The city of the self

The second city Marco Polo describes is Isidora. “When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city,” he begins.

Finally come comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isisdora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is a wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.

Cities and Memory 2

The strange juxtaposition of this passage – the dream of a city in which we wander as young men and women, and the arrival in that place in our old age.

In my own life, I have felt this duality, this paradoxical arrival. As has been said, “youth is wasted on the young” (an expression attributed, rightly or wrongly, to George Bernard Shaw) – in my youth I rode through wild regions, in my age I arrived at where I had dreamt of arriving when I was young.

Yet ironically, in my own life, the “wild regions” through which I rode were often the most well-travelled pathways; the “city” at which I have arrived is one unknown to me, one strange in the manner of Calvino’s Isadora. When I was young I made my way through life fearfully, and only as I have aged have I learned to live more bravely – perhaps because having lived, and lost, and survived, I now have greater faith in myself and my capabilities.

Or perhaps it is the difference between a feast or famine approach to life. When I was young I lived in a world of famine. When you are starving for love, for acceptance, when you believe the chance that you will be loved is slim, you grab hold of any love that is offered and you cling to it for your life. I married the first woman I ever dated, clung to the relationship like a barnacle out of fear that no other ship would visit the seas in which I swam. I was starving and here was sustenance.

While I’m single now, and haven’t dated in a while, I look at the world differently. It took me leaving behind my marriage, leaving behind a job I thought I would never leave, to learn that we live in a world of abundance, that we are surrounded by plenty, and that I can leave the wilderness of the normal (I was taught early in my life that “weird” was bad, and I had always known I was weird, so always sought to contain my weirdness as much as possible so as not to be cast out or to offend), and enter the city of myself, a city whose bounty lies spread out before me. To be an old man (or middle-aged man, at least) in the city of Isadora is nothing to scoff at.

Desires are always memories, Calvino says. It is true our desires tend toward the nostalgic. I used to ask my students to imagine the future of the world, and they would paint grand dystopic or utopian visions. Then I would ask them to imagine their own future. In most cases it looked suspiciously like an idealized version of their childhood – similar home, similar family structure. “How can we reconcile these two visions?”, I would ask them. The broad visions were colored by the media, the narrow by nostalgia.

Is the city in which my life has arrived a remembered desire, though? I don’t think so. When you are starving, when you ride “a long time through wild regions,” you may “feel the desire for a city,” as Calvino writes, but having not seen a city, your visions are inchoate, shaped more by a generalized dissatisfaction with your own life and a brooding envy as you contemplate the lives of those around you, those who seem more settled, more at home in their own skin. The city in which you wish to live is yourself, and having begun by despising yourself, when you arrive in that city, you find yourself surprised to have ever arrived at a place you never knew was worth visiting, rather than entering into a desire built on memory.

And yet I remain an older version of myself now just becoming comfortable as myself, and trapped (as Calvino describes) in a body that has aged beyond where I feel myself to be.

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.”