Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and Abbot’s Humanities?



Do you know Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972)? The explorer Marco Polo reports to Kublai Khan on 55 cities, each with a woman’s name, which are imagined to exist in Khan’s empire. Each description belongs to a category: Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities.


Here’s Calvino reading about the city called Armilla. You’ll need the English below to follow along:  Calvino Reading from Invisible Cities


Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows. Against the sky a lavabo’s white stands out, or a bathtub, or some other porcelain, like late fruit still hanging from the boughs. You would think that the plumbers had finished their job and gone away before the bricklayers arrived; or else their hydraulic systems, indestructible, had survived a catastrophe, an earthquake, or the corrosion of termites.


Abandoned before or after it was inhabited, Armilla cannot be called deserted. At any hour, raising your eyes among the pipes, you are likely to glimpse a young woman, or many young women, slender, not tall of stature, luxuriating in the bathtubs or arching their backs under the showers suspended in the void, washing or drying or perfuming themselves, or combing their long hair at a mirror. In the sun, the threads of water fanning from the showers glisten, the jets of the taps, the spurts, the splashes, the sponges’ suds.  


I have come to this explanation: the streams of water channeled in the pipes of Armilla have remained in the possession of nymphs and naiads. Accustomed to traveling along underground veins, they found it easy to enter into the new aquatic realm, to burst from multiple fountains, to find new mirrors, new games, new ways of enjoying the water. Their invasion may have driven out the human beings, or Armilla may have been built by humans as a votive offering to win the favor of the nymphs, offended at the misuse of the waters. In any case, now they seem content, these maidens: in the morning you hear them singing.


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(Art from Mass MoCA’s Invisible Cities exhibit, featuring works by Carlos Garaicoa, Lee Bul, Francesco Simeti, Mary Lum, Diana Al Hadid, and Diana Al-Hadid Gradiva.)


And in a similar vein, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (1992). The young Einstein in 1905, thinking about time and visited by dreams in which time works now one way and then another on the next night. An excerpt:


16 April 1905

In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves suddenly carried to the past.


Persons who have been transported back in time are easy to identify. They wear dark, indistinct clothing and walk on their toes, trying not to make a single sound, trying not to bend a single blade of grass. For they fear that any change they make in the past could have drastic consequences for the future.


Just now, for example, such a person is crouching in the shadows of the arcade, at no. 19 Kramgasse. An odd place for a traveler from the future, but there she is. Pedestrians pass, stare, and walk on. She huddles in a corner, then quickly creeps across the street and cowers in another darkened spot, at no. 22. She is terrified that she will kick up dust, just as a Peter Klausen is making his way to the apothecary on Spitalgasse this afternoon of 16 April 1905. Klausen is something of a dandy and hates to have his clothes sullied. If dust messes his clothes, he will stop and painstakingly brush them off, regardless of waiting appointments. If Klausen is sufficiently delayed, he may not buy the ointment for his wife, who has been complaining of leg aches for weeks. In that case, Klausen’s wife, in a bad humor, may decide not to make the trip to Lake Geneva. And if she does not go to Lake Geneva on 23 June 1905, she will not meet a Catherine d’Épinay walking on the jetty of the east shore and will not introduce Mlle. d’Épinay to her son Richard. In turn, Richard and Catherine will not marry on 17 December 1908, will not give birth to Friedrich on 8 July 1912. Friedrich Klausen will not be father to Hans Klausen on 22 August 1938, and without Hans Klausen the European Union of 1979 will never occur.


The woman from the future, thrust without warning into this time and this place and now attempting to be invisible in her darkened spot at no. 22 Kramgasse, knows the Klausen story and a thousand other stories waiting to unfold, dependent on the births of children, the movement of people in the streets, the songs of birds at certain moments, the precise position of chairs, the wind. She crouches in the shadows and does not return the stares of people. She crouches and waits for the stream of time to carry her back to her own time.


And now my turn. Call this the first chapter of a book titled Humanities.


He was returned again, by the same mysterious mechanism, to the Room of Doors. He selected a different one this time. This door looked to be of dark glass. In it a multitude of tiny amber lights glowed and dimmed like fireflies. The door handle was a lever of living wood, each of its golden-yellow leaves in the shape of a heart. He reached for it then sensed that he should not. The door swung open of its own accord. He stepped in. It closed behind him with the sound of bells tinkling.


He stood in the center of a vast plaza. So huge, in fact, that its ring of buildings, themselves (he sensed) of a size almost impossible to conceive, he could barely make out. And in this immense plaza were fountains, their pools and sprays of water gleaming and glinting with the same amber light he had seen in the glass door. Also in this plaza were grassy swards, their green so much the perfection of green that he immediately lost all memory of any other. In this plaza were allées leading here and there, this one lined with flowering bushes, that one with towering, evenly spaced trees.


Around him in this plaza there stood and sat and sauntered arm-in-arm and pounded each other’s backs or hung on each other’s necks and laughed or wept together countless groups of people. Three or four or twelve to a group, so many as that but not, he thought, more than a dozen in each. And each of these people had two faces. Whenever someone was speaking, he noticed, all the others turned one of these two faces, their “listening” faces, toward the speaker. When the speaker rejoined the listeners, she shifted in such a way as to bring her listening face to the front, as someone else in the group shifted his “speaking” face to the fore.


Likewise, in some fashion he could not quite discern, the two faces of each person functioned as joyful and sorrowful faces, pleased and empathetic, encouraging and patient. And as he stood and watched, he saw what he had not noticed before: these small groups of Janus-faced people were continually breaking apart and reforming, as now this person and now that one drifted away to join a different group. He had an impression of grains of sand on a beach, each successive wave lifting them and dropping them in a new place, an endless ebb and flow of infinite variety and shimmering beauty.



© 2014 Jim Abbot

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