Meiotic Fictions: Hybridity and the Reproduction of the New

Nicole Matos

[1] There is no work of fiction I know of that explores the potential philosophical and theoretical significances of meiosis with the directness of Italo Calvino's speculative novella t zero. The "Priscilla" section of this work, itself divided into three juxtaposed segments entitled "Mitosis," "Meiosis," and "Death," explicitly employs the paradigms of mitosis and meiosis as frames for understanding the relations of heterogeneity to essence — of "many" to "one"--and of history and futurity — of "old" to "new." Mitosis, as Calvino's narrator reads it, collapses time by conflating it(self), effecting a world in which "new" and "old" are equivalent:

Here I must explain that this separation [of one cell into two through mitosis] wasn't a matter of old chromosomes one side and new chromosomes on the other, because if I haven't already told you I'll tell you now, every twig after thickening had divided lengthwise, so they were all equally old and equally new; this is important because I used before the verb "to repeat" which as always was rather approximate and might give the mistaken idea that there was an original twig and a copy. (70)

The chromosome pairings of our body cells, from conception onward, thus evoke distance, conflict, and the continued expression of an insoluble antiquity:

Separation, the impossibility of meeting, has been with us from the very beginning. We were born not from a fusion but from a juxtaposition of distinct bodies. Two cells grazed each other: one is lazy and all pulp, the other is only a head and a darting tail... [Y]ou might expect heaven knows what sort of fusion or mingling or exchange of selves; instead, what was written in one nucleus and in the other, those spaced lines, fall in and arrange themselves, on each side, in the new nucleus, very closely printed; the words of both nuclei fit in, wholly and clearly separate. In short, nobody has given himself; the two cells are packaged together but just as they were before: the first thing they feel is a slight disappointment. (81)

Our cells then (depressingly) continue to follow the unchanging "program" of mitosis; the expression of our selfhood only the triumph of one endlessly warring force over another:

Meanwhile the double nucleus has begun its series of duplications, printing the combined messages of father and mother in each of the offspring cells, perpetuating not so much the union as the unbridgeable distance that separates in each couple the two companions, the failure, the void that remains in the midst of even the most successful couple.

Of course, on every disputed issue our cells can follow the instructions of a single parent and thus feel free of the other's command, but we know what we claim to be in our exterior form counts for little compared to the secret program we carry printed in each cell, where the contradictory orders of mother and father continue arguing. (82)

[2] In contrast, meiosis, however, engenders the very framework of time, the process that makes intelligible the "old" and the "new." Meiosis is reified as the truly transcendent moment that conception often purports to be : the moment in which a juxtaposition of pasts gives way to a composite thrusting toward the future, a "new past": [12]

Void, separation, and waiting, that's what we are. And such we remain even on the day when the past inside us rediscovers its original forms, clustering into swarms of seed-cells or concentrated ripening of egg-cells, and finally the words written in the nuclei are no longer the same as before but no longer part of us either, they're a message beyond us, which already belongs to us no more. In a hidden point in ourselves the double series of orders from the past is divided in two and the new cells find themselves with a simple past, no longer double, which gives them lightness and the illusion of being something really new, of having a new past that almost seems like a future. (83)

The "hidden point" of meiosis marks a near-paradoxical moment of invention-though-synthesis very close to Young's formula for a "better" hybridity, what he calls hybridity through creolization — "Hybridization as creolization involves fusion, the creation of a new form, which can then be set against the old form, of which it is partly made up" (25) — and also close to Bhabha's declaration that truly transgressive hybridity is one in which the disavowed is "repeated as something different" (111). Furthermore, as Calvino makes clear, meiosis entails a rather familiar catch. The "genuine union" (Fenwick 207) of meiosis, belonging not to the individual but to his or her developing sex cells, is a moment always pushed into a perpetual future, the future-after-next; as such its promise is always simultaneously befalling and latent, its message passing beyond us to the next moment of meiosis in the forming sex cells of our offspring. As individuals, we and our offspring (and all who came before and after) occupy only interstitial time, the time of the interregnum:

So finally the encounter of pasts which can never take place in the present of those who believe they are meeting does take place in the form of the past of him who comes afterward and who cannot live that encounter in his own present ... .We were only the preparation, the envelope, for the encounter of pasts which happens through us but which is always part of another story, the story of the afterward: the encounters always take place before and after us, and in them the elements of the new, forbidden to us, are active: chance, risk, probability. (84)

[3] While we cannot occupy a present that is meiotic, we can, Calvino implies, access its "active" effects. Chief among these is the flowering of the discontinuous within the space of the continuous — scope for the reproduction of the new. A version of life dependent solely on mitosis — "the ultimate in genetic continuity" (Fenwick 203) — is a closed-off, greedy, colonizing one in which the space of the future is squeezed out of existence by an exponentially burgeoning past:

The threat of continuing weighed, from the very start, on anyone who had by chance begun. The crust that covers the earth is liquid, one drop among many thickens, grows, little by little absorbs the substances around it, it is a drop-island, gelatinous, that contracts and expands, that occupies more space at each pulsation, it's a drop-continent that spreads its branches over the oceans, makes the poles coagulate, solidifies its mucus-green outlines on the equator, if it doesn't stop in time it gobbles up the globe. The drop will live, only that drop, forever, uniform and continuous in time and in space ... because we are all arrested in this drop that will never let us be born or die, so life will belong to it and nobody else. (87-88)

The hegemony of the continuous is only arrested by sexually reproducing life, "we, the discontinuous" (91). Our discontinuity is figured by Calvino as "liberating because [it] permit[s] change, the generation of new identities and new narratives" (Fenwick 204):

The sea is covered with undulating eggs; a wave lifts them, mixes them with clouds of seed. Each swimming creature that slips from a fertilized egg repeats not one but two beings that were swimming there before him; he will not be the one or the other of those two but yet another, a third; that is, the original two for the first time will die, and the third for the first time has been born.

In the invisible expanse of the program-cells where all the combinations are formed or undone within the species, the original continuity still flows; but between one combination and another the interval is occupied by individuals who are mortal and sexed and different. (90)

The arena of life will from now on be staged as a war between continuity and discontinuity: "between those that exist and would like to be eternal and us who don't exist but would like to, at least for a little while" (Calvino 89). What comfort there is within the state of being alive — with all its painful questions of identity and selfhood and allegiance — arises not from a denial of how we (without choice) originate, but from the insight emerging from its embracing:

All that we can say is that in certain points and moments that interval of void which is our individual presence is grazed by the wave which continues to renew the combinations of molecules and to complicate or erase them, and that is enough to give us the certitude that somebody is "I" and somebody is "Priscilla" in the temporal and spatial distribution of the living cells, and that something happens or has happened or will happen which involves us directly and — I would dare say — happily and totally. This is in and of itself enough, Priscilla, to cheer me... (Calvino 86)

[12] In her astute commentary on "Meiosis," Fenwick points out that Calvino disrupts the writerly tradition of beginning biography at the moment of birth or of conception; instead, Calvino's narrator implicitly asserts that his biography "begin[s] with the meiotic events that led to the formation of the sperm and egg by which he was conceived" (205).