Invisible Cities (Utopias and Dystopias #2)

(This is a second of a series of posts on utopian and dystopian philosophy and literature. See here for an earlier post on Mahfouz’s “Evil Adored”.)
I’ve long been puzzled by how it is possible to enjoy, even love, works of literature that I don’t understand. Wallace Stevens’ poetryimmediately captivated and intrigued me, especially the long poems “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” “Auroras of Autumn,” and “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” but after twenty years I don’t know what I think about them. Emily Dickinson and William Blake are two more examples of poets who give pleasure in part because of their elusiveness and difficulty. Similarly, there are long stretches of Gravity’s Rainbow where I have no idea what’s going on, but feel that whatever is occurring is marvelous.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a book that I loved the first time I read it, but it still puzzles me. In it, the Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo describes cities to the emperor of the Mongols and founder of the Yuan dynasty Kublai Khan. Polo’s stories move along a matrix which determines the order in which types of cities appear: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and signs, thin cities, trading cities, cities and eyes, cities and names, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, continuous cities, hidden cities. Every cycle of five cities is punctuated by conversations and reflections between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
The cities are in turn sensuous, splendid, repelling, and perplexing. The twin city Valdrada (Cities & Eyes 1) is built on the shore of a lake, so that the city is mirrored in the water. Every action has its mirror image that gives it meaning. Eutropia (Trading Cities 3) is many cities of equal size together that rotate. When the inhabitants grow weary of their lives, they “move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend this time with different pastimes, friends, gossip” (64) In Eusapia (Cities & the Dead 3) the inhabitants “have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground”. This city of the dead complements and completes the living city “to make the leap from life to death less abrupt.” (109)
            What is an invisible city? Invisible cities are not imaginary (in the sense of nonexistent). Though most of Calvino’s cities are fantastical, they are also real in that they are manifestations of our desires, impressions from our memories, invocations of signs, and names. We never experience cities as they are (if it indeed makes sense to suggest that cities are something independent of our experience). A city, of course, is not merely a collection of physical objects; rather, it is a concept created but only imperfectly grasped by thousands, sometimes millions of people. Moreover, cities are constantly in flux: they grow, shrink, rise, fall, assuming new identities that are only tenuously linked to their former selves. Cities are assemblies of memories, desires, signs, and names.
Anyone who has visited a city after spending years away learns this. It is not just the cities that have changed; we have also changed and our experience of the city was very much a product of who we are. When the Khan notes that Marco Polo never speaks of Venice, Polo replies: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” (86) He goes on to explain: “To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.” (86) Commentators have taken this to mean that all of the cities are one and the same city. Perhaps, but the question remains: what is this one and the same city? One might as well conclude that every city is many cities.
None of this explains the adjective “invisible”. Only the “Hidden Cities” which appear only in the penultimate and final sections are in a sense invisible (at least while they are hidden). Perhaps, though, all cities are invisible, insofar as they are mental objects revealed through symbols and stories. This may be the implication of Fedora (Cities & Desire 4), a “gray stone metropolis” in the center of which “stands a metal building” (32). A crystal globe is in each room of the building and when you look into each globe you see the forms that “the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today.” (32) Though Marco Polo does not mention this, it would seem that these rooms and globes are infinite, containing all possible cities. There is also a curious feature: the very act of imagining a different city changes its nature so that reflection on Fedora further multiplies the cities caught in the globes:
In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe. (32)
The act of imagining ideal cities also the act that Marco Polo carries out with Kublai Khan and Calvino carries out with the reader. Calvino writes:
The Great Khan’s atlas contains also the maps of promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoé, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria. (164)
The lands visited in thought are philosophical utopias, realized only in thought: Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Thomas More’s Utopia, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun, the Marquis de Sade’s Tamoé, and Étienne Cabet’s Icaria. (Two exceptions are Robert Owen’s social experiments New Harmony and New Lanark, though the visions that inspired them do not correspond to what actually resulted.)
Kublai asked Marco: “You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favoring winds are driving us.”
            “For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest of instants, separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you can hunt for it, but only in the way I have said.” (164)
You do not discover these cities. If you do hunt for them, you must do so by constructing them, “piece by piece” from fragments gathered across space and time. Invisible Cities is an example of this activity.
            Calvino continues:
Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World. (164)
Enoch is the city built by Cain and named after his son. Babylon is the damned city found in biblical scripture and has little relationship to the historical Mesopotamian metropolis. Yahooland is from Gulliver’s Travels and Butua is the dystopia city of the Marquis de Sade’s Aline et Alcour. Brave New World is Aldous Huxley’s dystopia.
Calvino continues:
[Kublia Khan] said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”
            And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” (165)
Here is a key to Invisible Cities. The invisible city is the inferno that we do not see: because we are so much part of it, we fail to recognize it. We live in invisible cities because we are blind to our surroundings. (There is a parallel with the city of Reality from Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth published a decade earlier that became invisible because everyone was too busy getting to get to their destination that they forgot to look at the beauty and wonders of their surroundings.) The tales of Marco Polo are exercises of imagination and of perception to alert us to reality and to help us imagine how things might be otherwise.

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