blow for me. But, after all, what could I do about it? I went on my way, in the midst of the world’s transformations, being transformed myself. Every now and then, among the many forms of living beings, I encountered one who “was somebody” more than I was: one who announced the future, the duck-billed platypus, . . . [or] a dinosaur who had survived into the beginning of the Cenozoic, or else —  a crocodile — part of the past that had discovered a way to remain immobile through the centuries. They all had something, I know, that made them somehow superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre. And yet I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.

And so our narrator’s belief in progress turns out to be just as “irrational” — just as much a romantic gesture, a personal act of faith — as his great-uncle’s attachment to the old ways of living in the sea. What looked like to be a satire of conservatism turns out to be an ironic comment at the expense of progressivism as well.

This story was my favorite. A high proportion of the other eleven are gems, too. Strongly recommended.