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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Some themes, elaborated: cities and straight lines

It happened, eight years ago, that a friend of mine was visiting her parents in Jersey and needed to get back to Washington, DC on the quick. I was happy to give her a ride, and then to spend the night with her. It wasn't for the first time.

She's been living in Minnesota for a few years now, and got engaged last winter. Less than a decade ago we were smoking cigarettes together outside Paul's Diner on Route 46 after closing shifts at the bookstore, but to recollect those nights with her now, to remember myself then, is like imagining the life of a stranger. The day-to-day state of things seems so obvious, so unneedful of an explanation until one thinks back to a past he's lived, history he's experienced, old acquaintances he's made and lost, and then the present becomes a mystery beyond all reasoning or utterance. How did we get to where we are?

I believe that if most of us are honest with ourselves, we perceive the arcs of our lives being determined not principally by will or fate, but by a conspiracy of accidents, chance meetings, impulsive swerves into the exit lane, mistaken boardings of the wrong train, last-minute changes of plans.

So: I took my friend to DC. While she was at the office the next day—a Monday—I sauntered for hours through the National Mall and Capitol Hill in the languid dogday heat. The National Air and Space Museum was my first priority. I believe I hit up the Hirshhorn next, and peered inside the National Museum of the American Indian afterwards. I know that before meeting up with my friend in the afternoon, my last stop was the United States Botanic Garden, and I know I visited it on somebody else's advice—someone who knew I'd be taking this trip. I don't remember who it was.

The medial chamber of the Botanic Garden's conservatory is called "The Tropics," and is designed to simulate an area of rainforest that has subsumed the remains of an abandoned plantation. Entering the room for the third or fourth time, I came upon a guide giving a tour to a small group of visitors, and listened from a distance. She invited her flock to take a look around, and asked them to pretend for a moment that they were looking at an actual landscape in an actual rainforest. Just on a glance, she asked, how would we know which of these plants were cultivated by humans?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stuck in my craw: woketweets

As somebody who still thinks of George W. Bush as a war criminal, who cut his subscription to Digitally Imported because its CEO bashed the Occupy movement, who has no compunctions about saying that black lives matter, and who recently wrote his congressman and senators to urge them to grow six balls among them and push back against Trump's "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" executive order (and will be doing so again now that the sequel has dropped), it makes me sad to say that I'm feeling increasingly alienated by the progressive left. But here we are.

When I first gravitated towards progressivism during my early twenties, it wasn't entirely because I was drawn in by the raw appeal of leftist ideas. My disgust at what I saw conservatism espousing was a powerful impetus.

My political awakening came during the Bush presidency. I understand the right not only as warmongers and wiretappers, but representative of an uncompromising moral absolutism and a streak of fundamentalist Christianity that preached damnation with far more vigor than it espoused and took to heart the Beatitudes. They stood for intolerance and orthodoxy, and I was glad to throw in my lot with the crowd that professed inclusion, egalitarianism, and the primacy of reason over doctrine.

But over the last few years, I've noticed the left making noises that sound an awful lot to me like the smug self-righteousness and brimstone that set me against the right.