Invisible Cities

March 18, 2007

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is almost impossible to truly classify. It consists of 55 different descriptions of amazingly fictive cities interspersed with dialogue between the traveler Marco Polo and the wearied ruler Kublai Khan. These 55 sections are divided into various categories such as: Continuous Cities, Cities and Memory, or Hidden Cities. Each description is more fantastic than the last and over time the pieces accumulate into an atlas of the imagined and the possible. Cities are organized around ideas and attitudes. Each city in the book is a mapping of the imagination of “what if” that explores the concept of a city organized around a simple concept taken to a unifying conclusion. The descriptions of the cities illustrate the duel of ideas and attitudes going on between Polo and Khan in the work.

For the purpose of this annotation I will focus on Cities and the Sky 2. In keeping with the tone and feeling of Invisible Cities, I closed my eyes, flipped through the pages while holding out my finger, and selected a city at random. The city I chose wasn’t very interesting and didn’t provide much food for thought beyond the exoticism of the description. It didn’t fit with my mood.

“The slender stilts that rise from the ground at a great distance from one another and are lost above the clouds supports the city. You climb them with ladders. On the ground the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having everything they need up there, they prefer not to come down.” (77)

I repeated the process again and on the second try came up with the desired section Cities and the Sky 2. In this section Polo describes a city called Beersheba that exists on two planes. The celestial Beersheba is suspended from the heavens and the terrestrial Beersheba is modeled after the celestial. The celestial Beersheba is inhabited by all the most elevated attributes. Polo’s character describes the inhabitants of the city’s desire for the ideal.

“…that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of the maximum worth.” (111)

In the biblical narrative Be’er-Sheba was the site where Abraham and Isaac dug wells and first met God. The name literally means “Wells of Seven”, or oath of the seven wells. The name is meant to commemorate the site of an oath between man and God.

“God is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me by God that you will not deal falsely with me, with my offspring, or with my posterity; but that according to the kindness that I have done to you, you will do to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.” (Genesis 21:22-23)

In addition to the two Beershebas (Celestial and Terrestrial) that the Polo character describes in Invisible Cities, the inhabitants of the terrestrial city believe there is another Beersheba that is subterranean. This Beersheba is an underground Beersheba. It is described as:

“…the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them.” (111)

This subterranean Beersheba is a projection of everything the inhabitants of the city conceive of as evil while the celestial city encompasses all their hopes and beliefs of the ideal. Polo’s description then goes on to discuss that the inhabitants are mistaken in their beliefs. The true “hellish” place is the world they create with their narrow and rigid views in the everyday world they inhabit. “Hell” isn’t someplace out there beneath the world they live in, but right there in the place they live.

“Intent on piling up carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands.” (112)

The city is characterized as one who is so rigidly obsessed with the celestial city that it creates the hellish reality in its midst. By being self-righteously obsessed with this narrow view of the ideal and “heavenly” the inhabitants have formed a real “hellish” city in their terrestrial city. Hell isn’t someplace else, but in the way they rigidly define what is “hellish” and “heavenly” for themselves. It is how they live their lives.

“…Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.” (113)

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