From text to Hypertext

Autore:Alberto Cecchi

The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Reading Units or Lexia. Hypertext Pattern. Hypertext Innovations. Hypertext Navigation. Aknowledgements.


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After the Invention of printing, culture mainly spread through books. From a cultural point of view It would be Interesting to think about the possible changes that would occur at the death of the (paper) book and at the coming of the hypertext age.

I will not deal with this macroscopic subject from a philosophic or sociologic point of view. I will start from a simple operation - the 'conversion' of a literary text to a hypertext - to reach the conclusion that similar methods are not only universal (they can be used for analysing texts of any form and content) but also extremely innovative.

@The Castle of Crossed Destinies

The Castle of Crossed Destinies1 was firstly published In Parma on 1969 by Franco Maria Ricci Editore.

"This book is made firstly of pictures - the tarot playing cards - and secondly of written words." In this novel several tales are told using a combination of cards (tarots) according to horizontal and vertical rows. The layout of the tarots Is a sort of rectangle In which 12 stories intersect.

Calvino uses the evocative Images of the tarots to tell these stories and set the plot of the novel. Each tarot Is used In more than one story and transmits different meanings according to the story In which It Is placed.

Looking at. the pattern obtained by the Intersecting of the stories we may be struck by the result "unconsciously" obtained by Calvino: a kind of paper hypertext, In which stories Intersect, characters play more than one role, stories can be run back assuming a completely new sense.

In the second version of the book, published In Italy in 1973, CalvinoPage 180 added an afterward where he describes the problems he ran into writing the novel and looking for the combination of tarots that could better fit his idea of telling stories that could be read in several directions. Unfortunately we cannot know what Calvino would have done if he had had a PC on his desk and software for writing hypertexts.

From this point of view here is an amazing passage in "The American Lessons"2. Calvino expressly defines one of his novels - "If on a winter's night a traveller" - as a "hypernovel" and talks about The Castle of Crossed Destinies as a "machine to multiply the stories".

Calvino had the precise intention to create a "machine to multiply the stories" and the aim of this hypertext conversion- is to start it by allowing the reader to create his own stories, or rather, some stories among the milliard of possibilities he has at his disposal.

On the other hand the "Logic of the Possible Worlds" permeates most of Calvino's novels3:

"At the top of the tree, climbing up an urchin, our hero reached a suspensed city. Or so I interpreted the gratest of Arcana, The World, which in this tarot pack depicts a city floating on waves or duds and held up by two winged cherubs, it was a city whose roofs touched heaven's vault, as the tower of Babel once had, as we were shown, next, by another arcanum".

- "He who descend into the abyss of Death and clims again the Tree of Life"

- these are the words with which I imagined our involuntary pilgrim was received - "arrives in the City of the Possible, from which the Whole is contemplated and choices are decided."

The hypertext shape allowed me to go beyond the sequential nature of the text and to enhance in this way its combinatory potentiality.

@Reading Units or Lexia

The first operation was to divide the novel into parts and i mainly referred to Roland Barthes'4 critical essay S/Z. In this essay Barthes divides one of Balzac's novels, "Sarrasine" into parts named lexia. In the introduction to the essay he defines the lexia as reading units.

As Barthes writes, the lexia can include either few words or few phrases, provided that it is the best space in which the meaning can be located.

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This operation of fragmentation of the text is completely arbitrary but anyone who knows something about linguistics is certainly aware of the problems related to the definition of the minimal unity of meaning. For example, everyone realizes it would be useless taking the phrase into consideration as the phrase can have one sense, more than one sense or no sense at all.

The work carried out by George P. Landow at the Brown University corroborates my ideas. Landow5 not only refers to Roland Barthes repeatedly but even declares that the definition of hypertext corresponds to the idea of text expressed by Barthes in S/Z. In order to demonstrate this Landow emphasises the use made by Barthes of words such as "Links, Nodes, Network, Web and Path".

Furthermore, it seems to me that the application of Roland Barthes' method to "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" would have been particularly simple and only relatively arbitrary. As already explained, Calvino's novel is made up of 12 stories represented by the sequence of the tarots. Calvino...

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