Calvino’s Poetics of Space in Invisible Cities
Navigating the spaces between the various images and constructs in Calvino’s Invisible Cities is complex enough, with Marco Polo and Kublai Khan wrestling over the novel’s perceptive lens, or the way cities are populated with kinetic energy, rushes of sound, sight, and substance, how “a girl with a laughing skull milks the carcass of a heifer” or “memory includes dirigibles flying in all directions, at window level; streets of shops where tattoos are drawn on sailors’ skin.” The structure of the novel—short narrative interludes framing vignettes—empowers Calvino to preserve them in such a thriving state. These petite eternities keep the cities’ wildness pure, their essences eternal. Calvino’s precision of image and sentiment starkly contrasts with the weightlessness of the narrative, leading one to wonder how it achieves not sinking of its own detail. The finely architected obfuscation adds lightness (a notion of Calvino’s that I’ll explore in due course) to focused, surgical allegory. Key to understanding the deftness of Invisible Cities’ control of its localization of these elements is a reading of how Calvino navigates the poetics of space, that is how he designs inhabitable, experiential space for the reader.
Bachelard, who coined the term poetics of space and eased its theoretical scaffolding from the realm of phenomenology to the inspection of poetic and dramaturgic structure in what could more properly be called studies of artistic style, defines the poetic image as “a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche [. . .] not subject to an inner thrust. It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of the image, the brilliant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away.” The task at hand is to go beyond mere challenges of description, facts, and impression to get to “the primary virtues, those that reveal an attachment that is native in some way to the function of inhabiting.” The universe into which we place the reader must not be a simulated one, but a primal one, the one that feels like the original place unaltered and unfiltered by critique, if the reader’s experience is to be genuine.
There is no feeling that Polo is describing the virtues or flaws of Kublai’s empire to him, despite his having been tasked with being one of many surveyors. Simple depiction never occurs and would bog down the entire novel, thoroughly defeating its devices. Rather Polo creates cities in vivid detail—their essences topographically, imagistically, morally, and ultimately the “spirit” of each rendered city—through patterned and systematic constructions of each poetic image in the reader’s mind. The landscapes are structured with inhabitability in mind. As the reader initially joins the Khan as unwitting Shahryār to Polo’s Scheherazade, it becomes clear through the progression of the italicized exchanges between Polo and Kublai that this is no simple adaptation of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ framing method but a way to interpret why the imagined landscape and its fanciful demarcations matter. Positioning the Khan—initial surrogate for the reader—allows for a mirrored interplay of what the reader actually experiences in having these spaces constructed for them, contextualized through the cut-scene interplay between explorer and emperor and, finally, synthesized as the two figures tussle for authority over the spaces rendered.
The first thing the novel reveals is that “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says,” but “the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than any other messenger or explorer of his.” To bask in the pride of his conquered territory is to invite complacency and then even melancholy and relief, over the necessary bureaucratization of those territories. “It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has been spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.”
Then Polo’s mission is that of any poet: to reclaim those wonders and sow the seeds of their propagation, to battle cynicism and petrification of that landscape by breathing life anew. If part of that role is a seamless con, it is not lost on Calvino. “There is no language without deceit,” we are told, but if the task at hand requires some illusion or invention, the tales leaping from that template and taking on a life, thriving and organic, is neither lost on Kublai, who maintains an interest that serves only to intensify with every city depicted, nor on the reader, who revels in the lushness of Polo’s conjuring, in nostalgia’s ache, loves that brush by but pass on, the déjà–vu that overwhelms us in such disparate cities—those of memory, desire, signs, eyes, names, the dead, the sky.
The cities are full of these poetic conjurings. In Isodora, “the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, perfect violins and telescopes are made, the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third.” It is the city of the traveler’s dreams; alas, “the dreamed of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isadora 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.” The city of Anastasia convinces you that laboring over its agate, onyx, and chrysoprase is your desire as all your desires waken all at once and surround you. “You believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.”
Now, such cattiness begs interrogation of the poet’s role, of the one telling the tale, and of the power that gives one over its spaces. That is to say, we should study how that ability to manipulate sentiment serves as some sort of balance upon which to measure the inhabitability of poetic space. However, the novel gleefully complicates this theme. Ignorant of the emperor’s language, Polo renders the cities through gestures, leaps, outcries, animal barks, props, and pantomimes. The kinetic force of these actions tends to enthrall the reader as the images themselves both inform and confound Kublai. These interactions are a trick to engage the reader not only with the lush cityscapes, which each could represent its own sort of Kafkaesque vignette, but also with the interactions between explorer and emperor, the stitching that will turn sundry scraps of fabric into the novel’s elaborate, but also highly functional, ornament.
Kublai then turns the tables by insisting that he describe the cities and the explorer go find them based upon his depictions. He tells Polo he has constructed a city in his mind to serve as a norm, all exceptions of which can be used to deduce the nature of any possible city. Polo admits that he too uses a model city from which to deduce all others, but his method is to use a city made “only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, and contradictions.” The notion of eliminating impracticalities by determining the various improbabilities of hypothetical surveys becomes a practice of comparative skepticism between the two interlocuters, one that Kublai actually breaks by admitting to himself and Polo that his actual concerns are that with great distances and outreach. His grasp on the empire is diminishing and devolving toward a sort of lawlessness and chaos: “The empire is being crushed by its own weight . . . and in his dreams now cities light as kites appear, pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm.” Kublai explains a dream to Polo, “I saw from the distance the spires of a city rise, slender pinnacles, made in such a way that the moon in her journey can rest now on one, now on another, or sway from the cables of the cranes.”
Bachelard gives insight into the crafting of space that Calvino captures here. “The imagination,” he writes, “functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts.” An entire past comes to dwell in such dreams; the explorer experiences the dream “in its reality and its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams.” Memory and imagination associate, calcify around the concrete poetic image, each working “toward a mutual deepening. In the order of values, they both constitute a community of memory and image. Thus the house [or city, in our case . . .]. Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days.”
There is a peculiar creative force generated where these aspects of simulation and emulation meet and coalesce. As Kublai and Polo engage in a process where they attempt to hone in on a method of focused concentration on possible cities through negation of improbabilities, notions of wonder are replaced by cynicism and weariness on Kublai’s behalf, and Polo interprets Kublai’s dream:
“The city in your dream is Lalage. Its inhabitants arranged these invitations to rest in the night sky so that the moon would grant everything in the city the power to grow and grow endlessly.”
“There is something you do not know,” the Khan adds. “The grateful moon has granted the city of Lalage a rarer privilege: to grow in lightness.”
Lightness, as an energy possessed of certain types of fiction, is a literary quality that Calvino best defines in opposition to weightiness. “The subtraction of weight” (Lightness 3). He sees the latter as the legacy of 20th Century literature, while the former he views as a way to avoid some of that genre’s various traps.
In response to a generation of novels whose images seem to petrify into stone-faced pillars of normalcy in Western fiction, lightness invariably coaxes the reader to dream through the ambiguity of its aims. Calvino evokes metaphors of Perseus slaying Medusa, with the help of a winged horse—of not looking the Gorgon directly in the face, but through the mirror of his shield’s bronze. “I am not talking,” Calvino notes, “about escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I feel the need to change my approach, to look at the world from a different angle, with different logic, different methods of knowing and proving. The images of lightness I’m looking for shouldn’t let themselves dissolve as dreams do in the reality of the present and future” (8). That is, the sort of “dream” landscape evoked by the rendering of cities should not be ephemeral, but solid. Despite that solidity, the reader’s experience is freshened and resists stagnation through its counterpoints to the “weighty” (e.g. topical, mundane, details that serve no function, sentimentality that serves its own emotional need, the cliché, the overwrought). A reader will feel they are not in a museum of the image but in the field where the subject goes about its life’s needs.
While deliberate, such positing and use of poetic spaces, and construction toward the aesthetic balance of the whole, is not clumsy. In a time when cynicism pervades the art, such a focus on the readers’ experience, the world constructed around them and how they are guided through its multiplicity of tones and attractions, might more steadily guide poetry that fuels imaginations of ever-discerning audiences. Writers, as they navigate landscapes that have decayed from ages of wonder to those of increasing pessimism, of rejection of what in a bygone age would be called “facts” or “a sure thing” or “the right thing to do,” begin to find their landscapes polluted, the scenes more dreamlike and terrifying in their fascinations, the stakes more uncertain and conjectural. Two beggars perhaps, Kublai imagines, nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, sorting through the rubbish heap, not sure what is real and what is not.
Where Frost would say the figura of poetry is a momentary stay against confusion, Calvino’s argument appears to stage the invisible cities as way stations against death. Polo arrives at Adelma at dusk. Never has he journeyed farther. Everywhere he looks are images of the lost dead loved ones, of blankets at the closed market that remind him of shrouds; all he sees reminds him of death, to the extent that he will not look anyone else in the town in the eye. A fever victim huddled beneath a blanket on the ground upsets him. Calvino writes:
If Adelma is a city I am seeing in a dream, where you encounter only the dead, the dream frightens me. [. . .] You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.
Whether one poet might argue the struggle of the immortal image is to stay against confusion, another against death, another against fear, and yet another against decay, the sum gain, again to borrow from Frost, is a “clarification of life.”
The exploration ends in Berenice, a city that contains, within its justness, a seed of malignity, and with that future growth, the seed of undoing that malignity. The real city, then, and the final one, is “a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.” And that, then, again is the poet’s work. To make of infinite possibilities, one that transports the reader to a state of wonder, of attentiveness to that primal state of the image. We place the reader in an immortal city, unending sweetness, perpetual sublimity. Once the reader occupies that space, it becomes the reader’s. By way of epigram, perhaps, Polo, when asked by Kublai if he’ll tell the same tales when he returns to the West, replies that the listener colors what he will hear with his expectations. “It is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear.”