Unreal Nature

January 24, 2020

Every Man Is Man-plus-things

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:04 am

… he is a man inasmuch as he recognizes himself in a number of things, he recognizes the human that has been in things, the self that has taken shape in things.

This is from ‘The Redemption of Objects’ found in Collection of Sand: Essays by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin (2001; 1984) :

… The Indian poet [Tagore], in a lecture given in Florence,

singled out amongst the deplorable vices of the West ‘the foolish pride in furniture.’ In fact it seems absurd that one should be proud of an elegant little table or of a chair in a certain style or of a pair of candelabra: what good does it do to decorate a house till it becomes beautiful, when the human spirit, according to philosophers and poets, can still proceed as supreme ruler amidst four poor walls.

… Then suddenly Praz rushes to marshal the opposing argument:

But immediately a doubt arises. Because such is the nature of these dear material things amidst which we live our lives that you can’t deny one of them without denying all of them at the same time. To have set my soul on a little table or chair that has caught my eye is a sin that is only slightly worse than setting my soul on a landscape …

And yet the contemplation of natural landscapes passes for being the most spiritual thing possible: so why then is the contemplation of furniture not the same, especially as ‘furniture obeys a law of economics which is the same as that which controls landscape’?

Praz affirms what he calls his ‘materialism,’ in other words the rejection of any spiritual asceticism (‘the truth is that I have a soft spot for fine furniture but no soft spot for Rabindranath Tagore’), but also the rejection of any reduction of the human to the bare nature of a biological or vitalistic or existential or psychological or merely economic entity.

The human is the trace that man leaves in things, it is the work, whether it is a famous masterpiece or the anonymous product of one particular epoch. It is the continuous dissemination of works and objects and signs that makes a civilization the habitat of our species, its second nature. If we deny this sphere of signs that surrounds us with its thick dust-cloud, man cannot survive. And again: every man is man-plus-things, he is a man inasmuch as he recognizes himself in a number of things, he recognizes the human that has been in things, the self that has taken shape in things.

My most recent previous post from Calvino’s book is here.

-Julie

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