The Flash

from Italo Calvino’s Numbers in the Dark

It happened one day, at a crossroads, in the middle of a crowd, people coming and going.

I stopped, blinked: I understood nothing. Nothing, nothing about anything: I didn’t understand the reasons for things or for people, it was all senseless, absurd. And I started to laugh.

What I found strange at the time was that I’d never realized before. That up until then I had accepted everything: traffic lights, cars, posters, uniforms, monuments, things completely detached from any sense of the world, accepted them as if there were some necessity, some chain of cause and effect that bound them together.

Then my laugh died. I blushed, ashamed. I waved to get people’s attention. “Stop a moment!” I shouted, “there’s something wrong! Everything’s wrong! We’re doing the absurdest things. This cannot be the right way. Where can it end?”

People stopped around me, sized me up, curious. I stood there in the middle of them, waving my arms, desperate to explain myself, to have them share the flash of insight that had suddenly enlightened me: and I said nothing. I said nothing because the moment I’d raised my arms and opened my mouth, my great revelation had been as it were swallowed up again and the words had come out any old how, on impulse.

“So?” people asked, “what do you mean? Everything is in its place. All is as it should be. Everything is a result of something else. Everything fits in with everything else. We can’t see anything absurd or wrong!”

And I stood there, lost, because as I saw it now everything had fallen into place again and everything seemed normal, traffic lights, monuments, uniforms, towerblocks, tramlines, beggars, processions; yet this did not calm me, it tormented me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Perhaps it was I who was wrong. It seemed that way then. But everything is fine now. I’m sorry,” and I made off amid their angry glares.

Yet, even now, every time (often) that I find I don’t understand something, then, instinctively, I’m filled with the hope that perhaps this will be my moment again, perhaps once again I shall understand nothing, I shall grasp that other knowledge, found and lost in an instant.

“Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

– Albert Camus, “Three Interviews” in Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1970