The opening chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is as ironic as a New York woman’s wardrobe of black. Calvino exorts the Reader to relax and lose ourselves, even as his words deny us that possibility. How can we lose ourselves when the author has stepped out of his required role of being a silent tour guide, and intruded his presence on our solitary experience? The narrator even has the nerve to tell us: “Dispel every other thought.” But how can we dispel all thoughts when we’re wondering why an author is chatting with us as if he’s in the room? We are confronting the nosiest of Stage Managers. The fourth wall has been cracked apart, and we want it back. “Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes,” the narrator tells us. “Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you.” But is this helpful but bossy narrator ever going to let us get absorbed?
At the same time as Calvino blocks our ability to lose ourselves, he fans it by observing so accurately the joys, wishes, hungers, needs and travail of the reader.
Calvino continues to toy mercilessly with our desire to lose ourselves as the novel progresses. He starts a fascinating mystery. We are drawn in. Then Calvino interrupts us with readerly problems. The pages are glued together. He starts a new mystery plot. After a few pages, where we feel a sense of loss about the prior story, we’re drawn in to the new one. Then we’re told the Reader’s pages are blank. The Reader gets a paper knife, and a new mystery plot begins. Annoyed, we find ourselves drawn into a third story. The Reader in the novel stops being us and becomes a character, someone who purses the Other Reader. The Other Reader is attractive. We seek out a crazy professor of a dead language. A new story begins. After beginning so many new mysteries, we grow weary. We put the book down in disgust.
We start reading the new Harry Potter – oops, I mean Robert Galbraith – oops, I mean J.K. Rowling — novel. It’s a mystery, a real mystery. We sink our teeth into it. We read it to the end without putting it down. We feel a gleeful satisfaction in putting down the Calvino, clever as it is, and losing ourselves in the grittiness of Rowling’s novel. Until, of course, even the J.K. Rowling ends and we’re left with that same old feeling of restlessness.
There is an inherent problem here, brought to light so forcefully by Calvino. He drags the paradox up out of the darkness of his book as if he’s caught a bat by the scruff of its neck. How can we humans use our self to lose our self? Our self has a memory. How can we lose our self when every other time we’ve lost ourself, our self has reemerged? But if we can’t lose ourself, how do we find joy in real life? How can we hope for something good to happen in our lives, when it’s so often been dashed? Calvino tells us: “It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you.”
Is that true? Have we stopped expecting anything of life? Have we become victims of cynicism? Are we pessimists in disguise, masking our ennui? Or has Calvin’s world weary description of us caused us to elide into the very person we are reading in order not to be?
Here is where we circle from Calvino into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and come up just as seemingly dry as a child reading a novel under the covers by flashlight until the point that her eyes hurt from the strain and her body hurts from lack of sleep and she has to admit to herself but never out loud to her father that her father was right about reading under the covers. Saint Paul seems to echo this world weary cry of Calvino when he excoriates his audience for behaving as if they were content. Here’s the verse that jumps out of 1 Corinthians 4 like a live wire: “You behave as if you are already filled and think you have enough.” The Amplified Bible adds: “you are full and content, feeling no need of anything more!” 1 Cor. 4:8 (Amplified Bible).
Hone in on that verse. Because there’s a perilous way to read the Bible to which most of us tend, that would mean we’d avoid this verse. All too often, when we encounter these sentences that don’t seem to make sense, we gloss over them. We close our minds to the strangeness of them. We think: “oh, the Bible is supposed to make sense so I’m just going to ignore this sentence because it’s too confusing.” We block the seeming wrongness off the way we do entire sections of math problems. Some statements seem too dense and thorny for our minds to solve, and so we skip to brighter lighter parts, like where math problems affirm that two plus two really does equal four, or where Saint Paul says that we should be stewards of the mysteries of God. We like the implication that we alone know the mysteries hidden to the world. We don’t like verses that are mysterious. But there where the Bible gets the thorniest is the very place for us to focus our minds like freshly sharpened machetes. Because we encounter God’s brightest lights in the darkest places.
Because perhaps the real problem that needs solving here is not the Bible but ourselves.
So why would Paul suggest it’s bad to be content? Isn’t contentment good? Didn’t Jesus say that he came to bring rest to the weary? Didn’t he offer to heal the sick, give sight to the blind and open the ears of the deaf? Didn’t Jesus say that the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy but that he came so that we might enjoy our lives? And what is enjoying life if not contentment? Aren’t they the same thing?
Or is enjoying life different than being content?
Paul went on to warn the Corinthians about boasting about their leaders. Paul told them not to brag about having the best minister and teacher. He said that the only reason anyone has any talent is that it was given to them. We don’t have our gifts because of our own efforts. Everything is a gift from God, and Paul said this should exclude boasting. Paul went on to say that while the Corinthians were behaving as if they were rich in spiritual gifts and graces, in their conceit they “ascended” their thrones without including Paul and his fellow travelers.
Paul said that he and the other apostles at that moment of writing were weak, hungry and thirsty, shivering in cold, beaten and wandering around homeless. He said, however, that when men reviled them, Paul and his fellow travelers blessed them. When he was persecuted, he took it patiently. When he was slandered he tried to answer softly and bring comfort. He said that he was being made the rubbish and filth of the world. He was being treated like the scum of the earth. He concluded that the Corinthians should become imitators of him.
Is Paul saying we should all leave home, abandon our families, go hungry and thirsty, be hated and reviled and treated like scum?
Or maybe his point is that in some ways this is already happening to all of us, all of the time, and we’ve been trying to hide this truth from ourselves. And if it’s not happening to us right this very minute, it is to people that we know and love. So if suffering is an inescapable part of life on this planet for us and people we’re connected to, what is Jesus talking about when he says he came so that we may enjoy life in abundance?
Here is where the mysteries of God start to reveal themselves. Apparently, there is something in our emptiness, dissatisfaction, rejection and discontent that enables us to enjoy life in the way Christ promises. Maybe if we walk around in our loneliness instead of numbing ourselves, ignoring it or denying it, we will find a hidden treasure. What do you find? Who are you, Reader? Are you alone in your dissatisfaction? Are you sitting on the subway feeling more alone than ever? Are you walking down a crowded sidewalk being rammed into by people who don’t care if you die? Are you sitting at your desk feeling a sense of dread? Are you the only one who feels slighted? Are you the only one who is ignored? Will nothing good ever happen to you?
Or did God Himself come down to earth and suffer alongside us? Did God come down for real? Did He suffer loneliness, isolation, rejection, slander and hatred? And was God really murdered on the cross? Did Jesus experience the rejection of God, something infinitely worse than the rejection of men? Did Jesus suffer hell when God abandoned Him?
Those are the real mysteries of God. That’s the truth God wants us to open our eyes to. The mystery has been revealed. God redeemed the loneliness of our world by becoming the loneliest of all. God was excluded from God. The great divide occurred.
And the gap has been closed forever. The pages will never be blank again. Self is reunited with self. The Lord is our vindicator. The cross has wiped away shame, loneliness, failure and despair forever. We are all the ambassador of that truth.
And forevermore, we can step out into fields under an open sky and know, really know, majesty. God will never leave or forsake us. We find ourselves in Him. We open up our emptiness to Him and cry out from the depths of our souls. We surrender.
That’s who we are, Reader.