Italo Calvino – Mr Palomar’s Philosophical Book of Mental Illustrations, Or Poets, Take Back The World.

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Mr Palomar is an accomplished practitioner of zen buddhism. He is astute at seeing what is before him as it is. Where he gets into trouble is when seeing, or being, is not enough and he needs to develop his strategies and plans together with his angst at trying to do the right thing in someone’s eyes.

Mr Palomar is also a control freak, an anxious one. It begins to show when one views the method of assigning chapter numbers in the Index at the back of the book (1.1.1; 1.1.2; 1.1.3, and so on) . However, the author gives us a lexicon or code to crack this mystery – 1 – visual experience ; 2 – anthropological or cultural; 3 – speculative. He adds that this process occurs in each subsection and that it begins in observation and moves to meditation. As we look through Mr. Palomar’s eyes and mind, we see an empiricist that is in command of this trajectory – his tactic changes with the wind and fails with regularity, but a substitute tactic soon appears and Mr. Palomar is off and running with the new plan. Flushing out its intricacies and derivations only to ultimately experience its results that are muddled and lost. He is honest with himself though and keeps on moving and testing – as all good hypothesis-testing students do.

Intertwined in all of the stories or experiences is a man who is highly intelligent, learned, exquisite in abilities to analyze, synthesize and articulate, and yet at the same time his emotions drive him nuts – he looses his self esteem, he’s embarrassed by some social faux pas and such. And more, and so human, to get lost in our quests: “But it is the very expectation of enjoying this calm that makes Mr. Palomar anxious.”

Mr. Palomar is Calvino’s humorous analysis of zen buddhism as experienced by a an extreme rationalist and scientist – a phenomenologist. Most of the chapters of the book are experiences in Mr Palomar’s life of observation from the beach to iguanas. He is a very astute observer indeed and is intellectually inventive in tying together processes and causes of particular behaviors or physical actions.

The subjects that Calvino chooses to address are creative and inventive: waves at the beach; a woman’s exposed breasts at the beach; the sword of the sun at the beach; a male tortoise’s sexual capture of a female; the moon in the afternoon. Each piece is handled care and precision.

It is not until the final few chapters that Mr. Palomar begins to look at himself and his processes form a overall perspective and first uses the approach of using thinking models and how to construct a model that can reflect reality. He sees that he cannot use one model and must use many models and even using many models one must give each the flexibility to expand and contract and perhaps the model is held together such as a spider web is held together – with much flexibility. This leads to the chapter called “Meditations” and it is here that Mr. Palomar struggles to logic out how it is possible to see the total reality all at once and also trying to loose the ego in the process. He is unable to to get it – the separation of subject with object – its just too cumbersome.

Zen’s answer to this problem is to just let all of the rational thinking go, much training is involved with loosing the ego through emptying the mind so to speak and accepting whatever happens without logicing everything out. This zen process is so extraordinary different from European philosophy that logics everything out and also ties everything into tight bands of theory, often to the exclusion of reality.

Mr. Palomar finally decides to look at the life as if he were dead. And after a thorough review of such decides that the psychological burdens offered by death are more than he can handle and decides to chronicle each and every moment that he continues to live till he dies.  Mr Palomar has come full circle and given a few months or years he will be back to the warfare of existence vs emotion.

It seems to me that Mr. Palomar was trying in vain to understand and implement this model: “…the quiet contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether landscape, a tree, a mountain, a building, or whatever it may be; in as much as he loses himself in this object, i.e., forgets even his individuality, his will, and only continues to exist as the pure subject, the clear mirror of the object, so that it is as if the object alone were there, without anyone to perceive it, an he can no longer separate the perceiver from the perception but both have become one single sensuous picture…” Czeslaw Milosz – “The Separate Notebooks” 1984


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