“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….

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.

Cities versus memory

Bangkok, Sathorn Road, 1946. Source: https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/social-and-lifestyle/796180/bangkok-in-freeze-frame
Bangkok, Sathorn Road, 2015. Source: https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/social-and-lifestyle/796180/bangkok-in-freeze-frame

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.

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.