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.


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.