Slaves to desire

At the end of three days, moving southward, you come upon Anastasia, a city with concentric canals watering it and kites flying over it. I should now list the wares that can profitably be bought here: agate, onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalcedony; I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram; and tell of the women I have seen bathing in the pool of a garden and who sometimes – it is said – invite the stranger to disrobe with them and chase them in the water. But with all this, I would not be telling you the city’s true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as  a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Desire 2

What does it mean to enjoy something?

There are two types of enjoyment, I think. The enjoyment of consumption and the enjoyment of creation. In the first category I would place shopping, watching TV, listening to music or attending a concert. In the second category I would place acts of creation – cooking, making music, performing. The second is more challenging, takes more effort, but is also more satisfying.

(There may be activities which take place in a middle ground, too. For example, the communal experience of attending a concert, singing along or moshing, might be seen as a way to turn a consumer experience into a creative one, something I think many people long to do. Immersive experiences such as hiking might similarly occupy a middle ground, since we are fully within the environment. Hence the awkwardness of the hiking trip photo opp. – in the moment of the photograph, we turn an immersive experience into just another consumer experience.)

Here Calvino explores the trap of desire and consumption: “you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.” I think of Thoreau, who described in Walden how we believe we own our houses, when in fact they own us – we spend our days working to pay for the things which we have purchased, the houses, cars, technology, and yet think of ourselves as “owning” these things rather than as being enslaved to them.

We might understand a city (or a self, perhaps) as the nexus of consumption and creation – where the two join. The wealth that accumulates in cities means that consumption becomes the activity par excellance; as a result, they require a constant ferment of creation to take place. One cannot feed without food. I think of all the media coverage of New York’s Hudson Yards development a playground for the ultra-wealthy full of upscale shops and restaurants. Without cities we would not have the most refined of arts, because such arts (I think of opera, ballet, complex and expensive price-fixe menus) can only exist with the patronage of the wealthy. Should such arts exist? The essence of civilization, according to environmental writer and activist Derrick Jensen, is that it consumes more than it creates, and thus is unsustainable. To borrow Calvino’s terms, are cities, civilizations, our contemporary lives, more benign or malignant?

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