Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invisible Cities


I just finished reading Italo Calvino's marvelous book Invisible Cities, wherein a young Marco Polo converses with Kublai Khan and tells him fantastic tales of the cities he visited during his travels through the Great Khan's empire.

The city descriptions are vivid as a dragonfly's wings and light as the slight breeze on the steps of the Great Khan's palace, where the conversations take place. Marco Polo's words are poetic and could just as well have been shaped into short cantos of verse.

Fifty five cities are described. Each city is given a woman's name, generally an exotic name: Diomira, Isidora, Dorothea, Zaira, Anastasia, Tamara, Zora, etc. My cousin Phyllis's name was given to a city of bridges and canals.

Here is Marco Polo's description of the city of Isidora:

"When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thing of all these things when he desired a city. Isadora, 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. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories."

I wonder what Marco Polo would have thought about my own city, which sometimes fills me with a feeling of unreality when I take the short stroll to the nearby park and look west (photograph above). I live on the rim of an expansive office center where architects – or, more accurately, geometers – have designed huge cubes and pegs of glass and steel to efficiently enclose accountants and financiers for the engineering industry. I find it oddly appropriate that simple geometric shapes, in place of real human architecture, contain workers that manipulate words and numbers, which are the tokens representing the sweat and dirt of real industrial production in far-off mines, oil fields, and construction sites. My city seems more sign than substance.

My city is for adult office workers. Other human life isn't invited. No children laugh and chase each other along the pathways between the office buildings. No young lovers promenade among the carefully tended shrubs and flower beds. No old men sit and reminisce in the shining lobbies of glass and chrome.

My city is more connected to the great financial centers of New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Houston than it is to nearby traditional, full-service cities a short drive away. When I consider this, I imagine a great spiky four dimensional hyper-city complex that materializes upon the surface of the Earth as a set of individual, widely separated cities. (Picture this in three dimensions like a tangled mass of clothes hangers touching a table top at isolated points.) I imagine my city as one fractional piece of this hyper-city that has happened to materialize near my townhouse.

A long park was built to give the office workers a refreshing view of greenery on their way to and from the office. When I walk in the park at dusk, I often feel that I'm an interloper. After all, I'm not one of the workers in the hyper-city. I just chose to live here because the area is safe, clean, and pretty. In some ways I'm like one of the innumerable rabbits that have made their home in my neighborhood and laze about enjoying the lush grass.

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