Invisible Cities

December 10, 2013

A collection of fantastical descriptions of imaginary cities can nonetheless tell us the truth about ourselves.

This was my second reading of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and like a great book or a great city, it is different each time you pay a visit, because each time you yourself are different.

The book takes the form of a series of miniature travelogues, as told by the great voyager Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, leader of the largest empire ever to span the earth. Polo’s descriptions are fantastical, and Kublai “does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions.” But the introduction’s narrator, an unnamed but knowing leader of men, suggests why Kublai pays young Polo heed:

It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.

Cities rise and fall, grow and crumble, and yet they are not merely the walls and buildings and grids of avenues we think of them as. There is more to them, some “tracery of a pattern so subtle” which gives life to their cold stone. Cities are more than their physical being, and of course so are we. And thus Polo’s accounts delve not merely into the nature of cities, but into our own human nature.

The cities he describes are not literal cities, but cities of the mind: ways of being, written in architecture. Polo makes true the old cliche that in traveling to foreign places one discovers oneself. Take, for example, Isidora, a city that is everything you dream of, except you are not as you dream of.

Isidora, 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.

Such can be life: that we might work so hard or long to get some thing that by the time we attain it, we’re no longer the person who wanted it in the first place.

Other cities, like Octavia, are memorable simply for their fantastic imagery:

Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Some of Polo’s descriptions are more about the inhabitants’ rituals than the cities themselves. For example,

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

Imagine: an entire city’s worth of relationships preserved without a soul in sight. It’s a nice consolation for mortality: that while we might no longer exist, the artifacts of our relationships—our photographs, letters, and much more in the digital age—will live on, attesting to what we were for others.

The citizens of Eusapia have a different ritual to make approaching death easier. They’ve constructed a city identical to their own below ground, and when, for example, a baker passes away, his body is placed in the underground city’s bakery, posed as if continuing his occupation. I say “as if”, but of course “they say that every time they go below they find something changed in the lower Eusapia.”

Instead of easing its approach, the people of Thekla choose instead to fight off their city’s demise. Thekla is a city of scaffolds which is forever being built “so that its destruction cannot begin.”

And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, “Not only the city.”

These are but a small subset of the cities in Invisible Cities. And yet this subset is representative of the fact that they all seem to be, or plausibly could be, named after women. I wonder if this is simply a side-effect of the male narrator, that what he seeks from his travels is his Jungian anima, the female incarnation of what he lacks in himself. After all, is this not what we city-dwellers ultimately want from the cities in which we live?

In the end, Invisible Cities turns out not to be about discrete cities at all, but merely the many faces of every city, or perhaps only some. For the narrator, Marco Polo, it is his home:

Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice….To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit.

I think the reason the great Khan keeps Marco Polo around is the same reason I myself keep this book around: as a reminder that the things we build–our empires, our lives–can never be fully known. But far from being a source of discouragement, this fact should spur us, for our lives remain as yet ripe for the traveling.