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?

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.