Reading Cities & Memory

Plum
3 min readJul 11, 2021

Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities, in particular the segment on cities and memory, was unexpected reading for me — very poetic in form, and obviously centres around that conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn. There were a lot of really wonderful and thought-provoking lines which kept me up at night thinking about them, but the ideas included the present and the past, the imaginary city, the idea of utopia, and the sharing and communicating of ideas.

The whole thing centres memory and the making of space — he describes four cities, which Polo accounts to Kahn, and which Kahn doesn’t necessarily believe but is very interested in hearing nevertheless.

In my reading of this, I understood that there is something utopian about the imaginary city here, which is dreamed of and idealized, but which we see sometimes comes to be understood as corrupt, gangrene-ous, and shows us how we have been made complicit in that history. That feels tragic, and is hard to come to terms with. However, the knowing, the hearing of the history and account of the cities, and learning the truth of them, allows us to spot patterns in that history, which to me was central history — and as my professor reminded me yesterday, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it can teach us.

From my perspective, spotting patterns is a large part of intellectual pursuit, and engaging with those patterns — pulling them forwards and understanding how those patterns emerge — can help us either make or break those patterns in order to define a better imaginary — construct a better city. And obviously, the cities here have no spatial or temporal existence, their power comes in the construction of new imaginaries and new futures.

I think it also says something about the imaginary as we construct it, that history is both the undoing of its utopian appearance, but also sort of a gift to us. Something that we should engage with no matter how challenging or depressing even. And of course one of my favourite lines was ‘The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age’ which does sort of remind me of our Marx reading yesterday, and how the ideas we dreamed of in our younger or greener intellectual days may change and develop, such that we arrive at them differently with greater exposure and discussion.

It reminded me a little of the Simmel’s the Stranger — because Polo here is seeing and sharing something that belongs to Kahn, and that he doesn’t know, and that mix of ‘disbelief but interest’ might be something we encounter when the stranger brings forward things we have not seen or understood in our own societies. Polo is in this unique place of having insight and seeing the interplay within these cities, but also being an outsider who isn’t necessarily believed. And as we the readers are strangers to all of this, so too does the imaginary becomes both easier and harder for us to contextualize, imagine, and critique.

This piece did feel very hopeful to me, as well as tragic, because it suggests that through the unflinching acceptance of our histories and memories, the exploration of the things we do and do not see, and through meaningful associations of spatial and temporal events, we can not only understand our role and influence up until this point, but also are armed with greater capacity to mold the imaginary.

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Plum
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Working on a PhD, trying not to die about it