Friday, December 26, 2008

Traveling Cities

I'm flying across the country today, to the annual MLA conference. It's in San Francisco this year, one of my favorite cities, but the MLA itself, an overwhelming and enormous meeting of literary scholars from across the country, is a roving metropolis in its own right.

Like any great city it's a place to go to pursue ambitions, to meet people you've heard of but never seen, and to make friends who share the obsessions that everyone in your home town found odd. People dress up and ride elevators. The hours are brutally long. There are fabulous booksellers. It's exhilarating and Dickensian and anxious, like any great city, and even the people who prefer the suburbs couldn't do entirely without it.

As a tribute to the Metropolis of Literary Arguments, and to the pleasures of San Francisco in December, here is an excerpt from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

Cities and Desire 2

At the end of three days, moving southward, you come upon Anastasia, a city with concentric canals watering it and kites flying over it. I should now list the wares that can be profitably bought here: agate, onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalecedony; I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram; and tell of the women I have seen bathing in the pool of a garden and who sometimes - it is said - invite the stranger to disrobe with them and chase them in the water. But with all this, I would not be telling you the city's true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Le Citta Invisibili), 1972
English translation by William Weaver, 1974

1 comment:

Renaissance Girl said...

One of my favorite books ever. So glad you excerpted it. I need to re-read....