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Tag Archives: Lightness

The first of Calvino’s Memos was the quality of Lightness. He described it as the “lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless,” or the “subtraction of weight [from the text].” He felt it was necessary to remove the weight from text to make it easier to read, and also that the characters in a story overcome their heavy burdens. In contrast, I can think of no better oppositional example than that of philosophy, a doctrine that tries to convey its thoughts as heavily and densely as possible. If I had to speak for Calvino, I would say he disagreed with the discourse styles of a great many philosophers.

The point of Lightness is to excise all that burden from literature, and make living a little easier and more enjoyable. Most concepts relating to release or freedom can somehow be traced back to Lightness.


For Lightness, I can think of no greater analogy for the release of burden than the process of death. Death is a cathartic release of mortal burdens and an absolution of all guilt. It is normally thought of as a negative concept and feared as a loss of everything, but that’s only one side of it. It is also ultimate freedom from everything; freedom from pain, debt, friends, enemies, sins, problems, and everything else. In Christian literature, death is followed by ascension to the afterlife. A soul in its purest form has no weight.


Many famous characters in literature die at the end of their stories, especially if they have suffered greatly. One character was Jesus Christ, but he also died in sacrifice for the benefit of others. Death is a great device for releasing a character from the burden of life, and my favorite example of Lightness.

I think the Angel serves as the perfect emblem for Lightness. Anglicized Christian angels are depicted as having light clothing such as robes, fair skin and hair, feathery wings (meaning they fly) and typically female. Angels are ethereal divine forms, usually messengers of God, that are free of burden or free will.


Some see Angels as the highest form of the soul in the afterlife, because they are the beings that forsake free will, their last possession, to do God’s will. Because of this, I think it has a terrific transcendental property. Being free of life and free will, the Angel is a great emblem for Lightness.

I think the best E-Lit example to convey Lightness is “Strings” by Dan Waber. “Strings” depicts a weightless line that fluctuates between different words in 3D. The graphical use interface is incredibly simple compared to most works of E-Lit. Waber chose not to have bells and whistles like sound and complex programs, and he keeps his work simple and light.


The words themselves also convey a great amount of Lightness because they float freely through space, turning and twisting, unhindered by gravity. Not only that, but there is never more than one or two words on the screen at once, making the presentations in the work very visual but not taxing on the mind.

“Strings” can be found here.

One concept that Hayles describes as relevant to E-Lit is the notion of “recombinant flux.” Recombinant flux is the phenomenon of a text changing every time you read it. Hayles said the first and most well-known example of this was “Book of Sand” by Borges, a book whose letters and word strings changed every time the book was closed.

Similarly, I think Waber’s “Strings” also shows the nature of recombinant flux. Even though his words loop, they constantly shape-shift into other words, so the eye is fixed on watching the words morph. The ever-changing quality of Strings is what keeps the eye so focused on it. While a book almost never changes, a work of E-Lit can be changed on the fly by the author, or it can even change itself in some cases. “Strings” shows that E-Lit is always not what it seems at first glance.

(Continue on to Memo 2. Quickness.)