Friday, December 10, 2010

Fiction, Postmodernism, and the Philosophy of Travel

"...and even if it was a matter of the past, it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler's past changes according to the route that he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places" (Calvino 28-29)
When I first met Corinna, two years ago, we exchanged book recommendations. I told her about The Shadow of the Wind, which may be my favorite work of literary fiction. She told me of a book called Invisible Cities, that she said I could read in an afternoon. I was intrigued. It has been a long time since I regularly read fiction, and I missed it. Although I wanted to enjoy it, as with every other fiction book at the time I picked it up and put it down over and over again, never able to maintain my attention, despite the eloquence and visual beauty of Calvino's writing.

My review, to accurately depict my thoughts on the fragmented novella, would have to be a meandering pastiche of sorts. I decided to read it this afternoon because I am inside with little to do (still being too ill to go out for a walk) and to little coherence of mind to read Horace or Mήδεια. The story drew me in and wanders just ahead of my mind, making sure my thoughts never stray too far from it's path. In short, I really enjoyed it.

Invisible Cities 
The novella tells of a young Marco Polo relating to an old Kublai Kahn descriptions of the different cities in his empire. Most of volume is taken up by short remembrances of "cities" which employ fabulous rich descriptions of fantastical features. In some ways this is almost a Parmenidean thought experiment. There is a line in Parmenides somewhere that says that humans can only imagine what already exists. My thoughts on what he means by that is that we can only conceive of elements that exist already and recombine them to create fantastical non-existing things [1]. Calvino essentially remixes reality into wonderful images, sounds, and smells for the reader.

Aside from this Parmenidean aspect, there is also a Baudrillardian twist. Kublai Kahn is trying to understand his empire, see a pattern in it, learn of it. He has maps and hears the stories of merchants, but that elusive global comprehension constantly slips out of his grasp. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard relates a fable from Borges in which there was a great empire. A map was created of this empire, so detailed that it actually covered the empire inch-by-inch. The map was supposed to grow and crumble with the empire. In Baudrillard's version (if I remember correctly), the terrain under the map begins to rot and decay along with the map itself. The people in the empire, living on the map, try to recreate the empire from the map, which now has no original, and they instead create pure simulation-- a hyperreality [2]. Kublai Kahn seems to try to be resurrecting his decaying empire in his mind-- creating some rational explanation for it. Marco Polo's stories, complex and fantastical, always slip just beyond his grasp. They allow him only to build pure simulation, which does not and cannot reflect his empire.

I really enjoyed the novella. It was sort of meandering and associative. I probably missed a lot of the point, being sick and not as able to concentrate as I would like, but tangentially it reminded me of the way that I travel. I cannot see a city for the whole of it, but rather find the little things that I enjoy or that bother me. I also find that I see a slightly different version of myself in each city-- sometimes more independent, sometimes more cautious, sometimes more open to embracing the world, and sometimes threatened by the general atmosphere. The quote at the top spurred this line of thought.

Since Cerinthus is traveling in Italy, I told him that he should find a copy of the book. Although the book centers around Venice rather than Florence, there is something, I imagine, very Italian in the writing (and it was originally written in Italian). I would hope he likes it, but I cannot be sure...

  1. I will have to beg the readers' pardon for not citing this properly. I have no idea where this is in Parmenides or even if it is entirely accurate, but it is what I remember.
  2. I may have not quite represented the Baudrillard correctly. It has been a while since I read it, but I tried to represent it how I remember. I hope my Lit Theory professor will not think to poorly of me if he were to see this attempt at explanation. I would be happy for corrections.

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