Saturday , April 20 2024
Reflections on life, death, Daisaku Ikeda, sports, hookahs and the eternal sea

Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar

Revered experimental fiction author Italo Calvino is new to me, although he has been writing and winning honors since long before I was born. Mr. Palomar is one of his landmark novels. What's it about?

In one chapter, the protagonist goes to the beach; not to watch the waves, but to completely isolate and analyze — dissect almost, with his intellect — a single wave. The task he has set for himself is impossible to accomplish. So, "Mr. Palomar goes off along the beach, tense and nervous as when he came, and even more unsure about everything."

Poor Mr. Palomar. How many people fall victim to the "scientific" mindset and end up as stressed out and unhappy as Mr. Palomar? It brings to mind the writings of musicologist Christopher Small. From his book Music, Society, Education I learned that Rene Descartes philosophically chopped up everything, the mysterious whole, into categories; humans divided from nature, individual cut off from community, mind severed from body, and spirit divorced from intellect. And most of science acts as if these categories are true. When really they are about as useful as the self-imposed task of Mr. Palomar to analyze a single wave on the vast sea.

Calvino's descriptions of the waves brought to mind a writing of SGI Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda. He uses the ocean as a metaphor for the eternity of life. We in our individual bodies in this life are like waves on the ocean. When we die, it is as if our wave has crashed and reunited with the whole mysterious ocean, or cosmic sea of life, only to rise again as another wave. As Mr. Palomar observed at the beach (much to his chagrin), there truly is no separation between one wave and another. No separation between one life and another. No separation between you and me.

In another section of the novel,

"Mr. Palomar decides that from now on he will act as if he were dead… The gaze of the dead is always a bit deprecatory. Places, situations, occasions are more or less what one already knew, and recognizing them always affords a certain satisfaction… The dead should no longer give a damn about anything, because it is not up to them to think about it anymore; and even if that may seem immoral, it is in this irresponsibility that the dead find their gaiety.

The more Mr. Palomar's spiritual condition approaches the one here described, the more the idea of being dead seems natural to him."

This brings to mind a character in Colin Riggins' screenplay Harold and Maude. It pre-dates Mr. Palomar by almost two decades. In particular I'm thinking of the following bits of dialog from the transcript.


We see 19-year-old Harold in a psychiatrist's office, sent there by his ostentatiously wealthy mother after he staged one-too-many fake suicides to try and let her know how he suffered and to freak her out.

Tell me, Harold,
what do you do for fun?
What activity gives you a different
sense of enjoyment from the others?
What do you find fulfilling?
What gives you that special…

I go to funerals.

Later, Harold meets Maude, a 79-year-old survivor of a WWII Nazi concentration camp, who decided to embrace life with every molecule of her being. In the scene where they recline in kimonos, smoking a hookah in Maude's parked railcar, converted into sumptuous bohemian domesticity, they reflect on death and life.

I haven't lived.
I've died a few times.

What was that?

Well… The first time… these two policemen…told (my mother)
that I was killed in the fire.
She put one hand up to her forehead,
the other one she reached out
as if groping for support,
and with this long sigh,
she collapsed in their arms.
I decided right then
that I enjoyed being dead.

I understand.
A lot of people enjoy being dead
but they're not dead really.
They're just backing away from life.
Reach out and take a chance,
get hurt even,
but play as well as you can.
Go team, go!
Gimme an L, gimme an I,
gimme a V, gimme an E.
L-I-V-E, live.
Otherwise you got nothing
to talk about in the locker room.

Colin Higgins said he believes his movie has endured because, "We're all Harold, and we all want to be Maude."

Mr. Palomar, in these sections of Calvino's novel, does not seem to have met his Maude, or Daisaku Ikeda, to show him another way. He seems stuck as pre-Maude Harold, chewing on the concept of living death like a dog worrying a bone.

About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.

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