Lessons From Italo Calvino’s “Reading A Wave”

If I were a fictionalist, I would write in the analytical-introspective manner of Italo Calvino (1923-1985). In Calvino’s novel Mr. Palomar, we follow one man’s attempts to increase his inner awareness by increasing his consciousness of his surroundings. Mr. Palomar is a practicing phenomenologist who tries to understand the world through all of its perceived details and in each brief, self-contained chapter we read Mr. Palomar’s meditations on various topics. My favorite part of the novel is “Reading A Wave” (a sub-section of the chapter “Mr. Palomar On the Beach”) in which Calvino unpacks Mr. Palomar’s experience trying to describe the difficult to describe experience of watching a single ocean wave.

Mr. Palomar could charitably be described as a nervous control freak, and one of his strategies for dealing with the noise of the world is to reduce it by framing it in particular ways. In Mr. Palomar’s “desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object”, hoping that “the key to mastering the world’s complexity [is] by reducing it to its simplest mechanism.” But framing a single ocean wave is a difficult perceptual task that involves “separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away.” A wave is never in isolation and you can’t look at one wave “without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself generates.” Even so, Mr. Palomar believes he can somehow focus on the essence of a single wave at one point in time—to “simply see a wave–that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them.”

Finding it difficult to isolate a single wave, Mr. Palomar “now tries to limit his field of observation” by imagining a larger, 10 by 10 meter square for analysis. Within this frame “he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.” But this too is exhausting  work, because a lot happens within any arbitrarily chosen section of the ocean. By the end of the story Calvino reveals that the idealistic goal of Mr. Palomar’s observation exercise is to hack his own faculties of noticing: “Is this perhaps the real pursuit that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?”

As I read “Reading A Wave” it struck me as an excellent model for thinking through the difficulty of describing and writing about musical experience. The problem, simply put, is that music never stays still. It’s nothing but ceaseless movement. Even a “static” drone is continuous vibration over time. Like the breaking ocean waves, music ebbs and flows over durations. Another problem with music is that so much happens at once. It’s often composed of simultaneities. Even a simple song with voice and accompaniment contains several lines to pay attention to. And what about a fugue? Or polyrhythmic drumming? Maybe writing about music is like dancing about architecture!

What I take from “Mr. Palomar” is the intensity of his attempts to describe a single wave. Even if his enterprise is somewhat futile, I like that Palomar goes all in trying to pay attention to as many details as he can notice. I like too that he has established a “limited and precise object”—even if his choice of object is perhaps too fluid to submit to anything longer than a momentary descriptive capturing. Whatever the anxious origins of his motivations for perceptual precision, Mr. Palomar is doing the Difficult Critical Work of framing the world around him so to slow it down just long enough so he can take some of it in.

You can read “Mr. Palomar” here.

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