The fascination of a collection lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it conceals of the secret urge that led to its creation. – Italo Calvino
In a curious travel sketch Italo Calvino relates the story of a woman who collected sand from the various landscapes and geographies of the world. He’s come to a Paris exhibition where she’s arrayed these various hued marvels or curiosities in glass jars with placards relating them to their points of origins:
There is a person who collects sand. This person travels the world and—on arrival at a sea-shore, the banks of a river or lake, or a desert, or wasteland—gathers a handful of sand and takes it away. On returning home, thousands of little jars are waiting, lined up on long shelves: inside them the fine grey sand of Lake Balaton, the brilliant white particles from the Gulf of Siam, the red shingle that the Gambia river deposits on its course down through Senegal, all display their not particularly vast array of nuanced colours, revealing a uniformity like the moon’s surface, despite the differences in granulosity and consistency, from the black and white sand of the Caspian Sea, which seems to be still bathed in salt water, to the tiniest pebbles from Maratea, which are also black and white, to the fine white powder speckled with purple shells from Turtle Bay, near Malindi in Kenya. …
One has the feeling that this set of samples from the universal Waste Land is on the point of revealing something important to us: a description of the world? The collector’s secret diary? An oracular response to myself as I scrutinize these motionless sand-clocks and reflect on the moment I have reached in my life? Maybe all of these things together. The collection of sands that have been selected chronicles what remains of the world from the long erosions that have taken place, and that sandy residue is both the ultimate substance of the world and the negation of its luxuriant and multiform appearance. All the scenarios of the collector’s life appear more alive here than if they were in a series of colour slides. In fact, one would think that this sounds like a life of eternal tourism (and that is just the way that life appears in any case in colour slides, and it is how posterity would reconstruct it if it were only slides that remained to document our times): basking on exotic beaches is alternated with more arduous explorations, in a geographic restlessness that betrays a sense of uncertainty, of anxiety. …
At this point there is nothing left to do except to give up, walk away from the case, from this cemetery of landscapes reduced to a desert, this cemetery of deserts on which the wind no longer blows. And yet, the person who has had the persistence to continue this collection for years knew what she was doing, knew where she was trying to get to: perhaps this was her precise aim, to remove from herself the distorting, aggressive sensations, the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence. That is why she does not take her eyes off those sands, her gaze penetrates one of the phials, she burrows into it, identifies with it, extracts the myriads of pieces of information that are packed into a little pile of sand. Each bit of grey, once it has been deconstructed into its light and dark, shiny and opaque, spherical, polyhedral and flat granules, is no longer seen as a grey or only at that point begins to let you understand the meaning of grey.
So, deciphering the diary of the melancholic (or happy?) collector, I have finally come round to asking myself what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that now seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and deserts of living. Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.1
- Italo Calvino. Collection of Sand (Kindle Locations 237-311). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.