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Tribes and Skies

Among things that TV did indeed change, Calvino suggests, is the way we view our leaders.

Part of the Series

As I have already tried commenting on other people’s letters alongside composing my own, let me once more embark on a similar attempt. And, as a matter of fact, for an identical reason: as in the first case, when I discussed Le silence de Lorna (‘The voice of Lorna’s silence’), I feel that the letter I am going to recommend for your close attention (and enjoyment!) is a much sharper and more poignant report from this bizarre liquid modern world of ours than those I write myself, and the story it tells has been composed with a power of the imagination, literary skill and aesthetic beauty of a kind I would hardly be able to match. Such a letter is, I believe, Italo Calvino’s short allegorical story The Tribe with Its Eyes on the Sky.

The ‘tribe’ focused on by Calvino, a tribe of coconut gatherers, is – as the title of the story suggests – addicted to ‘watching the sky’. The sky it watches obsessively and intensely happens to be a sight that is genuinely fascinating and truly rewarding to watch: it is full of ‘new celestial bodies’, like jet planes, flying saucers, rockets, and guided missiles . . . While the tribe watches, the tribal witch doctors feel obliged to explain, authoritatively, to their fellow tribesmen the meaning of what they are seeing. They tell the tribesmen that what is currently happening in the sky is a sure sign that the day is fast approaching when the slavery and poverty which has tormented the tribe for centuries will come to an end. Soon ‘the barren savannah will bring forth millet and maize’, so the tribe will no longer be doomed to feeding itself and surviving, day in, day out, by picking coconuts. And so – here comes the crunch – ‘it is hardly worth us racking our brains over new ways of emerging from our present situation; we should trust in the Great Prophecy, rally around its only rightful interpreters, without asking to know more . . .’

Meanwhile, on earth, in that valley where the tribe had built their huts of straw and mud, from which they wandered out daily in search of coconuts and to which they returned, day in, day out, things were also changing. Previously, merchants occasionally arrived in the valley to buy coconuts from the gatherers; the merchants cheated on price, but the clever tribesmen managed to outsmart and fool them time and again, avenging their cheating for good measure. Now, however, the merchants had stopped coming. Instead, an outpost had been opened in the valley by a brand new establishment called Nicer Nut Corporation, whose agents purchased, wholesale, the totality of the coconut crop. The corporation, unlike the old-style travelling traders, allowed no haggling and no opportunities for trickery: prices were fixed in advance, take it or leave it. But, of course, if you ‘leave it’, you might as well forget your chances of survival until the next batch of coconuts is brought into the valley from picking escapades. On one point, however, the agents of the Nicer Nut Corporation wholeheartedly agree with the tribal witch doctors (and vice versa). They all talk about missiles in the sky and about the news they augur. And the agents, just like the witch doctors, insist that beyond all reasonable doubt ‘it is in the power of these shooting stars that our entire destiny lies’.

The teller of the story shares in the destinies and habits of his tribe. Like the rest of the tribe, he spends his evenings at the entrance of his straw and mud hut, closely watching the sky. Like the other tribesmen, he attentively listens to the witch doctors and takes to heart and memorizes what they, and the agents of the Nicer Nut Corporation, keep saying. But he also thinks for himself (or, more precisely, his thoughts think themselves in his mind, without having asked his permission: an idea occurs to him which, he confesses, ‘I can’t get out of my head’). He thinks that ‘a tribe that relies entirely on the will of shooting stars, whatever fortune they may bring, will always sell off its coconuts cheap’.

In another short story, Beheading the Heads, Italo Calvino points out that television (here he goes straight to the point, skipping the allegory of a sky filled with shooting stars, ‘television’ itself being a potent metaphor for so many aspects of our liquid modern life) ‘changed a lot of things’ – though not necessarily the things which our own, new and improved, technologically sophisticated witch doctors (now renamed ‘spin doctors’) privately like to pride themselves on having craftily and stealthily changed, while praising television for those changes.

Among things that TV did indeed change, Calvino suggests, is the way we view our leaders (here, ‘our leaders’ stands for much a larger collection of people who were previously distant and whom we used to hear without seeing, let alone watching: idols, stars, celebrities, all those people we now watch daily, and closely, expecting entertainment, fun and all the illumination and guidance worth getting, and to whom television accords the same treatment as it does to ‘our leaders’). Once they were remote figures somewhere high up on the platform, or shown in portraits ‘assuming expressions of conventional pride’. Now however, thanks to TV ‘everybody can pore over the slightest movements of the features, the irritated twitch of the eyelids under spotlights, the nervous moistening of the lips between one word and another’. In a nutshell, once they arrived so close to us, indeed inside our sitting rooms and bedrooms, our leaders came to appear terribly banal, like the rest of us. And mortal, like the rest of us – that is, arriving only to go away again. Appearing in order to disappear. Clinging to power only to lose it. The sole advantage they seem to have over us, ordinary mortals, is that they are destined for a public, not a private death – ‘the death we are sure to be there for, all together’ …

Tongue in cheek, though not entirely, Calvino goes as far as suggesting that it is our new awareness of this which explains why, so long as a politician lives, she or he ‘will enjoy our interested, anticipatory concern’.

And finally come words so poignant that they deserve to be quoted verbatim and in full:

For us democracy can only begin once we are sure that on the appointed day the television cameras will frame the death throes of our ruling classes to the last man, and then, as an epilogue to the same programme (though many will switch off their sets at this point), the investiture of the new faces who are to rule (and to live) for a similar period.

All that, Calvino concludes, is ‘watched by millions of viewers with the serene absorption of one observing the movement of the heavenly bodies in their recurrent circles, a spectacle all the more reassuring the more alien we find it’.

It is, it seems, a custom of more than one tribe, and not necessarily tribes who are remote in space or time, to keep their eyes fixed ‘on stars shooting in the sky’. And the reasons why eyes are fixed on stars do not change much from one tribe to another. The consequences of eyes being fixed there do not change much: it is only the equipment serving that activity/passivity that changes. As well as the names of the tribes and of the stars they watch, and the stories told by tribal witch doctors about the meaning of all those shooting stars on which those eyes happen to be fixed. Though not the message of those stories, nor the intentions and purposes of their tellers.

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