Cities versus memory

Bangkok, Sathorn Road, 1946. Source:
Bangkok, Sathorn Road, 2015. Source:

The description of Zaira begins by rejecting the possibility of description: “In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions.” Where Dorothea (see the previous post) could be described mathematically, in terms of contents and dimensions, here to characterize Zaira in these terms would be fruitless.

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Memory 3

Instead, the city is details of the city that matter are the bits of story concealed within its contours, details at once mundane (a cat slipping along a gutter) and suggestive of a larger story (a city besieged by an illegitimate usurper):

The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the group of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fish net and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Memory 3

            As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. 

Here the past exists as hidden text, like “the lines of a hand,” legible only to those who know how to decode the geographical script, each spatial relationship a suggestion and hint of history, gossip, past, memory.

Yet we might also see this as a kind of lie, a kind of elision. The chapter is called cities and memory 3, and here memory is all that makes history legible. The built environment tends toward the destruction of history rather than its encoding; consider a street corner in your own city, your own neighborhood. What did it look like before the current gas station, the current strip mall? We layer new places atop old, and destroy the old, the history in the process. The process is not unlike that described by Jean Baudrillard, who builds upon a fragment of a story by Borges to imagine the colonists of Europe laying a life-size map down atop the landscapes they encountered. If we were to remove the map, he explains, all that would be left is “the desert of the real” – what once was is destroyed in the creation of the places and the maps that demarcate their geography. Cities and memory are opposites, enemies. The first destroys the second unthinkingly, and memory becomes little more than a scrapyard of stories.