Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Paola Villa
April 14, 2021 | Interview & Video by Hannah Loomis / Story by Eve Tolpa
Tutor Paola Villa joined the St. John’s Santa Fe faculty in fall 2020. With a background in Italian literature and the history of science, she finds St. John’s to be a uniquely comfortable fit for her eclectic interests. We spoke with her about her education, her journey to St. John’s, and Italian author Italo Calvino; read the interview below and watch the accompanying video here, in which Villa recites and comments on some of her favorite passages by Calvino in English and Italian. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your academic background?
I am Italian, [and] my PhD studies focused on the relationship between Italian literature and the history of science—of physics in particular. As Calvino says, there is a profound vocation in Italian literature that mixes disciplines. We have authors from Dante to Galileo to Giordano Bruno that don’t seem to be comfortable in separate boxes. According to Calvino, this is sort of a unique trait of Italian literature. I’m not sure I believe that’s absolutely correct, but there is a kind of iron ore that goes directly from Dante to Calvino and deals with this mixed relationship between literature, science, and philosophy.
I never finished my PhD in Italy, because I started feeling too comfortable in my own culture and in my own language. There were lots of reasons that led me to think that finishing my studies abroad would be much more interesting and enriching. I started thinking about America, and I ended up in Madison, Wisconsin.
I went back to physics after doing a PhD. I felt very uncomfortable with my dissertation, because I felt I had quite a good knowledge about the history and philosophy of physics, but I actually never took physics. I felt I lacked the rigor that a discipline like physics demands. I had to go back and study physics from the basics, because I wanted to understand what I wrote in my dissertation. It was a strange ride going back to [being an] undergraduate from a PhD.
Was your goal to become a professor?
When I moved back to physics, my idea was to distance myself from the classic idea of academia. I didn’t feel at ease in the normal academic context. There was a degree of separation between students and lecturers or professors that was uncalled for, and that was not the academia I signed on for. The academia I signed on for was a community of learners focused on trying to explore the biggest questions that inform our lives. Once you get a PhD in a certain discipline, you are expected to go into that discipline and forget about the rest, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that. I felt like I would have to delete a part of myself.
What brought you to St. John’s?
The real question would be, what took me so long to get to St. John’s? I went to a conference in Providence [Rhode Island], and the keynote speaker was a tutor here, Mr. Pesic. We started talking, and he told me about the utopian place called St. John’s. I became curious. In the beginning I didn’t believe him, [like], “It’s asking for too much! I don’t believe that something like this exists, but I’ll take your word for it!”
Then one summer I came to Santa Fe to assist at this event organized by SFI [Santa Fe Institute] called Interplanetary Festival. That gave me the chance to contact Mr. Pesic, and we went out for coffee. He said, “Okay. You’ve got to see it. Why don’t you come in and see how it works?”
I was invited to some of the [St. John’s] classes, and I was astonished. I fell in love with this place, with the mechanism behind the seminar, [which] was then and still is a sort of mix between mystery and magic. It’s still something that really puzzles me. I ascertained that this place would be the job of my dreams, and I applied. It’s a series of fortuitous circumstances that brought me here.
You started in the fall. What classes are you teaching, and what is that like?
I have been teaching freshman seminar, math, and laboratory. To me the most mysterious and beautiful part of the Program is the seminar. I am not very comfortable with the spoken language, which is funny because I am a lover of language. I am very comfortable with the written word, because I can exercise a sort of control [over] my word choice.
The seminar is such a humbling experience, because it deprives you of all the tools that a normal teacher or lecturer has. [For a normal lecturer,] you prepare your lecture, you come to class, you have all your notes. You talk with the class but with a very regimented schedule, so you know how you begin and you know how you end.
When you jump into the seminar, you know how you begin, if you ask the question. But you never know where you [will] end up, and that to me is an astonishing way to explore literature, to read it through the eyes of all the people that are in the room.
Also, the quality of the students—or should I say of my fellow learners, because I am as new as them; I really feel like I just came out of undergraduate. It’s almost like the school selects for people that have a certain intensity, generosity, and ability to imagine their relationship with the text as something in continuous metamorphosis. [It’s] the idea of being uncomfortable, in constant renewal.
Every night in seminar I feel like the phoenix. Two hours pass, and you don’t even know what happened because you were so much in the moment, so much in this magic process of sharing and renewing your own opinions and your own ideas—and looking at other people’s points of view. That’s the magic. In modern society, I don’t think we [make] enough effort to understand each other.
There is a feeling of camaraderie between me and my students, partly because we are all new, we are all growing in this experience together, but also because we are sharing it in these particular circumstances, separated by a screen.
One of the things returning students miss most is that, ordinarily, the seminar is only part of the process. There are also the other conversations that happen when you meet in the coffee shop or you run into each other.
Yes, yes—this idea of being able to walk around this beautiful campus with students and talk about the things we love!
Why do you love Calvino?
I think Calvino should be considered a classic because he is one of those authors that grows with you. Calvino as an author always embodies the experience of a foreigner. He’s considered the best Italian author of modern and contemporary literature, but he was born in Cuba to Italian parents. His parents were botanists; he absorbed when he was very young a sort of scientific outlook towards reality—this idea of knowledge as a catalog of ideas, as naming precisely the reality around you.
He’s an author that is comfortable in uncomfortable scenarios. This also might have to do with the fact that he lived most of his youth in Liguria, which is a particular territory of Italy: on one side you have the mountains that push you toward the sea, and on the other you have the sea that pushes you toward the mountains. You are always uncomfortable in Liguria.
But also you have this idea that Liguria is shaped by the sea, that you are always in contact with other cultures. The sea brings in a freshness that you might not have in the innermost parts of Italy. I think this idea informed the way in which he uses language, the way in which he talks about the world. His words are so gentle. His approach to reality is very light but, at the same time, extremely precise [and] exact. His words seize reality but also embrace reality. They almost ask for permission.
It’s so hard to translate. His words are very straightforward, but it’s the way he combines them, the rhythm of the narrative and the sort of hesitance [with which] he tries to come close to reality, almost caressing it, without having any pretense of encapsulating it.
Does this quality come through in English?
It does, but—and I don’t want to say something cliché—you lose something. I keep changing translations of Calvino trying to find the perfect fit. I also read interviews with his translators. They are always conscious of the fact that with Calvino, you always miss the mark. Because what emerges from Calvino’s words is not in the elaborate use of language, but in the gentle, light, and pensive approach to the world. Calvino has a conviction that literature, which is so fragile and endangered right now, can tell us something about the world that no other discipline can.