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.

The uncertainty of power.

“On the day when I know all the emblems,” he asked Marco, “shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, [interlude at the end of part 1]

This interlude focuses on the language with which Marco Polo communicates with Kublai Khan. It begins by outlining how the envoys of the Great Khan make their reports:

Sent off to inspect the remote provinces, the Great Khan’s envoys and tax-collectors duly returned to Kai-ping-fu and to the gardens of magnolias in whose shade Kublai strolled, listening to their long reports. The ambassadors were Persians, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Turkmans; the emperor is he who is a foreigner to each of his subjects, and only through foreign eyes and ears could the empire manifest its existence to Kublai. In languages incomprehensible to the Khan, the envoys related information heard in languages incomprehensible to them: from this opaque, dense stridor emerged the revenues received by the imperial treasury, the first and last names of officials dismissed and decapitated, the dimensions of the canals that the narrow rivers fed in times of drought.

Here we begin to understand what it means to rule: “the emperor is he who is a foreigner to each of his subjects.” Remember that we are each our own emperor, each our own subjects. Or are we? What would it mean to think of ourselves in these terms? To consider in what ways we are foreign to ourselves?

And yet the central premise of modern psychology is that this is the case. The idea of the unconscious is nothing more than this: that we are alien to ourselves, that our selves emerge out of an “opaque, dense stridor.”

And the most important communication is even more opaque, as Marco Polo shares with Kublai Khan his own discoveries despite their lack of shared language. This communication relies on gestures, sounds, and the display of relevant objects.

But when the young Venetian made his report, a different communication was established between him and the emperor. Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks – ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes—which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl.

This communication has two hallmarks: it is uncertain, and it is powerful:

The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused. In the Khan’s mind the empire was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data, like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian’s logogriphs.

Here communication becomes a riddle or puzzle (a “logogriph” is a particular kind of puzzle built around the letters of a word), and meaning becomes unstable (“labile,” meaning unstable, from a latin root which means “to fall”). To govern his empire means playing chess against the babbling, fallen world of miscommunication. The only way to rule is to accept the instability of the sand beneath his feet, his inability to understand the empire which nominally belongs to the Great Khan, but is neither comprehensible nor governable. Power relies on and is interwoven with uncertainty.

Yet Marco Polo slowly learns the language of the Khan, and communication between the two becomes easier. The more fluid their communication, though, the more facile (shallow, seemingly meaningful but actually lacking meaning) it becomes; Kublai Khan is always drawn back to the hazy language of pantomime and gesture:

As the seasons passed and his missions continued, Marco mastered the Tartar language and the national idioms and tribal dialects. Now his accounts were the most precise and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor’s mind that first gesture or object with which Marco had designated the place. The new fact received a meaning from that emblem and also added to the emblem a new meaning. Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.

All of this leads the Khan to ponder when he might actually possess his own empire, when he might pin it down linguistically (like a patient etherized upon a table, as Eliot might say?):

            “On the day when I know all the emblems,” he asked Marco, “shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?”

            And the Venetian answered: “Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.”

Here Khan expresses his hope that by knowing all the emblems (and note that the goal is to know the uncertain emblems, not the certain linguistic communication) he might finally possess his empire. The more expansive his knowledge, though, the more uncertain he himself becomes, so that the most he can hope to become “an emblem among emblems,” another uncertain sign, powerful and unstable. The only way to possess something, to become powerful, is to hold on loosely, and to ourselves become emblematic of the workings of power, less a person and more a symbol – power itself derives from one’s status as a symbol.