Lines sitting quietly on the campus of University of Pennsylvania.
-Italo Calvino, from "Invisible Cities""As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, writen 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 in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls."
I recently began reading this book with the intent of putting at least part of my academic self in the past: storing my love for reading cities in the final semester of my graduate degree by reading fiction about cities. Yes, fiction. What a novelty. So, maybe Calvino, who is here writing about cities, is less a distancing for me than it is an attempt to renew a passion for something that I used to not consider work. That is, thinking about cities.
The great Kublai Khan, Calvino writes, is at the apotheosis of his imperial expansion, having accumulated such a vast assembly of territory that he can no longer survey it without the help of a traveling informant. It is difficult to see the world from a single tower, particularly before we invented Google earth. Poor Kublai, bereft of the all seeing eye of the orbital satellite and the digitization of cadastral mapping and geographic codification. Without such tools, he instead explores his endless, formless ruin of an empire through the eyes of Marco Polo.
The quote above is a single paragraph in one of the many entries written by Marco Polo titled "Cities & Memory", a rumination on the lines, cracks, stories, steps, and gaps of the city of Zaira, even "the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper's swaying feet". For Polo, though, the material is silent. It stands unmoved and unnoticed, quietly concealing the histories of the lives through which it was created.
Polo's melancholic communique represents the frustration of his charge. How to tell the emperor of his cities when the stand so utterly austere, detached, silent? Or, when the reporter falls to pieces, forced to represent such a massive arc of infinitesimal lives of the detailed lines of the city and knowing full well you can only ever give an incomplete story of any single line, let alone an entire city or empire?
This leaves the reporter, the confidant, the ethnographer, the planner to nervously account for every single flow the city manages to soak up, rummaging through this rickety urban infrastructure to give light to those lines that reluctantly stand silent. This is a crisis of urban memory, an ambivalence that builds up an anxiety for representation, a charge to uncover the forgotten lines of the city and remove the bandages covering its unsightly scars.
There are so many cities to describe. The crushing weight of the project is at times disorienting, leading a writer astray in nervously collecting the greatest number of shiny and interesting trinkets laying silently on the side of the road. The anxiety for accurately reconstructing memory is a crippling and endless project. Just to lighten our loads and feel like we are getting things done, we (and I don't know who this we is) should be nervously wondering what all this stuff in the city actually does and less of what it actually represents.
So much for drawing lines in the sand between work and play but, in the last instance, this is still a blog. As always, thanks.