The horizon of the other

In Despina, Calvino presents a city with two faces: “The city displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different to him who arrives by sea.” The first face offers itself to those who arrive by land:

When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red windsocks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel; and he thinks of all the ports, the foreign merchandise the cranes unload on the docks, the taverns where crews of different flags break bottles over one another’s heads, the lighted, ground-floor windows, each with a woman combing her hair.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Desire 3

From land, the city appears to be a kind of ship, destined to carry the traveler far away. In contrast, to those who arrive by sea, it offers the opposite:

In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and saying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea, toward oases of fresh water in the palm trees’ jagged shade, toward palaces of thick, whitewashed walls, tiled courts where girls are dancing barefoot, moving their arms, half hidden by their veils, and half-revealed.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Desire 3

For each traveler, then, the city offers respite from the desert in which they have traveled, promises the bounty of a less parched world.

The irony which Calvino describes here is a version of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” – both the camel rider and the sailor believe that the city they gaze up promises more than their current locale, and both see exactly that which their counterpart hopes to escape: “Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.”

And what if we ourselves are each a border city between two deserts, a site of possibility when seen from the outside? Think of the promises of friendship, of relationships. We are drawn to others because being with other human beings (at least, those human beings whose company we enjoy) promises something more, draws us out of the desert of our self, promises the bounty of a larger world, and they are drawn to us for the same reason. So the city between two deserts is the place where we encounter others, and we approach these encounters like Calvino’s camel rider or sailor, seeing possibilities that represent the bounty of the space of those other individuals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *