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.