“To Not Get Crystallized into Habits and Things”: Jacob Smullyan in Conversation with Paolo Pergola

Paolo Pergola is the author of Passaggi—avventure di un autostoppista (Rides: The Adventures of a Hitchhiker) (Exorma, 2013) and Attraverso la finestra di Snell (Through Snell’s Window) (Italo Svevo Edizione, 2019). His work has appeared in several Italian literary magazines. He is a member of OPLEPO/Opificio di Letteratura Potenziale (Workshop of Potential Literature), Italy’s equivalent of France’s OULIPO. He lives in Tuscany and works as a zoologist. A new book, Reset (2021), is now available from Sagging Meniscus.

Jacob Smullyan: Paolo, hello. How did you develop this dual career of being a scientist and a writer?

Paolo Pergola: That’s a very important question. And it’s something that I renew every day, it’s a way to escape from reality. A dual career has elements of being courageous and elements of being a coward. You’re courageous when you go into unexplored territories. So, if you’re a writer, how can you be a scientist and vice versa? That takes a little bit of courage. At the same time, it’s a bit cowardly because I have not told all the people I know. Most of the people I know in the literature world know about my scientific side. It’s the people on the other side, the scientists, who don’t. Here is a little metaphor that may sound sexist but it’s not, in my view, it’s just an example. It’s as if my job is my marriage, my wife. And the other thing, literature, is something a bit more secret and is my lover. But they are in a sort of equilibrium, because I don’t really have a preference. Well, perhaps a preference in the long term is literature. That’s because it’s the non-official thing and non-official things are always more attractive.

This is the theory behind it. In practice, when I decided to keep the two careers separate, I also decided to use a different name for each. And I’m still convinced that that was a good idea, because for some scientists, being a writer may be seen as being kind of flaky. If you’re writing, you’re not a serious scientist. From the writers’ side, this does not happen because it’s quite common for writers to have a different job, and not to make a living with writing. And it’s a little bit playful, too. So this dual personality started out as a joke and maybe I could just keep it that way.

But the main result of this dual career is that I actually enjoy going from one to the other. I mean, for as much as I love my regular job as a biologist, which often takes me to work in interesting places like the Amazon or the Great Barrier Reef, sometimes, after a while, I get bored. And that’s when I have the choice to concentrate more on literature, that’s a way to change what’s around me. And the same can happen with writing. I always enjoy it, but sometimes I run out of steam. Certain days perhaps the neurons that I use for writing are not very active, so I use the neurons that do science. That’s a way to be more efficient, by going back and forth using different sides of the brain, depending sometimes on deadlines, but sometimes on my own schedule. A day is pretty long, so I can potentially do science for five hours and write for five hours. And I enjoy being able to go from one to the other. In a way, I never get bored with either activity in particular.

JS: So very often artists have something else that they do for a living. I know a lot of poets who have some sort of day job, and they take their day job seriously, but it’s not necessarily particularly fulfilling. In your case, it’s a little different. I mean, you have two creative occupations. So maybe it’s more a case of bigamy than infidelity.

PP: Yes, perhaps, bigamy, that’s a good way to put it. I’d like to add another element that I wasn’t able to do at the beginning of my writing career, but now I’m less inhibited, is to mix the two worlds. Now I have no problems writing about science or the life of scientists or things that are related to science, not in terms of like, necessarily explaining the science, but in terms of explaining, for example, how scientists live or what they may have in their minds. In Reset, for example, the protagonist is a scientist and some of the things that happen to him are things that I know firsthand. It’s not a book that is completely biographical, but it’s based on my own experience.

JS: There’s a lot of reset in your having both of these occupations: one gives you the ability to reset from the other.

PP: Definitely. Right.

JS: Also your involvement with formal, constraint-based writing is something that’s very compatible with a scientific approach. You’ve mentioned that there are a lot of people in the Oplepo group who are scientists or engineers. It seems to appeal to that mindset, but it’s also a very playful way to write. One of the appeals of writing with constraints is that it frees you from the normal inhibitions you’d have in writing, from the normal ways of critiquing your own work, because you have to deal with this ludicrous constraint in the midst of trying to write something. It takes some of the sense of obligation away. Is that your experience?

PP: Yes, definitely. And although Reset is not based on constraint writing, it has some elements that are based on science or even mathematics. For example, if you’re thinking of what it means to start something over, you can do it mathematically. I thought of a scene that perhaps was in my mind subconsciously when I wrote Reset. When I was in high school a physics professor showed us a documentary about relativity and there was this guy being interviewed and it looked as if he was moving from left to right because the background was moving. And he said, of course you can see that I’m in motion now. And then he said, but are you sure? Maybe someone is actually moving the wall behind me. And then we could see that there were two people moving the wall behind him. And so the guy was not moving at all, it just looked like he was moving. And so something of that sort is talked about in Reset.

In a way, if you want to feel special, if you want to feel new or renewed, sometimes you don’t actually have to do anything or go anywhere. You just have to wait for everybody else to run their lives and you can just stay put. And then you realize that that may be a way to escape from everybody else. That can be done in a sort of Oplepian and mathematical way, in space or time. I will give you an example. When cell phones came about, I thought, okay, I’m getting a cell phone. Then I thought, wait, maybe I’m not getting a cell phone because everybody is getting a cell phone. So by not getting a cell phone, I will be somehow away from the world of cell phones. And that always attracted me. I’m sure it’s true for other people that, you know, the idea of being in a place on your own, like on a little island in the middle of the ocean. So, that’s what I did until, after many years, my wife gave me a phone and said, sorry, sometimes I need to get a hold of you.

I got a cell phone something like eight or ten years after most people got it. And that’s very much like Reset. In Reset, the main character finds himself in a hospital. In fact, part of it was written during the pandemic. The pandemic was a major reset for everybody, because you realize your life didn’t have to be as it was, because you were stuck in the house and had to start over. And that lasted so many months, and made people realize that they had to reset, some people probably didn’t like that. But some other people found something interesting about it. And it opened up a lot of avenues. Now for example we have a lot more of these Zoom talks that we could do even before, but there were probably more inhibitions about doing them. I have a number of them every day, while before the pandemic we didn’t have that many. So, you know, everything is starting over. When you start over, you have a lot of opportunities to change, you can just say, hey this is not who I am.

You can say, now I want to be different. This is something that can happen in time, but also in space. I moved a lot, I lived in different countries and different towns. And when you move a lot, realize that every time it’s a reset, because you meet new people, and they will ask you, Oh, where are you from and blah, blah, blah. And then you can tell them your “story” in a certain way. Or you can tell them your story in a different way. Sometimes your personality is due to how people see you. And then you get crystallized into having a particular personality. And so that’s why I think resetting every now and again is quite insightful. Because you sometimes also discover yourself as a new person.

There is this movie that I’ve watched many times. It’s just a Hollywood movie. But in itself, it has this concept of reset. It’s Groundhog Day. It’s a funny movie. It’s just a comedy. But it’s insightful to see how Bill Murray every time may use a different strategy because clearly, it didn’t work the day before. So I think resetting is something that is incredibly valuable. And it’s something that I think people don’t think about enough. Certainly, I haven’t thought about it enough. Because it’s a way to rejuvenate yourself. It’s a way to stay young. It’s a way to not get crystallized into habits and things that maybe are not even you and you just end up doing these things because of the pressure around you. For me, reset is a major concept and a way of living.

JS: Perhaps there’s a connection to science and experiment also, a certain freedom from result. With Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, at a certain point, he has to abandon the idea of what the result is.

In the novel, the father has had a reset of his own. He’s very present in the book, but he’s also very absent, in the background. Even at the very end, he’s not fully present, he’s seen in the distance—a bit like God. He’s a kind of God in a Columbo raincoat.

PP: Yeah, definitely. So I think this is for me a very important point. And I think two characters that are somewhat extreme, but touch each other in a way, in the mind of the protagonist, Lapo, are his niece and his father. The niece is the only person who really talks with Lapo at the same level, or let’s put it the other way, Lapo finds his level with her, whereas with everybody else, from the doctor to the colleagues, the wife and the mother, they all seem to be caught in the world that Lapo wants to abandon. But Lapo doesn’t want to lead that kind of life. He was caught in it, he admits that he was part of it, but he doesn’t like that. And then he finds this solution in the hospital, to be away from it all. 

However, one can’t stay in the hospital forever. So then Lapo finds a way to kind of bridge the two worlds by jumping from staying at the hospital to going far away. And going away is exemplified in going to nature where he’s actually active, but he’s active in a way that is almost primordial, a bit like his niece. Being innocent, like a kid, or like primitive humans who were closer to nature, is a way to avoid all the things that bourgeois life sucks you into. 

On the complete other side is the father, who is the sort of phantom figure almost, who at some point, abandons everything. Lapo finds out at the end that his father clearly had some problems, probably similar to Lapo’s and that is why he escaped from it all. Throughout the book, there are little stories about how frugal and minimalist the father was. But then little by little, Lapo realizes that he’s drawn to that, because for example he’s drawn to avoiding all the modern gadgets and appliances you can find nowadays.

Lapo’s father is the kind of stern figure which is neither negative, nor positive. A little bit like one of those masters in Oriental philosophy, who you’re drawn to but who never compliment you, never give you any satisfaction. They’ve reached some kind of level where there is no happiness and no sadness. And the only way to reach this level is through examples, not through being told that you’ve reached it. Lapo’s father is a little bit like that figure, and that’s why Lapo and the father actually never meet, they just sort of feel each other. Throughout the book, there are parts in which Lapo thinks about his father, or the father talks to him in a dream. He tells Lapo how he was drawn to studying physics, because he wanted to learn how things work. That is a bit what Lapo is trying to do when he’s studying animals, trying to figure out the basis of life. The father was even ahead of that idea, because he is interested in matter. So physics is even more primordial, if you will, than biology. At the very end of the book, when the father looks a bit like a phantom, he’s still wearing the same Columbo coat as always. Columbo was very frugal, and was the kind of guy that would always solve problems, but with a very primitive, primordial mind. So it’s not casual, this parallel between the father and the way he dressed just like Columbo. Lapo is drawn toward what his father symbolizes, through some kind of primordial needs that he realizes through his life, and through resetting, and he is probably also going to follow his father’s footsteps, in a way, but not through a real interaction, more through an ideal link.

JS: The people in whose life Lapo is embroiled, his wife, his colleagues, his doctor are so concerned about his role in their world, that he’s sort of erased by that. One of the tricks of the book seemed to me was that he’s just had this enormous medical trauma, and he’s treated by everybody with very little understanding of his emotional predicament at that point. So as readers, we have to say, well, they must understand, but they want to move him past it. But that isn’t actually the flavor of their interactions for the most part. Maybe the colleague is a little different: he is trying to nudge him and to draw him out, he seems more affectionate. But the others need him: they need him to do one thing or another, to get him out of the hospital or to come home and fulfill his roles. And it’s very lonely for him.

PP: Yeah, definitely. Going back to the example of the cell phone, that’s a very similar situation, because you can decide not to have cell phones, but you will be lonely, because everybody else will be talking to each other through the cell phones. If you have no phone, and I had a little bit of that experience when for a few years I didn’t have a phone, well, then you’re kind of out, you’re lonely. So if you decide to reset and not play the game, like everybody else does, then you will find that people don’t care about you. I mean, they will just keep asking you to play the game. They will not ask you if you have a problem with the game itself. People are so drawn to their regular life, that they cannot see outside the box. It’s as if there is a conveyor belt of life, and everybody’s on this bloody conveyor belt and when Lapo decides to step out of the conveyor belt, he’s on the ground, right? He’s not moving, but everybody else from the conveyor belt looks at him, and asks him, what are you doing? Get back on the conveyor belt! And that’s why they’re not sympathetic. Unfortunately it’s actually quite realistic that they would behave this way. The only person who does not talk to Lapo this way is his little niece because she is just in a primordial world, which is where Lapo finds himself in perfect harmony. For example one day she comes to see Lapo and says, Could it be that two plus two is twenty-two? I mean, that’s completely out of the box, right? And so Lapo is totally attracted to this idea of coming up with new mathematics. That is also a bit Oplepian, it’s a new rule for potential mathematics. Just like you can come up with a new literature, you can even come up with a new life, in a way, if you’re able to reset.

JS: As Lapo looks at the world again, he tends to reduce many things to what they are, stripped of their role in the game. And this is the occasion for not just humor, but I think comedy. This is a kind of gesture that you have in a whole tradition of comedy, seeing things for what they are, stripped of the dignity of their conventional context. That Emperor-has-no-clothes gesture is also connected to the scientific, biological perspective that’s in the book—for instance, the wonderful section that talks about hypoxia and strategies for survival.

PP: The idea of hypoxia was used in the book like a metaphor of what was going on. If you’re a fish in hypoxia, you have a number of choices and there is a tradeoff between various things you can do. You could just go to the surface where there is more air, but then you may be subject to predation if birds come along. Alternatively you can swim away from the surface, but then there is the problem of hypoxia. So you’re kind of stuck between being free at the surface but with predators around or suffocating, which is a little bit like what Lapo was experiencing. Staying in the hospital is like suffocating because you can’t stay there forever, but once you leave the hospital there are all the predators around, which is all the people in the world.

Clearly at some point Lapo realizes that he cannot stay in the hospital forever. And then he’s doing this transitional jump in the real world until he can move to another place in the forest, in nature and in isolation and finds a way to even look for his father. And also this is of course something that maybe Italian readers would understand better, but Argentina is a reset for Italians. Argentina is a country where many Italians went and started a new life. Now I’ve visited Argentina many times and there are so many people with Italian origins who have recreated some kind of new Italy, because there is probably about a third or more of the Argentinians that are of Italian origin, so that is one on the place you would go if you were Italian and wanted to reset.

JS: What I’ve read of yours in English is not particularly Oplepian, as far as I can tell. We talked about some ways in which it is, but they’re rather deep, or deeply internalized. Is most of the constraint-based work you’ve done in Italian?

PP: I’ve tried something in English but my constraint-based work is mostly in Italian so far. I’d like to say, though, that although you are generally right, in my non-constraint based writings there are often some elements that are related to a scientific perspective.

JS: How did it come about that Reset was written in English?

PP: I was in lockdown and I started writing in Italian. But then I thought, wait a minute, I know so many people who speak English because my family is half from the US and I live near Seattle for a few months every year. I wanted to open up to a lot of my friends and writers who often ask me, Are you going to write something in English? And then I thought, okay, I think maybe being in lockdown, there was a good time where I could do this. And so that’s what happened.

Jacob Smullyan is the publisher of Sagging Meniscus Press and Exacting Clam

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