“If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” by Italo Calvino

This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition.  But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though al my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase.  Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.

… All I did was to accumulate past after past behind me, multiplying the pasts, and if one life was too dense and ramified and embroiled for me to bear it always with me, imagine so many lives, each with its own past and the pasts of the other lives that continue to become entangled one with the others.  It was all very well for me to say each time: What a relief, I’ll turn the mileage back to zero, I’ll erase the blackboard.  The morning after the day I arrived in a new country, this zero had already become a number with so many ciphers that the meter was too small, it filled the blackboard from one side to the other, people, places, likes, dislikes, missteps.


… Now you are being read.  Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds.  Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and trills.  It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which ones human being believes at certain moments they are reading another human being.

And you, too, O Reader, are meanwhile an object of reading: the Other Reader is now reviewing your body as if skimming the index, and at some moments they consult it as if gripped by sudden and specific curiosities, then they linger, questioning it and waiting till a silent answer reaches them, as if every partial inspection interested them only in the light of a wider spatial reconnaissance.  Now they dwell on negligible details, perhaps tiny stylistic faults, for example the prominent Adam’s apple or your way of burying your head in the hollow of their shoulder, and they exploit them to establish a margin of detachment, critical reserve, or joking intimacy; now instead the accidentally discovered detail is excessively cherished — for example, the shape of your chin or a special nip you take at their shoulder — and from this start they gain impetus, cover (you cover together) pages and pages from top to bottom without skipping a comma.  Meanwhile, in the satisfaction you receive from their way of reading you, from the textual quotations of your physical objectivity, you begin to harbor a doubt: that they are not reading you, single and whole as you are, but using you, using fragments of you detached from the context to construct for themself a ghostly partner, known to them alone, in the penumbra of their semiconsciousness, and what they are deciphering is this apocryphal visitor, not you.

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