Thursday, March 23, 2017

The invisible sky

Paul Klee, Reconstruction (1926)

After sitting on my bookcase for over two years, my secondhand copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972; trans. William Weaver) has finally found a place in my lap.
When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress' walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. "Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains," you cry, with regret at having to eave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant's tent, avoiding that certain creditor's window. ...

Millions of eyes look up at the windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.
It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, and there's truth in that. I think it's more often the case that familiarity breeds indifference, disregard—especially when the familiar person, place, thing, or event exists in the vicinity of ourselves and our habitual pathways, and when we are not required to engage with it. My friends from New York profess to be proud of living in the same city as so many world-class museums, theatres, and other cultural sites, but rarely if never visit any of them. And people who live in Denver or Boulder don't habitually stop what they're doing to gaze at the mountains for a while (unless they're taking a smoke break, I suppose), while a visitor from the East Coast such as myself will sometimes halt in the middle of the parking lot, neck craned, mouth slightly open, gawking up into the distance, oblivious to the traffic he's blocking.

Marco Polo tells the Great Khan about a city called Phyllis, whose splendor is lost on its residents. Incidentally, Polo has already admitted that his accounts of Phyllis, and of all the other cities in his reports, are all descriptions of one city, the same city, permutated, rotated, cropped, zoomed in and out. Insofar as the strangeness and beauty of our environs are generally lost on us all, yes, Phyllis is every city, and we are all of us residents. The entire anthroposphere is Phyllis.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I was tantalized by the apparition of Center City in the distance. Step onto any numbered street in my neighborhood and face north, and there it is, a host of speckled towers looming like a ghost ship in the night. And during the early months of my residence on St Thomas, the sight of the sea from the top of Benner's Hill, the coruscations of the morning sun upon Nazareth Bay—it was the sort of view that a moneyed person from the mainland would buy a plane ticket and rent a bungalow just for the privilege of having on his Instagram or splayed up on his Facebook banner. But as the months passed, the less often I stopped at the edge of the summit to look out, and eventually I mostly stopped looking. The job I had to get to and the bus I had to catch were more pressing concerns. Likewise, when I'm outside at night these days I tend to be looking out for dogshit on the sidewalk than to the Babylonian mirage rising up from where the parallel rows of street lamps converge.

There are particulars, though. I'm interested in universals here: the specific things, common to all our experiences, that we all tend to overlook. Most of them are above us.

Do you notice when Venus, after an absence of a few months, returns to the dawn sky, luciferously rising in advance of the sun? Or when the Pleiades blink into sight higher and higher over the east horizon after dusk as winter draws near? Does the sight of Vega at its zenith in the June sky make you glad for summer and for life?

But maybe you aren't a morning person. Or maybe you live in a city, which has a way of dissuading one from paying much attention to the planets and stars. (And most of us live in cities.) It's not your fault.

Then: how often do you think of the sun? I'm not talking about being aware of daylight or of a clear or overcast sky. I mean the object itself, the star, Sol, the thing above you every day that's bigger than you can imagine (without recourse to metaphors or ratios), older than the continents, the seas, and the moon, and literally too brilliant for human eyes. When crepuscular rays descend to the foot of your bed through the window blinds in the morning, when you step outside at high noon on the first day of summer, do you feel as though you're in the presence of God? —which, for all terrestrial intents and purposes, the sun is.

If we were truly as clever as we believe ourselves, if we actually possessed the awareness and the acuity of perspective that we all pride ourselves on (if Twitter is any indication), the sun should be an ecstasy to us. We should all be Sufis, drunk on the divine presence. As it is, the sun probably only crosses our minds when we're considering how we should dress on a given day.

Paul Klee, Ad Marginem (1930)

There's a more egregious oversight, though. How many of us see the sky?

When was the last time you looked up on a cloudless day and saw the sky for what it is, felt a thrill through your nerves? How unattainably distant, how illimitable, how splendidly fucking blue it is!

And how inured we are to miracles.

Astonishment, to paraphrase Celia Green, would be a much more realistic response than indifference. Perhaps gratitude wouldn't be inappropriate either.

Hmm. Suddenly I'm recalling the moment in War and Peace (1869; trans. Anthony Briggs) where Prince Andrey, amid the carnage and chaos of the Battle of Austerlitz, gets clubbed in the back of the head. For him, at that moment, the sky is no longer invisible.
'What's happening?...I think I'm falling...My legs are going,' he thought, collapsing on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French soldiers and our gunner ended. Was the gunner killed or not? Did they get the cannons or were they saved? But he saw none of that. Above him was nothing, nothing but the sky——the lofty sky, not a clear sky, but still infinitely lofty, with grey clouds creeping gently across. 'It's so quiet, so peaceful and solemn, not like me rushing about,' thought Prince Andrey, 'not like us, all that yelling and scrapping, not like that Frenchman and our gunner pulling on that cleaning-rod, with their scared and bitter faces, those clouds are different, creeping across that lofty, infinite sky. How can it be that I've never seen that lofty sky before? Oh, how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes! It's all vanity, it's all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing——that's all there is. But there isn't even that. There's nothing but stillness and peace. Thank God for that!'
Signore Calvino has it backwards: the world eludes our gaze until it catches us by surprise. Until we're off our balance, until our defenses are down and our self-assuredness fails us. Or until there's some cultural mechanism in place that routinely calls our attention to those things that exist at degrees of separation from our habits and the artifacts and people immediately touching them—but that's not happening anytime soon, I don't think.

This would be why I continue to espouse the use of hallucinogenic drugs, even though I myself am way too old for festivals and freakouts at this point. Sometimes a recalibration of one's perspective is called for.


  1. Thank you, I really needed this shift in perspective.

    Your thoughts on the sky remind me of this song by Ought

    1. Oh, and I love the comic you linked at the end!

    2. Hey, s'what I'm here for. Thanks for reading.

      Hrm. I'm not familiar with Ought, but I dig the song. I'll have to check out more of their stuff.