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Reading 10 "Mr. Palomar On the Beach" by Italo Calvino

Key Words:


The key to reducing the world's complexity could be reducing it to its "simplest mechanism," writes Calvino on page 6. When Mr. Palomar struggles to examine a single wave because of its complexity, he narrows the boundaries and breaks the general pattern down into sections that rise and vanish. In doing so, he gets a much more clarified set of images of that individual wave than the single blurred image he was previously receiving.

2. Repression

Calvino demonstrates the fact that many pleasing sensory images are repressed in a "reactionary" attempt to conform to the conventions of society. This is exemplified in Calvino's story of Mr. Palomar passing a woman's naked bosom on the beach. He first sucumbs to societal convention by looking in the opposite direction. He later passes again and finds his first behavior to be unacceptable in that it was too obviously an action of conformity, this time looking straight ahead as if the bosom is part of the landscape. But Mr. Palomar finally passes by again, this time obviously staring at the woman because he has realized his previous two instances of denial of aesthetically pleasing images. The woman is disgusted, demonstrating the limitations that society places on many natural human sensory experiences.

3. Perception

Sensory images are often belonging solely to the beholder of them. "All this is happening not on the sea, not in the sun," thinks Palomar while swimming over a ray of sunlight on the sea, "but inside my head, in the circuits between eyes and brain. I am swimming in my mind; this sword of light exists only there." For centuries, the sun's rays rested on the water before there were eyes capable of perceiving them.

Discussion Questions:

1. "If no eye except the glossy eye of the dead were to open again on the surface of the terraquerous globe, the sword would not gleam anymore," thinks Palomar in Calvino's story of the man's experience with the sword of the sun. Physicists would disagree strongly with this assessment, arguing that the sword of the sun would still exist on a physical level, completely disregarding the human perception of it. Why do design thinkers think more like Mr. Palomar and less like scientists?

2. Mr. Palomar has great difficulty isolating his concentration to one single wave. Why is simplification of our sensory messages important for designers? On the opposite token, why is seeing the big picture equally essential?