“I do not understand a thing, but at the same time I am full of admiration and also suffering enormously because this New York stock market is the first thing that I have felt is bigger than me and I will not be able to get my head around,” recalls Italo Calvino, of his tour of several global investment firms in New York City on November 19, 1959.
Titled “Hermit in Paris,” and published posthumously by Calvino’s estate in 2003, the autobiographical writings offer a rare glimpse of a writer working diligently to realize his writing career outside Italy.
In 1959 and much of 1960, Calvino lived in New York City asa Ford Foundation fellow. Immersed in the New York City landscape upon arrival, between meetings to increase and whet the American appetite on Calvino’s writing, the author makes detailed notes on the structure of publishing giant Random House, delivers lectures and speeches, and explores a city which has long mesmerized writers and thinkers through the ages.
Calvino’s descriptions of New York in the late 1950s is of a city which is wealthy and embracing of technology and innovation, where Calvino finds color television a “marvelous” invention which would greatly improve the quality of life in “underdeveloped countries,” admires the novelty of Dr. Seuss’s success with Random House, questions the corruption in American governance and recoils with disgust at a civil-rights gathering in Alabama.
Given how Wall Street has remained the hotbed of much of the controversies surrounding the global financial meltdown of 2008, not to mention that Merrill Lynch, one of the companies so greatly recommended by Calvino, lies in ashes today, Calvino’s account of Wall Street is an ironic testament, and unlikely advice to those seeking new careers. logic of the investment firms around New York’s financial epicenter:
But this Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith is some place: it is a pity I am now too old, but something your children should do first thing is to work with them for a while to learn the trade (there is an enormous students’ office): send them for an apprenticeship with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, then they can learn philosophy, music, and all the rest, but first of all a man has to know how to work Wall Street.
Perhaps, however, we can excuse Calvino’s admiration by sketching out precisely what it is is that he admires, which he sketches out in better detail with descriptions of the computational and technological capabilities of firms such as Merrill Lynch. During a tour of Merrill Lynch, which Italo Calvino scheduled in Merrill Lynch with “pretty girls” acting as tour guides. In between explaining the science and math for potential investors and tourists eager to learn about the financial epicenter of a world which was fast becoming computerized, the Italian novelist learns about large computational systems and calculators that produce money and wealth.
The fact that this made an impression on Calvino is readily apparent. Of the Stock Exchange building, Calvino’s descriptions are a simple sketch: “It is certainly a grand sight but one which we already know well from the cinema.”
In contrast, Calvino’s descriptions of the computers in Merrill Lynch are superfluous, and present us with an intricate world of automated minions silently and palpably producing wealth:
Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith operates entirely electronically. Linked to the Stock Exchange, all its offices have the tape with all te stock values printing out continually, and it receives ll the requests to buy and sell by telephone and telex from its branches in every city in America, and in Europe too, and every second, with their calculators, they can work out dividends, securities and commodities and all the data recorded and transmitted to the Stock Exchange, and then there are the calculations for the over-the-counter market which are very complex, and from all the offices and the machines in this enormous skyscraper which houses Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, all the data end up on the floor where the huge IMB 705 machine sits, which in one minute can perform 504,000 additions or subtractions, 75,000 multiplications33,000 divisions and can take 1,764,000 logical decisions and in three minutes can read all of Gone with the Wind and copy it on a tape as wide as your little finger, because everything ends up on this tape, all written in little dashes, and on an inch of this there are 543 characters.
The account goes on. I shall spare you the depth of it. Thankfully, before I descended into complete shock regarding the economic endorsements of capitalism by an author who is much more famous for his Communist and anti-Fascist leanings in Italy, Calvino reminds us his true feelings about the excessive wealth of financial firms:
They also do a huge amount of propaganda for investments, with brochures based on the principle that money breeds money, with maxims about money by the the great philosophers, and this propaganda for the cult of money is constant in America: if by chance a generation grows up that does not put money above all else, America will go up in smoke.
The Italian writer, famous for his lyrical vignettes and observations in “Invisible Cities,” “On a Winter’s Night A Traveller,” and other noteworthy fictions, writes in familiar prose for himself, but even though the writings remained unpublished in his lifetime, the rhetoric, recommendation, and logic that all should engage with banking as a profession, is an unmistakable testament of Calvino’s innovative nature in both his writing, and in his life. That he adds tritely, that this pursuit is a propaganda, reflects the author’s astute reflections that the depth of American character is in the embracing of money, and Wall Street adds to the false propaganda of a culture of creating desire-based consumerism.
Italo Calvino’s Letters