#8220;The further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us on Earth. A galaxy that is 10 billion light-years away, would be moving away almost at the speed of light, 300,000 kilometers a second. The recently discovered ‘quasi-stars’ (quasars) are near this threshold.”
— Italo Calvino, “Gli anni-luce” (The Light Years), 1965, translated by William Weaver.
Italo Calvino’s story “The Light Years” opens with a nameless, faceless, shapeless character peering through a telescope. In a distant galaxy he notices that someone is holding up a sign: “I saw you.”
He suddenly remembers that precisely 200 million years ago he’d done something that he wasn’t proud of, something that he’d tried to hide from the world, from the entire universe.
The galaxy is 100 million light years away, which means he is seeing the sign in a kind of “real time” — the time it would take for his actions to reach that galaxy and for onlookers to “comment” and respond.
The resulting story develops as pure stream-of-consciousness, with the manic protagonist worrying about being exposed. His one misstep, which he thought he had hidden so well, and for which he thought he’d atoned, has suddenly been uncovered.
The literal light of his action has finally arrived and he realizes that it will continue arriving somewhere for the rest of his life, as light disperses and spreads infinitely throughout the universe.
Sure enough, as he worriedly scans the skies, he begins seeing more “I saw you” signs. He realizes that his dirty little secret is now everywhere. Stricken, he imagines “I saw you” signs throughout the universe all converging and defining him based on that one moment in his life.
Calvino’s use of time and space is paradoxical while at the same time true to Einstein’s formula, e = mc2. In that equation, light is a constant, with time and space relative. Calvino plays with this idea. Millions of light years pass in the space of a moment, and galaxies complete an orbit in a week’s time. These enormities beg the question why the man even cares about what strangers think of him or saw.
We never know what was seen. We never learn details of his vindication. All we’re told is that the first action was aberrant and all that followed a true expression of his personality. He refers to the actions only as “action x” and “action y.”
Everything in this account is variable. The protagonist has no planet, no time in history, no species, no gender (I choose call him “him”), no physical or moral attributes. We have no idea if the aberration was a murder, cheating on a test, stealing gum or calling a girl a name at recess in grade school. Neither do we have a clue what action he thinks “defines him,” as he says.
We know he exists, and that he peers into telescope awaiting new judgments. We know that for him news travels at light speed, and yet it takes time for word to spread. We know also that other faceless beings throughout the universe are likewise sitting at their telescopes scanning the skies for great deeds, mishaps, titillation.
In this universe of absurd beings, people keep up with their favorite galactic characters, catching tidbits of arbitrary action, and “posting” opinions.
The endless judgment obsesses our man. He is disappointed and frustrated by careless responses. He’s upset at those who fail to appreciate the great things he does. At the same time he’s reassured: “Nothing that I did, good or bad, was completely lost. There was always an echo out there…”
So I wonder: is that why we attach ourselves to our various telescopes, to our computers, phones, pods and pads? Like Calvino’s creation, are we just looking for news, catching tidbits here and there, giving thumbs up or down, to then move on to another sliver of the digital sky?
We make judgments at light speed and maintain them until a piece of news changes our mind and we draw up a new sign. We are all of us variables, living in variables, seeking commiseration and recognition, all infinitely absurd.