Entering the Invisible City

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has been one of my favorite books for many years — the type of book you can return to over and over, finding something new each time. In this way it’s like great poetry, continually rewarding the reader.

I thought I’d begin a deep dive into the book, treating each chapter as a kind of daily object of contemplation.

The book begins with a short introductory chapter. Kublai Khan sits with Marco Polo, and listens attentively (if skeptically) as Polo describes the cities within Khan’s empire which he has encountered on his journey.

In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any though of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Might we each be an emperor, ruling over the sprawling domain of our own life, a life which is at once under our nominal control and yet also beyond that control, a life edging toward death even as we continue to assert our authority over it?

Calvino suggests as much, using the second person voice (“the territories we have conquered,” “a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening”). And of course all life proceeds towards its own conclusion, all roads lead toward the horizon where sky and sea merge into one bluegrey finality. Yet perhaps, as Calvino suggests, there is the possibility we may discern “a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.”

For me, as for Calvino here, such a pattern arises not from the existence of the supernatural (some soul disconnected from our bodies which lives on after our death), but rather from the act of storytelling, of meaning-making, the human creation of pattern. (As Jerome Bruner suggests, storytelling and meaning-making are synonymous.) Religion, after all, is just very convincing storytelling (I apologize to any whom this statement might offend. If you are among that group, I suggest that you consider this statement in light of every other religion in the world excluding your own; I imagine that in this way, with the aid of that neat little carve-out, you’ll be much more likely to find it agreeable.). In Joan Didion’s phrasing, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” — and as Calvino suggests here, “to live” means to find a way to make peace with the crumbling of the empires of our lives.

I’ll continue making my way through Calvino’s book, meditating on descriptions of the cities (all different, perhaps also all the same) it describes, in future posts.

If you’re interested, I encourage all to read it for themselves. It is a book worth owning.

Cover of the most recent edition. You can purchase it here: