The city of the self

The second city Marco Polo describes is Isidora. “When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city,” he begins.

Finally come comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isisdora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is a wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.

Cities and Memory 2

The strange juxtaposition of this passage – the dream of a city in which we wander as young men and women, and the arrival in that place in our old age.

In my own life, I have felt this duality, this paradoxical arrival. As has been said, “youth is wasted on the young” (an expression attributed, rightly or wrongly, to George Bernard Shaw) – in my youth I rode through wild regions, in my age I arrived at where I had dreamt of arriving when I was young.

Yet ironically, in my own life, the “wild regions” through which I rode were often the most well-travelled pathways; the “city” at which I have arrived is one unknown to me, one strange in the manner of Calvino’s Isadora. When I was young I made my way through life fearfully, and only as I have aged have I learned to live more bravely – perhaps because having lived, and lost, and survived, I now have greater faith in myself and my capabilities.

Or perhaps it is the difference between a feast or famine approach to life. When I was young I lived in a world of famine. When you are starving for love, for acceptance, when you believe the chance that you will be loved is slim, you grab hold of any love that is offered and you cling to it for your life. I married the first woman I ever dated, clung to the relationship like a barnacle out of fear that no other ship would visit the seas in which I swam. I was starving and here was sustenance.

While I’m single now, and haven’t dated in a while, I look at the world differently. It took me leaving behind my marriage, leaving behind a job I thought I would never leave, to learn that we live in a world of abundance, that we are surrounded by plenty, and that I can leave the wilderness of the normal (I was taught early in my life that “weird” was bad, and I had always known I was weird, so always sought to contain my weirdness as much as possible so as not to be cast out or to offend), and enter the city of myself, a city whose bounty lies spread out before me. To be an old man (or middle-aged man, at least) in the city of Isadora is nothing to scoff at.

Desires are always memories, Calvino says. It is true our desires tend toward the nostalgic. I used to ask my students to imagine the future of the world, and they would paint grand dystopic or utopian visions. Then I would ask them to imagine their own future. In most cases it looked suspiciously like an idealized version of their childhood – similar home, similar family structure. “How can we reconcile these two visions?”, I would ask them. The broad visions were colored by the media, the narrow by nostalgia.

Is the city in which my life has arrived a remembered desire, though? I don’t think so. When you are starving, when you ride “a long time through wild regions,” you may “feel the desire for a city,” as Calvino writes, but having not seen a city, your visions are inchoate, shaped more by a generalized dissatisfaction with your own life and a brooding envy as you contemplate the lives of those around you, those who seem more settled, more at home in their own skin. The city in which you wish to live is yourself, and having begun by despising yourself, when you arrive in that city, you find yourself surprised to have ever arrived at a place you never knew was worth visiting, rather than entering into a desire built on memory.

And yet I remain an older version of myself now just becoming comfortable as myself, and trapped (as Calvino describes) in a body that has aged beyond where I feel myself to be.

Envy and nostalgia

Today’s meditation: Invisible Cities, Cities and Memory 1

The first city Marco Polo describes is Diomira,

a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.

Cities and Memory 1

Here Calvino explores nostalgia, the sentimental longing for and idealization of the past. There are three layers of deception laid bare in the final sentence of this passage, and each reveals one aspect of how nostalgia works.

The first layer of deception comes from “those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this.” The idea of return, the idea of a kind of déjà vu, in which we re-experience something we have experienced before, but with the difference that where once we were happy, now we are not. The present becomes lesser than the imagined past.

This wraps us in the second layer of nostalgia, the idealization of the past – in comparison to the present moment, those who experiencing this déjà vu “think they were happy, that time.” The present is a falling away from a past.

When we analyze fantasy literature, one of the elements we often see is a kind of break between past and present. The mythological past exists but is cut off from the present in some way – magic has left the world, Adam and Eve have been cast out of the garden – and those in the present can try to improve the present but can never recapture the past. Think of Lord of the Rings, in which the characters can only use the bits and pieces left over from the magical past – a sword here, a ring there – but the past remains forever more perfect, and forever beyond our grasp. This is a nostalgic view of history as unavoidable decline, one in which the imagined inhabitants of Diomira participate.

Finally there is the third layer. Where the nostalgists of Diomira believe they have lived this night before, and think they were happy the first time around, the traveler, arriving in Diomira, and experiencing all the things he has experienced in other cities (think of the homogenized experience of our cities, jammed with the same shops and restaurants as other cities), too sophisticated to himself be nostalgic for the past, nonetheless envies those who have talked themselves into nostalgia. He envies those who believe they were once happy, suggesting that happiness itself may be a product of fancy – that nostalgia may be an illusion, but it is a comforting one which he wishes he could embrace. He is jealous of those who allow themselves to live within even the imperfect illusion of nostalgia.

And what about me?

I think that usually we play both roles, the nostalgist and the one envious of the nostalgist, that we wear our illusions, or nostalgia, like an ill-fitting suit. At times as we walk down the street, ride upward in the elevator, we may forget that we are wearing it, but with every bend of an elbow, checking of a watch, or sharp turn of the head we remind ourselves of its presence and its essential falsity, as flesh chafes against poorly-tailored fabric.

There is a beautiful moment in The Great Gatsby which captures this duality. Nick, the narrator, describes how he feels about the party  he’s attending at Tom and Myrtle’s pied-à-terre – everyone clashing, the conversation stilted and full of anger –

I wanted to get out and walk southward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby,

The dynamic that Fitzgerald captures here echoes that described by Calvino. Even as Nick can’t stand the party he’s attending, he can’t bring himself to leave, because he imagines how the party must seem from the street below, the jealousy and desire it must inspire in those who see it from the outside. Here we see the way we become trapped by our desire to believe. We choose to wear the ill-fitting suit of nostalgia for fear that without it we will walk naked through the streets of our lives, place ourselves on the outside looking in, full of the envy which Calvino describes.

In my own life, I have very little nostalgia. Yet I have the envy which Calvino describes, the wish that I could be nostalgic, could believe in things I know to be false, for the comfort they might offer. Yet I recognize the wistfulness of this position, and also cherish my lack of illusions. And at the same time, I, like Nick in Gatsby, have feared missing out on things of which I was already apart, romanticizing away the flaws of the moment as I imagined it through the eyes of those outside that moment. Perhaps these dynamics are unavoidable, the self always in contradiction to itself – as the poet Rimbaud wrote,

Je est un autre – I is an other.

Arthur Rimbaud, letter, May 1871.

Perhaps we are each always more than a single self, we are always an other, the self divides or folds in on itself, is foreign to itself, so that we are always all “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

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:

Planned Obsolescence

I’ve been thinking about endings lately. Partly it’s the gloom, two days of solid grey and rain is as depressing for me as it is for Shirley (my dog). We live in a world of planned obsolescence, where products aren’t designed or built for the long haul – the new phone is made in the knowledge that the goal is to encourage the purchase of another new phone in just a few years, the tv, laptop, all the accoutrements of modern society are built to be traded in and upgraded.

I wonder if we’re moving to a world in which our relationships function in the same way. We all crave stability and a solid ground on which to stand, but at the same time the world only becomes more vertiginous. So on the one hand we have an impulse to grab onto something and hold tight, to cling to it – a person, a career, a place, a religion or belief system – and on the other hand we live in a world in which we are taught that things are designed to work for us, that nothing – the workplace, the technology, the people – is going to stand firmly in our corner, so why should we stand firmly in its corner? The lover could leave at any time, when the next better thing comes along, could toss us into the bin the same way we’d do with an old cellphone when then newer sexier model comes along – so why not strike preemptively, and think of him or her in the same way, as having a certain use value, but also as ultimately being disposable?

I look at long-term relationships – the marriages of older couples I know, like my ex-wife’s parents, and I see this kind of life of accommodation, in which neither person seems happy, but in which neither person is alone. Is that kind of accommodation worth making? I know that I wasn’t happily married, but I also know that being alone doesn’t feel very good either. And probably men are more lonely than women – most men I know simply have fewer friends than the women I know. So maybe we’re more willing to stick in bad relationships for that reason, because of our fear of being alone, while the women are more likely to throw us over in favor of pursuing something better, the way you’d leave one yoga studio for another if the right deal presented itself.

Is one a better method than another of making your way through life? Could there be a middle ground? What does it take for a couple to learn and grow together, or to reconnect when things have broken down?

It’s funny, in my teaching I focus on using the tools of improvisation to help teachers rethink teaching, and to engage more fully with their students as partners in the learning process. I wonder if there is some way this principle could be applied to relationships – if couples could learn to improvise together. More and more I’m feeling like thinking and the tools of psychology just aren’t what we need as people, but that play and games, improvisation, and a way of thinking of ourselves as creating ourselves and recreating ourselves in the moment, rather than having some kind of deep psychology, is a more useful model for understanding how to be a person, or a person in relation to other people.

This doesn’t get around the original dilemma, though, the question of when it is worth continuing to invest in a relationship, versus when it is time to invest one’s energy elsewhere. And I hate the economic language I’m using to describe this here, and wonder whether this economic way of looking at things might be part of the problem. Maybe the present-focused play of improvisation – of actually looking at and listening to the person across the table, on the other end of the phone or text conversation – offers a way out of this question as well. Maybe we need to invest more in that kind of play, but then also learn to recognize when the play loses its fun?

The President’s Body Politic

Last night I read an essay by Borges about the Chinese emperor who both built the Great Wall and ordered all books written before his rule destroyed. The essay is a meditation on the relationship between this pair of contrasts, and Borges plays with a variety of possible interpretations of these actions.

Thinking about emperors building walls led me to consider the case of our current president, who is also dead set on building a wall. I started to consider his own contrasts, and somehow the fact that he’s simultaneously a germaphobe and a borderline-obese consumer of junk food struck me as an equally telling (if comically smaller) study in contrasts.

On the one hand, he’s concerned for his health, which he sees as threatened by contact and proximity with others. This of course fits well with his wall obsession and his xenophobia. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to care about a much more relevant threat to his health posed by his terrible diet (which apparently folks in the White House are trying to change).

It is as if all threats to the outside come from others; the choices we ourselves make, the things we bring into our own body of our own volition cannot hurt us. It is a fantasy of control. At the same time, its an odd pairing of a fantasy of invulnerability (“I can consume anything and not be hurt by it!!!” Maniacal exclamation, followed by laugh, of oddly powered super-villain), and a fear of extreme vulnerability to invisible influences (germs) brought by others who are less powerful, and more virulent.

The Peace theorist Betty Reardon writes that a masculine approach to peace focuses on national security, strong borders and militaries, and forgets that there is also such a thing as human security, the ability of individuals to live secure and fulfilled lives. The germaphobe focuses on border security, the keeping out of malign influences, and sees himself and the nation (whose body his own stands as a metonym for) as well off, healthy, and strong, no matter what the reality might be. And if facts (such as a physical exam or report on poverty) prove inconvenient, he can just find someone to offer “alternative facts.”

So being a germaphobe and intentionally filling his own body with garbage is a fitting and at the same time terrible analogy for his approach to governance. If all danger comes from the outside, from others, we are invulnerable and perfect if we only maintain our boundaries.

It would be comical were it not so awful.

The Rules of the Game

And here I’m starting out, creating this new blog for a wide variety of writing. Creative, analytical, pensive, goofball, critical.

The rules of the game I’ve set for myself here are that this blog will be spitballed, freestyled, written in and for the moment.

In my educational research I’m focusing on rethinking education to make it more centered around process and action rather than outcomes and knowledge — that teaching students to play the “game” of what we do in school — improvising in the roles of scientists, writers, historians, mathematicians — is more important than making sure that their heads contain particular knowledge. So I’d like to challenge myself in the same way, to play the game of writing here, to be in the moment of writing and to do it mindfully and intentionally, and in each post to play the game of the type of writing I’m doing — reflective, humorous, critical, creative, depending on the inspiration and the thoughts swirling round my head (hopefully not like water swirling down a drain, although that may not be a terrible analogy — what if that’s what thoughts do? what if thoughts flow in like water from a shower head, drench us briefly, help us scrub clean, and then flow out again? The only question or issue with the analogy might be where those thoughts are coming from or going to, but perhaps this is manageable too? Perhaps like the plumbing in our homes the mind is a kind of black box to all but the experts ((and who would the plumbers of the mind be? cognitive scientists? psychologists? novelists? poets? your guess is as good as mine…)

I’ll try to tag my various posts as I create them, and as themes and topics emerge. I imagine there will be book and music reviews, the occasional movie review; stabs at poetry or fiction or poetic fiction or poetic nonfiction or nonpoetic nonfiction, and some cultural criticism as well. I hope you’ll join me on the trip!