How to know something

In the third chapter of Invisible Cities Marco Polo describes the city of Dorothea. As he writes, “[t]here are two ways of describing the city”

you can say that four aluminum towers rise from its walls flanking seven gates with spring-operated drawbridges that span the moat whose water feeds four green canals which cross the city, dividing it into nine quarters, each with three hundred houses and seven hundred chimneys. And bearing in mind that the nubile girls of each quarter marry youths of other quarters and their parents exchange the goods that each family holds in monopoly – bergamot, sturgeon roe, astrolabes, amethysts – you can then work from these facts until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.

Cities & Desire 1

Here Calvino offers a mathematical, material, factual, and economic description of the city. This is one way of knowing. What do facts offer us? How meaningful is what they offer?

The second way of describing the city is through personal experience, through narrative:

Or else you can say, like the camel driver who took me there: “I arrived here in my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying along the streets toward the market, the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind. Before then I had known only the desert and the caravan routes. In the years that followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on that morning in Dorothea.”

Cities & Desire 1

This personal story is rooted in experience, and is one of potential and possibility, of the opening of the traveler to new worlds and new vistas.

The relationship here is that of the quantitative (mathematical) and qualitative (personal). To my mind, each works best in partnership with the other. Think of books that contain maps – whether histories or fantasy novels, like Lord of the Rings (I know I have mentioned it before, but that’s because it’s something of a cultural touchstone; rest assured there are many other wonderful fantasy novels with fascinating maps). You begin reading, open the book, and map offers you a promise – here is the world which will be explored, here are the places to which the characters will go. It is necessary but not sufficient. The story could survive without the map, but the map emptied of story is a marker of possibility unfulfilled.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth

As you read, though, the map comes to life. The characters journey from place to place, and we flip between our page and the map, to see how far they have come, and how far they still have to go. The map delineates the boundaries of the world, it sets in motion possibility even as it limits that possibility.

So too does the first description of Dorothea offer us possibilities and limitations. This is the world we are given. 700 chimneys. A world of facts and figures, from which “you can then work … until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.”

The second description, however, immediately belies that last statement. As the caravan driver tells of entering the city, delineating how “the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind,” we see that the quantitative description tells us nothing of this place, that it may be a necessary part of understanding a place (that, for example, it is important to know something about the history of the auto industry and the related glass industry to understand the city of Toledo, my current homeplace), but it is not sufficient. Facts are important but only take us so far.

For me, the most troubling piece of this chapter is that line after the first description: that knowing the facts of Dorothea, “you can then work from these facts until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.” Think of Dorothea as a person (after all, as I have described in other posts, Calvino is describing individuals as well as cities… and again we have a city with a woman’s name, which suggests something as well). In our world, people judge others constantly based on the limited information they have about them. They presume that knowing a few things, they can extrapolate and understand someone’s “past, present, and future.” And would any of us presume that we could be summed up in this way? We are all always more, always deeper, always unknowable even to ourselves — the most we can know is that each of us lives in a realm of possibility, and that whatever road we walk down, “this path is only one of the many that opened before [us] on that morning in Dorothea.”

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