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.

Drawing on our depths

Returning after hiatus.

I got sick. A summer virus, according to my doctor brother. Was laid up for a week. And then inertia took over, and I (mostly) stopped writing, although I picked up my morning journaling about a week ago. This blog, and my reflections on Italo Calvino’s beautiful, meditative Invisible Cities, fell by the wayside.

And now I return, with reflections on his chapter “Thin Cities 1,” which describes a city mirrored by an underground lake:

Isaura, city of the thousand wells, is said to rise over a deep, subterranean lake. On all sides, wherever the inhabitants dig long vertical holes in the ground, they succeed in drawing up water, as far as the city extends, and no farther. Its green border repeats the dark outline of the buried lake; an invisible landscape conditions the visible one; everything that moves in the sunlight is driven by the lapping wave enclosed beneath the rocks’ calcareous sky.

Italo Calvino Invisible Cities, Thin Cities 1

First of all, note the word “calcareous.” Let it roll around in your mouth and ears. You don’t know this word. I don’t know this word. And yet we know this word. It hurts our teeth, it is chalky and sharp and bony, full of calcium. And this is exactly what we would find it to mean, if we were to look it up. The word choice is Calvino’s, not his translator’s (William Weaver, who has done an astounding job throughout, I’m not trying to critique him), the Italian word “calcareo.”

Now we dive deeper. I have written in earlier entries that all the cities Calvino describes (or Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan, or Kublai Khan describes to himself) are the same city, are all cities. And that these descriptions of cities are also descriptions of us, of people.

Consider, then, what it would mean for our self to rise out of a “deep, subterranean lake,” one which precisely shadows us, mirrors, us, whose boundaries extend exactly as far as our own. We might think of this lake as our unconscious, were we thinking in Freudian terms – the unknown terrain from which our conscious selves spring. Or perhaps we might think of this subterranean lake in Jungian terms as the shadow which mirrors our selves, and which must be respected, honored, and acknowledged – the parts of ourselves which we hide from ourselves, for fear of what they might reveal.

St. Leonard Lake, Valais, Switzerland.
Photo credit: © Borsic at English Wikipedia

Our shadow selves might represent the darkness within us, but often contain positive aspects of ourselves (especially if we have grown in ways which have made us question or mistrust ourselves, a relatively common phenomenon in the world we live in). Keith Johnstone, author of the wonderful book Impro, argues that most of us are socialized to mistrust ourselves, and to quash our own spontaneity. Hiding in the lake beneath us is our spontaneity, our creativity, our trust in ourselves.

Calvino’s description of Isaura continues:

            Consequently two forms of religion exist in Isaura.

The city’s gods, according to some people, live in the depths, in the black lake that feeds the underground streams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets that rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the edge of the wells, in the revolving pulleys, in the windlasses of the norias, in the pump handles, in the blades of the windmills that draw the water up from the drillings, in the trestles that support the twisting probes, in the reservoirs perched on stilts over the roofs, in the slender arches of the aqueducts, in all the columns of water, the vertical pipes, the plungers, the drains, all the way up to the weathercocks that surmount the airy scaffoldings of Isaura, a city that moves entirely upward.

Italo Calvino Invisible Cities, Thin Cities 1

Here we see two ways of relating to our shadow selves, to our unconscious. We can see it as the source of our inspiration, as the hiding place of the “gods” who “live in the depths”; or we can see worship the “gods” that move these depths upward – the pulleys and windmills, the pipes and aqueducts that allow us access to our own depths.

I think of this in terms of improvisation (which makes sense, because I think of many things in terms of improvisation). Does it make more sense to honor the processes which open us up to the improvisatory moment, which allow us to succeed as improvisors? The responsiveness to what we are offered, the desire to say “yes, and” to the gifts others give us, and to the gifts we give ourselves? Or should we care more about the results that these processes offer us, the insights and performances which they make possible?

For me, as for Calvino (if not stated explicitly, at least indicated through his syntax, through his extended and closing riff on the “city that moves entirely upward,” the right form of worship (to borrow his language) is one that cares more for the processes of improvisation, which sees them as worthy of embrace because of what they make possible. As so many improv teachers have preached and written about, if we create honest scenes, scenes that arise out of our mindful responsiveness to our scene partners, we will arrive at self-knowledge, at wonder, at humor, and at beauty. We need not aim at these targets to arrive at them.

“Memory is redundant”

Why do memories stay with us? Calvino explores this question in his chapter “Cities & Signs 2,” in which Marco Polo describes his visit to the city of Zirma.

Zirma is a city that sticks in the mind: “Travelers return from the city of Zirma with distinct memories: a blind black man shouting in the crowd, a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper’s cornice, a girl walking with a puma on a leash.”

The secret of these memories, is that each sight is repeated so that it might stay with the viewer:

Actually many of the blind men who tap their canes on Zirma’s cobblestones are black; in every skyscraper there is someone going mad; all lunatics spend hours on cornices; there is no puma that some girl does not raise, as a whim. The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities and Signs 2

For some reason Polo sees through this city in a way that other visitors are unable to:

I too am returning from Zirma: my memory includes dirigibles flying in all directions, at window level; streets of shops where tattoos are drawn on sailors’ skin; underground trains crammed with obsess women suffering from the humidity. My traveling companions, on the other hand, swear they saw only one dirigible hovering among the city’s spires, only one tattoo artist arranging needles and inks and pierced patterns on his bench, only one fat woman fanning herself on a train’s platform. Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities and Signs 2

Here Calvino suggests that the city lives a double life – it is, itself, and at the same time there is a new city recreated in the mind of the visitor. Or perhaps we should say there are an infinite number of cities recreated individually in the minds of visitors, just as the visitors described by Polo hold in their minds a different Zirma than the one belonging to him.

Thinking of memory as built from redundancy rings true to me. I think of the waterfall in my childhood backyard. Why can I remember it so vividly? Just beyond the outflow of the pond there was a concrete wall, maybe eight feet high, over which the water flowed and dropped. We would cross it, edging over it with our feet sideways, slide-stepping them across the rough pebbled grey concrete, pushing perpendicular to the flow of the water, the fear of falling over the wall to the slab below, and the way that fear would yield to the rush of excitement each time I reached the far end.

This memory is so firmly planted in my mind because of its redundancy, like Calvino’s Zirma – the repetition of the experience means that I have carried that waterfall with me for all these years.

Yet if existence is carved out through memory, and repetition or redundancy are what allow memories to solidify, at least for a time, repetition is also the enemy of memory. Think of a time you parked your car regularly (or semi-regularly) in a particular structure or lot. The more memories of doing so you possess, the harder it is to find your car on any individual visit, because the layered memories interfere with the specific memory of this trip. I have traded the specificity of any single visit to that waterfall from my youth for a generalized waterfall, the somehow generic specific experience of crossing that strip of concrete. Thus we trade a kind of truth for a composite lie. And yet as Calvino suggests, perhaps the only way to hold onto anything is by making this kind of trade off….

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.

Killing the present

Zora is a puzzle. What would it take for something to be indelibly inscribed in memory?

Consider my last post, about the significant and insignificant. Here Calvino describes a city that is memorable because it is entirely significant – everything within it does the work of signaling something else, and consequently it cannot be forgotten:

Beyond six rivers and three mountain ranges rises Zora, a city that no one, having seen it, can forget. But not because, like other memorable cities, it leaves an unusual image in your recollections. Zora has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of streets, of houses along the streets, and of doors and windows in the houses, though nothing in them possesses a special beauty or rarity. Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced. The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion, the Turkish bath, the café at the corner, the alley that leads to the harbor. This city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honeycomb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues, numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications, dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech. Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory. So the world’s most learned men are those who have memorized Zora.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Memory 4

Here the city functions as a kind of memory palace, the kind that the ancient Romans would use as a mnemonic device. When they wished to commit something to memory they would create one of these geographical memory aids. For example, if Cicero were memorizing a speech he planned to deliver at the Forum, he would create a memory palace, shaping a visual geography for the speech within their head. Each element of the speech would be placed in a room – the introduction would take up one room, filled with objects that cued the mind to remember other pieces of information, the next section another room.

Yet as Calvino describes here, the consequence of being a literal memory palace is erasure. The city that cannot be forgotten, because every element is a signpost of something else – some event or idea – ends up disappearing:

But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Memory 4

Why is this the case? As Calvino suggests, we cannot live within a static world. That which is entirely memorable is already obsolete. To visit a place that cannot or will not change is to visit a place that is frozen in time, and unliveable.

This makes me think of the beaches of Thailand. When I lived in Thailand many beaches were already overdeveloped, over-visited. There were full moon festivals on the islands off the east coast of the southern peninsula. By the time I took a student group to visit in 2006 the beaches were even busier, even more developed. What had been full moon festivals had grown into full moon festivals, half moon festivals, an ongoing party that continued to trash things. Now the government is resorting to closing beaches for multiple years at a stretch, in hopes that the coral reefs and surrounding area will be able to somewhat recover from their treatment.

Loving the beach to death.

Ok, so change was happening. This wasn’t Zora, which remained the same, frozen in memory.

And yet… it was like Calvino’s city. Each visitor tried to capture a feeling, a meaning, that they believed the beach carried, from previous experiences, from stories and movies etc. We love things to death because we don’t actually love them. We love an older idea of them – the less developed beach, the innocent partying – even as we spend time in the actual contemporary place, in our mind we’re embracing an older vision of a place, one that allows us to let our mind skip over the trash, the crowds, the awfulness of it. It is the kind of vision that allows us to forget the interminable lines at the amusement park and hold onto just the photographic evidence, the pictures of us with the park mascot in their heavy costume. And that picture also hearkens not to the moment of the picture – the sweaty day beneath the heaving sun, but rather our time in the air-conditioned living room, watching a cartoon version of that mascot traipsing merrily across a screen. Each layer of memory conjures an older, static memory, and in this way we embrace the ugly, the destructive, the decline, because we hold tight to a glimpse of a shadow of a memory when we once, too were happy.


The next chapter offers us a contrast – an opening section, in which the traveler wanders in the wilderness, followed by an encounter with the city Tamara.

The hallmark of wilderness is that it is insignificant. Consider that word for a moment. What does it mean? “Unimportant”? Perhaps rather, “not signifying”?

You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Signs 1

The eye only rests on things which it can make sense of, when a thing seems to be “the sign of another thing.” How would we make sense of rocks, trees, the forest without the linguistic signifiers we have for them? When Kant defined the sublime, he described how we encounter natural things that dwarf us (a thunderstorm, a mountain, a canyon) and mentally experience a kind of shrinking of those things – they fail to hurt us, we take something large (a massive rift eaten into the earth of the desert) and we make it small through thought, through naming it: we call it “The Grand Canyon” but the act of naming itself makes us grander than the canyon. Nothing is only what it is, to us. We can only recognize things when they function as signs; signs both reveal and obscure – reveal because without a sign, things are invisible, insignificant, but the signs themselves also stand in front of and replace what we encounter. Thus Walker Percy, in his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” describes all the images, postcards, signs that come between us and our experience of the Grand Canyon.

The work of erosion.
Image source:

And then the traveler enters Tamara, a city of endless signs:

You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something—who knows what?—has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes—the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa—so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things; the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the glided palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all of her parts.
However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant…

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Signs 1

Everything is represented by a sign – the barber pole we have learned means haircut, the circle minus a wedge that reads pizza. As Calvino describes, signs represent places and things; they classify activities into allowed and forbidden (think of restroom iconography; a triangle signifies womanhood, and unleashes a whole range of gendered ideas)

Apparently the people with pointy clothing are significantly different from the ones whose legs are significantly more clothespin like.
Image credit:

Placement, too, is iconography: “If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel.”

And items sold are signs as well. Green paper represents wealth, value. Clothing, shoes, accessories represent types of people, social classes. Think of the ways that yoga pants have come to signify a certain kind of middle class lifestyle, the way that having a piano in your living room once meant that your family was middle class, that the women had the leisure to learn to play piano. Now they have the leisure to exercise, and yoga represents the most virtuous of all kinds of exercise, with its vaguely spiritual connotations.

As Calvino presents it here, as we live it every day, we live in a world of signs, in a mediated world. Growing up is a process of learning (and being taught) to read these signs appropriately, so that we can maneuver our way through our lives, our culture, seamlessly. It is important not to see things as they are.

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.

How to know something

In the third chapter of Invisible Cities Marco Polo describes the city of Dorothea. As he writes, “[t]here are two ways of describing the city”

you can say that four aluminum towers rise from its walls flanking seven gates with spring-operated drawbridges that span the moat whose water feeds four green canals which cross the city, dividing it into nine quarters, each with three hundred houses and seven hundred chimneys. And bearing in mind that the nubile girls of each quarter marry youths of other quarters and their parents exchange the goods that each family holds in monopoly – bergamot, sturgeon roe, astrolabes, amethysts – you can then work from these facts until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.

Cities & Desire 1

Here Calvino offers a mathematical, material, factual, and economic description of the city. This is one way of knowing. What do facts offer us? How meaningful is what they offer?

The second way of describing the city is through personal experience, through narrative:

Or else you can say, like the camel driver who took me there: “I arrived here in my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying along the streets toward the market, the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind. Before then I had known only the desert and the caravan routes. In the years that followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on that morning in Dorothea.”

Cities & Desire 1

This personal story is rooted in experience, and is one of potential and possibility, of the opening of the traveler to new worlds and new vistas.

The relationship here is that of the quantitative (mathematical) and qualitative (personal). To my mind, each works best in partnership with the other. Think of books that contain maps – whether histories or fantasy novels, like Lord of the Rings (I know I have mentioned it before, but that’s because it’s something of a cultural touchstone; rest assured there are many other wonderful fantasy novels with fascinating maps). You begin reading, open the book, and map offers you a promise – here is the world which will be explored, here are the places to which the characters will go. It is necessary but not sufficient. The story could survive without the map, but the map emptied of story is a marker of possibility unfulfilled.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth

As you read, though, the map comes to life. The characters journey from place to place, and we flip between our page and the map, to see how far they have come, and how far they still have to go. The map delineates the boundaries of the world, it sets in motion possibility even as it limits that possibility.

So too does the first description of Dorothea offer us possibilities and limitations. This is the world we are given. 700 chimneys. A world of facts and figures, from which “you can then work … until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.”

The second description, however, immediately belies that last statement. As the caravan driver tells of entering the city, delineating how “the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind,” we see that the quantitative description tells us nothing of this place, that it may be a necessary part of understanding a place (that, for example, it is important to know something about the history of the auto industry and the related glass industry to understand the city of Toledo, my current homeplace), but it is not sufficient. Facts are important but only take us so far.

For me, the most troubling piece of this chapter is that line after the first description: that knowing the facts of Dorothea, “you can then work from these facts until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.” Think of Dorothea as a person (after all, as I have described in other posts, Calvino is describing individuals as well as cities… and again we have a city with a woman’s name, which suggests something as well). In our world, people judge others constantly based on the limited information they have about them. They presume that knowing a few things, they can extrapolate and understand someone’s “past, present, and future.” And would any of us presume that we could be summed up in this way? We are all always more, always deeper, always unknowable even to ourselves — the most we can know is that each of us lives in a realm of possibility, and that whatever road we walk down, “this path is only one of the many that opened before [us] on that morning in Dorothea.”