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.

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.”