A Farewell to Arms, by Italo CalvinoAnn Goldstein

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From “Sitting-Down Literature,” which was written in 1970 and is included in The Written World and the Unwritten World, out this month from Mariner Books. Translated from the Italian.

Sitting is indeed a bad thing, but riding on horseback is certainly no more hygienic. Literary people and horsemen have in common, among many other things, forcing the body into an unnatural position. Still, it’s better to be sitting than to be standing and getting varicose veins. Actually, all man’s ills stem from the decision to be a biped, when his nature wants him to distribute the weight of his body on four limbs. It should be said that by doing this our progenitors developed the ability of the hands, which were freed from the locomotor function, making human history possible. But I think that perfect equilibrium was achieved during the long era of dwelling in trees. Although the hands were needed to hold on to the branches and were not entirely available to learn techniques and skills, the varied structure of supports amid the branches constantly forced the human body into different positions and gave it the opportunity to display new talents. Think of how earthbound civilizations have humiliated the intelligence of the feet, encouraging the victory of an obtuse human offspring whose feet hug the ground with foolish and callous obstinacy, closing off the pathways of natural selection to those endowed with prehensile, versatile, industrious, nimbly digital, nervously tactile, musical feet.

However, the ice ages that drove us out of the trees, condemning us to a life that isn’t ours, were irreversible. We can’t turn back. We have constructed a world for seated bipeds that no longer has anything to do with our body, a world that will be inherited by the organisms best adapted to survive in it. I spend a large part of my life sitting still at a desk, and for me, the shape that would be most comfortable to assume is the snake’s. Wrapped in its coils the snake distributes its weight uniformly over its whole body and can transmit every last movement to all its limbs, keeping them exercised even without moving. I realize that a myself-snake, having only the tail available for all manual operations, would see some capacities connected to the work of the hands diminished, from typewriting to the use of reference books, from counting on one’s fingers to biting one’s nails, et cetera.

So then the perfect shape would be that of the octopus or the giant squid, whose redundancy of limbs with great locomotor-prehensile-positional versatility would become an incentive to new operational talents, new methodologies and habits. In addition to everything else, the octopus would be very good at driving a car. It’s clear, therefore, that it will be the octopus who takes our place. The world we have constructed is made in its image and semblance: we have worked for the octopus.


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