At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?”

All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, 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 traveller’s past changes according to the route 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 traveller 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.

Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.

“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”

And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, tr. by William Weaver, London: Vintage Books, [1972]1997, pp. 24-25.

I guess it’s a common experience: going back to a town were one once lived only to find it somehow changed. The town which once felt large and complex now seems to be small and ordinary, small trees grew bigger, houses were demolished and replaced by unfamiliar buildings. Sometimes, a village may have been all but abandoned: it would have been swallowed up entirely by passing time and wild bushes. All that is left are continuously shifting and mingling memories (just like a cityscape): our own and those of others, who lived there before or after us, and remember things quite differently (see previously here: memories as phantasms).

Recently on a related note:

  • The New Yorker: “The Mollification of Manhattan” by Thomas Beller, June 26, 2012.

    In 1979, when I was fourteen years old, I liked to bike to midtown at the end of the day, specifically past the stretch of modernist behemoths on Sixth Avenue that starts in the upper Forties and runs up to Fifty-fifth Street. Evening rush hour was like watching an emptying bathtub; when the people were gone, the corporate plazas felt empty and bereft. I liked to bike around in circles in this vacated space. Perhaps this enthusiasm was a reaction to the chaos of the rest of the city.

    To decry the new urban blight does not mean I am an advocate for the old kind, or that I make light of the despair it represented.

  • Vulture: “Spike Lee Talks Obama, the End of Mookie’s Brooklyn, and the Hollywood Color Line” by Will Leitch, July 8, 2012.

    You brought Mookie back from Do the Right Thing. He’s still delivering.

    And his pizza is never cold.

    But this isn’t Mookie’s Brooklyn anymore.

    It’s so different. But it’s all different. There’s gentrification of Cobble Hill. Fort Greene’s gentrified, Harlem was gentrified, Bed-Stuy’s gentrified, and Williamsburg is gentrified.

    People lived on the Lower East Side and got priced out of there. Then you moved to Williamsburg—oh, it became too hip. Now they are going to Bushwick. What is going to happen to Bushwick? Next thing, after Coney Island, there is the Atlantic Ocean.

    Only Staten Island will be left.

    I’m sure that will be the last resort.

  • Scouting New York: “The Filming Locations of Annie Hall, Part 1 – New York, You’ve Changed” by Nick Carr, July 23, 2012 (see also Part 2).


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