Saturday, May 13, 2006

Saturday Morning non-Medieval Reading

This year I found a way to stay sane that I hadn't tried last year. Reading. Who knew that after reading for hours and hours each week I would in fact enjoy reading for pleasure. I figured that if I was enjoying my work it was enough.

Aside from the poetry of bp Nichol, which is work-related in that I spend way too much time thinking about how it functions, this year I found a new name to list among my favorite authors: Italo Calvino. A friend of mine had recommended The Baron in the Trees a while back, when she was studying Calvino -- I finally picked that up, nearly three years after her initial recommendation. After a particularly fascinating talk on Marco Polo, however, I decided it was time to read Invisible Cities. So for today's non-medieval reading, an excerpt from the prologue to the third section of the book. The structure of Invisible Cities is fascinating -- it consists of descriptions of cities that Marco Polo tells to Kublai Khan, the cities of the vast empire that the Khan has never seen. These descriptions are interspersed with italicized sections that describe the interactions and words of Marco Polo and the Khan. It's a book with moments of incredible poignancy and beauty -- certain phrases will stay with me for days after I read it. This section was one of them:

Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo's cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan's mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.

Marco, meanwhile, continued reporting his journey, but the emperor was no longer listening.

Kublai interrupted him: "From now on I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have conceived them. I shall begin by asking you about a city of stairs, exposed to the sirocco, on a half-moon bay. Now I shall list some of the wonders it contains: a glass tank high as a cathedral so people can follow the swimming and the flying of the swallow fish and draw auguries from them; a palm tree which plays the harp with its fronds in the wind; a square with a horseshoe marble table around it, a marble tablecloth, set with foods and beverages also of marble."

"Sire, your mind has been wandering. This is precisely the city I was telling you about when you interrupted me."

"You know it? Where is it? What is its name?"

"It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason why I was describing it to you: from the number of imaginable cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a perspective, a discourse. 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 are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else."

"I have neither desires nor fears," the Khan declared; "and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by chance."

"Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."

"Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx."

~from Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, p. 43-4