Imagined Cities

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a book written according to the desires of my imagination: poetic, fantastic, imagistic.  Its nine sections open and close with episodes in an imagined relationship between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, with the adventurer relating news of his travels to the emperor.  Between these episodes, each section contains descriptions of the cities that Polo has visited, exotic, mythic, impossible cities, yet cities that are nevertheless familiar, and cities that Polo eventually admits are all descriptions of a single city: Venice.

Each description is marvellous in its way, and each contributes to an almost mystical reflection on the ideas of city and empire, traveller and emperor, native and foreign, word and and image, story and dream.  Rather than try to describe all of this adequately, which I could not hope to do, I will offer of few of Calvino’s reflections on the city, as a way of gesturing to how the book awakened a new appreciation for what the image of the city is capable of meaning:

“The city 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 with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

“The city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting her, you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.”

“Each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up.”

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.  Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread  of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

“Cities believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls.”

“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

“Many are the cities which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.”

“My mind goes on containing a great number of cities I have never seen and will never see, names that bear with them a figure, or a fragment or glimmer of an imagined figure.”

“From one part to another, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images, but instead it has no thickness; it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other.”

“For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave.  There is the city where you arrive for the first time, and there is another city which you leave never to return.  Each deserves a different name.”

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born.  When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.”

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3 comments
  1. Curtis said:

    This talk of spaces and cities makes me think of a catalogue of considerations- mostly of space and size. The first is Doctor Who’s Tardis. The other is all the size predicaments in Alice in Wonderland. The other is Aen Flux, the animated series before the movie. And if you have not seen it, Dark City, which combines space mentality and circumstance with identity humanity, action etc.

  2. Curtis,

    Of the titles you list, I am only familiar with Alice in Wonderland, though I have seen the Aeon Flux film, unfortunately. I have intentions of seeing Dark City at some point, but it never seems to reach find the top of my priorities.

  3. Curtis said:

    Aen Flux the animated series, which the movie changed is very interesting and intelligent, or if not that very clever. It deals alot more with perceived realities, for instance, in particular, one of the Characters actually has a mini universe, accessible through a long strange canal through their stomach, within their anatomy. It serves a series of necessary subduing on Aen’s part to access this reality. It’s quite boggling and interesting.

    And you really do need to check out some Doctor Who. Though I only know the new series starting at 2005, I don’t know if I should recommend the classic series that started in the sixties.

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