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.