Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, the book of his I love most, has accompanied me through life as a sort of moral and political manifesto. It may seem curious to speak of the moral and political lesson of a book that was criticized for its lack of political engagement when it was published in 1957. The Baron in the Trees troubled many Italian intellectuals because it made clear that The Cloven Viscount of six years earlier could no longer be seen as a parenthesis in the work of an author who otherwise wrote in a realistic vein. With this new novel Calvino was abandoning the path to the spider’s nest, moving definitely toward a poetics of the fantastic, surfing through new worlds, cosmicomic galaxies, invisible cities, Zenonian astral trajectories.

One cannot imagine today how The Baron in the Trees upset the official Italian left. But remember that in the same decade the Communist intellectual Luchino Visconti dared to tell, with Senso, not a story of the workers but rather the romantic and decadent passions of two nineteenth-century lovers, and was practically excommunicated by the guardians of so-called socialist realism.

I want to explain how, when I was a young man of twenty-five, reading The Baron had such a powerful impact on my notions of political engagement and the social role of intellectuals.

It goes without saying that the book delighted me as a stupendous work of literature, making me dream of those enchanted woods of Ombrosa sloping triumphantly down toward the sea. A few days ago I reread the novel and felt the same impression of felicity, enchanted once more by the spell of a transparent language through which (and not in spite of which) I felt myself, in a quasi-physical way, climbing from branch to branch with Cosimo, and becoming successively a golden oriole, a squirrel, a wild cat, a sparrow, even a cherry and an olive leaf. The language of The Baron is crystalline, and in Six Memos for the Next Millennium Calvino said that the crystal, with its precise faceting and its ability to refract light, was the model of perfection that he always cherished as an emblem.

But in 1957 my main reaction was philosophical rather than aesthetic, which shouldn’t amaze anyone. I was not reading a fairy tale, as many considered it, but a great conte philosophique.

The young intellectuals of the forties and fifties, whether communist or Catholic, were obsessed with the moral duty to be, as they used to say, “organic” to their own ideological group. One felt blackmailed by the general call to be militant and rally one’s intellectual power against the ideological enemies. Only two voices offered another conception of the role of intellectuals. The first was Elio Vittorini, who would later collaborate with Calvino on Menabò, a journal which profoundly influenced the course of Italian literature in the sixties. In 1947 Vittorini said that intellectuals must not play the flute for the revolution: Rather than act as press agents for their political group, they must become its critical consciousness. Vittorini belonged at that time to the Communist Party and published a rather independent and short-lived journal, Il Politecnico. Obviously, he was considered a traitor to the working class. Il Politecnico died, and Vittorini’s appeal remained, for a long time, unheard.