Life moves fast, or at any rate inexorably. While we continue to process one moment, the next is here. Creativity, especially when undertaken in solitude, can feel like an artificial pause, a temporary withdrawal from the world in order to take stock and articulate your impressions. This is one kind of artistic control: the discipline of subtracting yourself from the action and getting down to work.
Another kind of control is that which an artist exerts on her material, appropriating information and observations and recasting them into something new. By articulating the unarticulated, imposing order and form on what was disorderly and amorphous, an artist apprehends her subject and comes to possess it by expressing it in her terms.
Then there is technical control: the micromanaging of words (or chords, or brushstrokes, or échappés), until a truce between ambition and achievability is reached. The seeming infinitude of artistic choices makes this a maddening endeavor, a compulsive striving toward perfection even while acknowledging that perfection doesn’t exist.
And indeed this is something else that must be controlled: the compulsion to control.
For one hundred years, the slim writing manual The Elements of Style has exhorted American students to “make every word tell.” Lean, lucid sentences, all needless words omitted: these, we are taught, are the virtues of a clear and compelling text. But are they also the virtues of literature? In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, written in 1985, Italo Calvino proposes five qualities that writers working in the 21st century might aspire to attain in their work: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. Presumably Calvino would find little to argue with in The Elements of Style, for the elemental style it champions facilitates the very qualities he prescribes. Yet in his memo on Quickness (in the original Rapidità), Calvino also makes a counterintuitive case: for lingering, for diversions, for narratives that give an impression of nonlinear or dilated time. There is value, Calvino believes, even in stories that seem never to arrive at their destination.
“The digression,” he writes, “is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight.” He also quotes Carlo Levi’s introduction to Tristam Shandy (a novel, according to Calvino, “completely composed of digressions”):
If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows—perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.
Immortality through perpetual digression. The idea is consistent with what Calvino, who died before he could write his sixth memo, calls his personal motto: Festina lente. Hurry slowly. The Elements of Style teaches us that our writing should be rigorously streamlined. Not incompatibly, Calvino advises that even frictionless prose can seem to tarry and meander, backtrack and lose its way. In fact, such controlled discursions are often what turn merely elegant sentences into something transcendent. Not only do the deviations seem to defy death and time, they also resonate with the unstraightforwardness of life itself. If an artist can simultaneously evoke two seemingly opposite impressions—lightness and weight, quickness and slowness, exactitude and uncertainty, visibility and opacity—he in turn evokes the multiplicity of human experience. Frequently the more pleasing quality prevails as a style while its foil serves as the subject. For example, a story’s theme might be life’s detours and delays, but these are communicated in a sleek, aerodynamic style that speeds the narrative up or slows it down according to the author’s intuitions as to what is beautiful and apt.
Art is a journey, a distance traveled by the consciousness. This is true for both artist and viewer, performer and audience, writer and reader. The power that propels such a journey is nothing without control because control is what harnesses artistic potential and directs it. (Control imposed by someone other than the artist, such as censorship or state control, does something else: it can be an obstacle but also an impetus, spurring art in the form of protest or radical experiments devised to circumvent it.) A propulsive narrative is propulsive because authorial control minimizes pointless deviations. It also admits meaningful ones and keeps their proportions in check. Generally, we like to feel agile, efficient, unimpeded. At the same time we appreciate art that conjures a world that is realistically chaotic and ensnaring. We want, through art, to feel that even if we cannot avoid the inexorable we are approaching it with cognizance and grace. A good writer takes the reader on a ride the reader wishes won’t end; an artist sets in motion a journey that continues long after the last word is read.