Dead branches of the past

The interlude that begins section 2 of Invisible Cities places Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in silent conversation, each imagining what the other says, the first from the vantage point of the traveler who contemplates his travels from his stationary position atop the steps of the palace, the second from the vantage point of the stationary ruler who roams widely in his mind. What has Polo gained from his travels? What does Khan gain (or hope to gain) from hearing the description of those travels?

Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities [interlude at the start of part 2]

The more we travel, the more we understand our past, Calvino offers here. Yet this answer leaves Khan dissatisfied.

At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “does your journey take place only in the past?”

            All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

To Khan’s challenge – “Is what you see always behind you?” – Polo offers a challenging, satisfying answer. It is not that we simply come to know our past by traveling, by visiting new places, but rather that “the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

We discover our past through travel, but the past is not something hard, objective, but rather something open and malleable. We change our past through travel, discover a new past, discover who we no longer are, what we no longer possess.

Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.

            “Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”

            And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

Traveling, here, becomes a way to explore the paths our lives did not take, to discover the infinite pathways of human variety, and to recognize again and again how many doors are closed to us, how many pathways our feet have never traveled, how many routes we will never take. In this vision of experience, as the self looks into its negative mirror we discover our self, ever smaller, ever more sharply defined. If there is an endpoint to such journeys, it must be when we become infinitely clear and refined, and infinitely small, like a piece of carbon slowly turning into a more and more multifaceted diamond at the same time that it shrinks itself out of existence.

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