The end of the journey: from Gilgamesh to Le citta invisibili.
What does it mean to speak of the end of the journey? From the perspective of the history of travel, it means that the geographical explorations and discoveries launched during the Renaissance have run their course, that there are no more un-charted waters to sail, no new worlds to discover and to conquer, and that the journey of Western civilization, understood as successive episodes of translatio imperii, has reached a kind of apotheosis in contemporary globalization. In the material and physical terms of terrestrial journeys it is by now commonplace to observe that travel has been replaced by global tourism. (1) To speak of the end of the journey in this sense reflects an awareness of the historical and material impact of what David Harvey has called "space-time compression" on the classical paradigms and functions of travel as an agent of history. (2)
At another level, however, to speak of the end of the journey in its metaphorical valence (and as Tzvetan Todorov has observed, "one has never been able to refrain from doing so," 287) is to address the reality of man's spatial and temporal finitude, both in an individual and collective sense. From this vantage point, one can see that the topic of the end of the journey is not a new theme. On the contrary, it has represented a deep concern of the literature of travel from its very beginnings, going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the hero's resistance to the inevitability of death motivated travel in its first instance. The classical hero/ subject of Western civilization since Gilgamesh has, in fact, vainly sought to overcome time by extending the range of the self in space (also through fame), and to circumvent death by seeking even to travel "beyond the bounds" of this life, like Dante's Ulysses who tried to go to a world "di retro al sole, del mondo sanza gente" (Inf. 26: 117). Travel literature itself has meanwhile attempted to overcome the temporality of this heroic journey by writing it down, representing yet another form of spatial intervention (that is, as a vehicle for the self's location and extension in space) and therefore a special form of resistance to ineluctable tyrannies of time.
Taking the journey in this metaphorical sense (but it should be clear that in this sense the journey is finally not so metaphorical at all), we can see that travel and the literature of travel have been preoccupied with the end of the journey from the point of departure, and that this theme which is so characteristic of the modern/ post-modern epoch was first addressed in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This fact accounts in large measure for the marvelously contemporary feel of a poem written down over three thousand years ago for today's reader. The text, which was lost until, in the 1850s, archaeologists unearthed the clay tablets of the Assyrian royal libraries of Nineveh, evidently had to be forgotten in order to enable the history of western colonial travel that has transpired since Marco Polo and which has come to an end during our contemporary "post-colonial" period. (3) The famous Society for Biblical Archaeology lecture given in London in 1872 by George Smith on the climax of the epic, the Babylonian Flood Story, and the poem's first publication in book form in 1891 coincided with the emergence of the "end of the journey" theme in modern literature, and this helps to explain the passionate engagement of scholars, critics and poets, from Rilke to David Ferry, since that time. (4) The extent to which the recently concluded history of western travel, including its postcolonial aftermath is already figurally present in the Gilgamesh poem is indeed remarkable.
But if Gilgamesh proleptically figures the inevitable end of the epic, i.e. colonial journey(s) of the subject and of human civilization, another aspect of the end of the journey not exhaustively addressed by the poem is the self's mobility in space in its specifically literary dimension, which I take to be characteristic of the early modern and modern world. This other trajectory of the self's journey through literature is a modern development, and traces its origins, particularly in its spatial aspects, to the beginning of humanism and to the invention of modern literature in Petrarch. This unfolding of the journey as literature reaches a kind of watershed, towards the end of the journey, in Italo Calvino's Le citta invisibili. What the Epic of Gilgamesh and Le citta invisibili have in common, however, is that both present responses in the realm of space to the recognition of the inevitability of the end of the journey. At the end of his ceaseless journeying Gilgamesh returns home to the city of Uruk, writes down his journey on stone tablets, restores the city's holy places that were ruined in the deluge, and invites our admiration of the architecture of the city's walls. Calvino, for his part, establishes the space of literature in opposition to the journey's end in the material and physical realm of colonial travel ("il momento disperato in cui si scopre che quest'impero che ci era sembrato la somma di tutte le meraviglie e uno sfacelo senza fine ne forma," 13). He constructs the architecture of the aesthetic object of the book of "invisible cities," through which he invites the reader to "cercare e sapere riconoscere chi e cosa in mezzo all'inferno, non e inferno, e farlo durare e dargli spazio" (170, emphasis mine).
1. "I have grown afraid of death, so I roam the steppe" Gilgamesh, X. 172)
The historian of travel Eric Leed has identified Gilgamesh's desire for fame, which is stimulated by the presentiment of death, as the specific motivation for Gilgamesh's fateful first departure from Uruk together with Enkidu to kill the monster Humbaba, guardian of the forest:
People's days are numbered, Whatever they attempt is a puff of air. [...] I will go before you, You can call out to me, "Go on, be not afraid!" If I fall on the way, I'll establish my name: "Gilgamesh, who joined battle with fierce Humbaba" (they'll say). (Gilgamesh, 19; [tablet 2: 186-194])
According to Leed, Gilgamesh's departure from Uruk represents "the earliest depicted in western travel literature" and is characteristic of the heroic journey both for its motivation and for the intensity of emotion that Gilgamesh's departure elicits (Leed 28). An awareness of the inevitability of death supplies the chief motive for Gilgamesh's departure, just as the presentiment of death will subsequently motivate the departures of heroic figures of myth and history, ranging from the final journey of Dante's Ulysses ("Io e' compagni eravam vecchi e tardi," Inf. 26: 106) in the mythic realm, to the historical journeys of exploration and discovery, including, for instance, that of the Renaissance travel writer Antonio Pigafetta who joined Magellan's expedition and proposed to write about it in order "to gain some renown with posterity." (5)
In fact, at the root of travel literature lies the same desire to circumvent death that motivates the physical journey of the hero in space and time in the first place. Although unremarked upon by Leed, a lucid awareness of travel and travel literature as complementary responses to the problem of the inevitability of "the end of the journey" informs the Epic of Gilgamesh in the Standard Babylonian version that the Mesopotamian tradition attributed to Sin-leqi-unninni, a scholar who lived in the second half of the second millennium (Tigay 12-13). The hero of the epic is styled a travel writer in the first tablet, in a prologue which stresses the didactic significance of the poem and suggests that some form of the poem we are about to read was first written by Gilgamesh, the traveler, upon his return:
From a distant journey [Gilgamesh] came home, weary, and at peace, Engraved all his hardships on a monument of stone. [...] [Search out the foundation box of copper, [Release] its lock of bronze, Raise the lid upon its hidden contents, Take up and read from the lapis tablet Of him, Gilgamesh, who underwent many hardships. (Gilgamesh 3; tabl. 1: 9-10; 25-29)
In terms of the history of travel, Gilgamesh ought to be considered not only the earliest heroic traveler but also the tradition's first travel writer. His account of his journey is tantamount to the composition of the epic itself and represents the earliest expression of Leed's powerful idea that the "circumvention of death, too, is at the root of travel literature, those stories of journeys that seek to fix and perpetuate something as transient and impermanent as human action and mobility" (Leed 28).
I will return to the problem of the relation between travel and travel writing as interrelated "spatializing" responses to the temporal problem posed by the inevitability of human finitude in the second part of this essay dedicated to Le citta invisibili. My intent in calling attention at the outset to its presence as a framing thematic in the Epic of Gilgamesh is simply to suggest, on the one hand, that Leed's discussion of the importance of the poem for the history of travel, while path-breaking, is not exhaustive, and, on the other, to give some sense of the self-consciousness and sophistication of the Standard Babylonian version (i.e., its self-referentiality as literary artifact) which brought together in its eleven tablets diverse elements of the received tradition into a unified whole. In fact, the Epic of Gilgamesh offers an extremely advanced, even post-colonial, reflection on the "end of the journey" which shows striking continuities with the position assumed in a modernist/ postmodern response to the same theme by Calvino in Le citta invisibili.
Simply stated, the didactic poem describes Gilgamesh transcending a stage of heroic adolescence. The death of his companion Enkidu brings home as never before the reality of the hero's own mortality. Gilgamesh's subsequent travels present him anxiously mourning both Enkidu's death and his own mortality. Eventually the hero returns to Uruk reconciled to the inevitable end of the journey and possessing a new appreciation for home and the virtues of "placedness" (also deepened by the memory of the apocalypse of the flood story related by Utanapishtim in the final tablet). Gilgamesh, upon his return, restores "the holy places the deluge had destroyed," maintains (and admires) the walls of Uruk, and writes down the story of his own journey on stone tablets. The broad outline of this figural trajectory of the hero's journey ought to sound familiar to students of the early modern history of colonial travel beginning with the "Discovery of America" and its postmodern (touristic) aftermath, (6) as well as those engaged in the debate about time and space as competing epistemological orientations for aesthetic and social theory. (7)
But let's begin by tracing the history of early modern travel and its aftermath in the Babylonian epic. Gilgamesh's heroic strength and energy, initially described as a burden on the city are relieved in part by means of his struggle with Enkidu, and engaged by the conquest of the Cedar Forest so "that Uruk may have peace" (1: 90-93). These correspond to the surplus heroic energies of classical-medieval Mediterranean cultures that are expressed in the mythic realm by Dante's Ulysses on the eve of the age of Atlantic exploration and discovery, and subsequently materialized in the conquistas of the various Corteses, Pizarros, and Aguirres in the Americas. On the other hand, the process of Enkidu's acculturation and Gilgamesh's encounter with the natural man prefigures subsequent encounters between "primitive" and "civilized" peoples (Tigay 209-10). (8) The domestication of Enkidu, in its immediate Babylonian context, describes the transition of primitive culture from the wilderness to the civilized life of the city and this "conversion/ conquest" foreshadows the processes of acculturation realized by the European encounter with the Americas.
For example, anthropological analogies to the acculturation of Enkidu by means of the temple harlot in the history of transatlantic encounters include Amerindian go-betweens ranging from Columbus's Taino princess Anacaona, Cortes's Malinche, and Sacajaweja of Lewis and Clark. (9) While the incorporation of the natural man into the city is accomplished by a temple prostitute in the Epic of Gilgamesh (nature > culture), the Amerindian woman provides the European traveler with access (culture > nature), leading to dominion in the territories of the New World. The end of these processes of incorporation is, without respect to their "directionality," in both cases to "civilize" nature. Enkidu embodies the arrival of "natural man" to civilization and to the culture of cities, prefiguring in the process the entry of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the rest of the world to the global world city network of modernity.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh as in history this development is not pacific. A struggle between "natural" and "civilized" man takes place, and with the same outcome in history as in the epic. Enkidu attempts to block Gilgamesh's exercise of the kingly prerogative of the jus primae noctis (Tigay 182-84, 188-89): they grapple and Gilgamesh prevails (2: 99-114). The object of Europe's "imperial" desire and conquest, the "New World" is, interestingly, usually gendered female as is Enkidu. (10) Both "civilized" and "natural" man, according to the mythic western vision of these events, are transformed by their encounter and together join forces in a renewed struggle by Euro-American culture to dominate nature.
Accordingly, there follows the lengthy section dedicated to the conquest of the guardian of the forest Humbaba. Gilgamesh and Enkidu undertake together to accomplish the economic appropriation of the cedar forest for the use of the city (2: 141-V. 172): "Gilgamesh cut down the trees/ Enkidu chose the timbers" (5: 154-55), an exploit that prefigures the global colonial conquest of nature undertaken by Euro-American culture together with the indigenous peoples of the world in the early modern and modern periods. The hubris involved in the attack upon the natural world figured by the killing of Humbaba and the conquest of the forest eventually leads to a state of ecological crisis in our own day. Gilgamesh's spurning of the goddess Ishtar's propositions in Tablet 6, on the other hand, represents a second act of hubris by the hero who, in this case, treats with disdain the deity of the city of Uruk. In effect, Gilgamesh refuses the deity's offer of personal and civic fertility. The conquest and exploitation of nature are accompanied by modernity's hubristic disdain for the gods and of religion in general, which is figured in Gilgamesh and Enkidu's subsequent killing of the bull of heaven (6: 116-181), for which they are condemned by the gods and for which one of them must die. The outcome of the subsequent conference of the gods is the decision that Enkidu must die in order to expiate the impiety of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Tablet 7 opens with Enkidu cursing the cedar door that he had made as a trophy from the Cedar Forest.
The figure of Enkidu as the maker of the door (an obvious image of transcendence and crossing of thresholds) through which he will not pass and which is in fact responsible for his demise, vividly depicts the part played by "natural man" in history. The death of the "other," that is, of the indigenous and pre-modern peoples of the world, no less than humanism's recognition of the irrevocable loss of the classical world brings about in European consciousness a heightened awareness of the transience of all cultures and of human life. This awareness historically traces its origins to humanism's (and signally, to Petrarch's) melancholic recognition of modernity's belatedness with respect to the classical world, a coming to awareness that was contemporary with the inauguration of the Atlantic period of discovery, exploration and conquest, beginning with the re-discovery of the Canary Islands in the mid-14th century. (11) This new humanistic awareness is reinforced and reaches a crescendo during the early modern and modern periods which witness the death of indigenous peoples and traditional cultures and languages before the onslaught of modernity. Once Enkidu dies, gone is the easy heroic defiance of death that had characterized the journey to the Cedar Forest of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and their defeat of the bull of heaven. (12)
In Tablet 8 Gilgamesh laments Enkidu's fate. He will make him a monument, and then "I will let my hair grow matted,/ I will put on a lion skin and roam the steppe!" [8: 78-79]. Tablet 9, in fact, finds him distraught, roaming the steppe. At bottom, Gilgamesh's travels after the death of Enkidu are motivated by a more profound awareness of mortality than that which had motivated the journey to the Cedar Forest that originally attracted Leed's attention. Now Gilgamesh's travel is described during the final journey of the poem as a "restless roaming in the steppe" (for instance, at 9: 26-7, 10: 101-102 and 10: 151) at the same time that it is incongruously described as a quest to find Utanapishtim, from whom Gilgamesh seeks to obtain the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh's travel to the end of the earth is characterized both as a mournful wandering and as a goal-directed quest. This paradoxical aspect of Gilgamesh's travels following the death of Enkidu is distinctively modern and prefigures the ambivalent journeys of the first great melancholic traveler of modernity, Francesco Petrarca:
Solo e pensoso i piu deserti campi Vo mesurando a passi tardi e lenti; E gli occhi porto, per fuggire, intenti, Ove vestigio uman l'arena stampi. (Canzoniere 35)
In this melancholic, Bellerophonic aspect, Petrarchan travel is analogous to Gilgamesh's roaming in so far as it is inspired by the poet's deep awareness of the inevitability of death, of Laura's, of his own, and of the ineluctable passing of time. (13) Yet, like Gilgamesh's, Petrarchan travel also expressed an heroic quest-like aspect, for instance in the poet's positive rewriting of Dante's Ulysses: "Compare my wanderings to those of Ulysses. If the reputation of our name and of our achievements were the same, he indeed traveled neither more nor further than I" (Familiares 1.1). Petrarch adopted the Greek hero as a positive exemplar of humanist travel that strives to go ever beyond the bounds, to push on even to the edges of the earth. (14) The desire to overcome the same limit of temporality against which Gilgamesh strives inspired Petrarch's Ulysses-like travel. But like Gilgamesh's, Petrarch's quest was haunted by the same deep awareness that shipwreck awaited him as the ultimate boundary and limit to the journey.
The death of Enkidu stimulates Gilgamesh's mourning and renewed travels in search of immortality. Similarly, mourning, melancholia and nostalgia for the pre-modern world motivate the frenetic and anxiety-ridden travels of today's tourists. Like Gilgamesh's travels, modern tourism presents simultaneously aspects of melancholic roaming and frenetic questing, and is a form of travel vitiated by the anxiety about and fear of death that motivates it. (15) This distinctively modernistic and paradoxical aspect of Gilgamesh's travels following the death of Enkidu colors the account of his travels. That is to say, the paradigm of the quest is undermined by the theme of Gilgamesh's prior and contemporary "restless roaming [of] the steppe." At one point Gilgamesh is explicitly undecided between the two options: "If need be, I'll cross the sea, if not, I'll roam the steppe" (10: 186.7). This ironic tension underlying Gilgamesh's travel explains the detached, vaguely parodic treatment of the quest journey to Utanapishtim that takes up the latter part of the work. The melancholic "humour" of the hero's quest is expressed, for instance, in the description of the hero's 12-hour race through the mountain tunnel in which, like a transatlantic airline passenger, he travels faster than the sun:
When he had gone one double hour, Dense was the darkness, no light was there, It would not let him look behind him. When he had gone two double hours, Dense was the darkness, no light was there. It would not let him look behind him. (9: 82- 87) [...] When he had gone ten double hours, [The time for the sun's entry] was drawing near. [When he had gone eleven double hours], just one double hour [was left], [When he had gone twelve double hours], he came out ahead of the sun! (9: 110-113)
In Tablet 10, at the end of the earth, appropriately enough, given the melancholic "touristic" resonances of his travel, Gilgamesh encounters the tavern keeper Siduri, and one is left to wonder who the clients might be for a tavern at the end of the earth. The message to Gilgamesh contained in Siduri's speech is not simply "carpe diem," as it is often read (10: 77-91). She also tells him to go home and start a family. In this Siduri foreshadows the final didactic turn of the epic which asserts the uselessness of ceaseless journeying, even to the ends of the earth. The wisdom and "humanity" of staying at home is a theme that had been foreshadowed at the outset of the epic when the elders of Uruk urged Gilgamesh to return from the expedition of the Cedar Forest and raise a family: "Let him return to be a grave husband" (3: 146). (16)
Finally, however, Siduri tells Gilgamesh he can cross the sea to Utanapishtim with the boatman Ur-Shanabi (10: 103-115). When Ur-Shanabi asks the hero somewhat incongruously (as he is about to undertake the culminating leg of his epic quest): "why are you clad in a lion skin, roaming the steppe" (10: 151), Gilgamesh replies: "I have grown afraid of death, so I roam the steppe" (10: 172). As in Gilgamesh's passage through the mountain tunnel, a vaguely mock-heroic tone can be discerned in the description of this final leg of the journey:
Stand back, Gilgamesh! Take the first [pole], Your hand must not touch the waters of death [...], Take the second, the third, the fourth pole, Gilgamesh [10: 211-213] [...]With twice sixty Gilgamesh had used up the poles. Then he, for his part, took off his belt [...], Gilgamesh tore off his clothes from his body, Held high his arms for a mast [...]. (10: 217-220)
Upon arrival, Utanapishtim also asks, again, somewhat incongruously given the context of the quest: "Why are you clad in a lion skin, roaming the steppe?" (10: 237) and admonishes the hero: "You strive ceaselessly, what do you gain" (10: 297). When Gilgamesh asks Utanapishtim how he found eternal life, the eternal man replies with the story of the flood which takes up more than half of the eleventh tablet (11: 15-196). Knowledge of the flood, in fact, according to the poem's prologue, is among the most important acquisitions that Gilgamesh will bring back from his journey: "He saw what was secret and revealed what was hidden,/ He brought back tidings from before the flood" (1: 7-8).
The account of the flood is probably an innovation of the form Sin-leqi-unninni (or the author of the standard version) gave the poem. There is good reason to believe that the full flood story was not part of the epic before the late version. That it belongs with the frame is suggested by the stress which the prologue, also generally attributed to Sin-leqi-unninni, places upon it. (17) Tigay has explained the prominence of the flood story, observing that, "by telling his story to Gilgamesh Utanapishtim shows him that his own attainment of immortality was due to a set of unique unrepeatable circumstances" (239). Yet, this does not explain the thematic function and pertinence of the flood story, nor does Tigay's further suggestion that the story functions as an artistic digression intended to build or relax suspense on the part of the audience finally resolve the question of its function within the general ideology of the Standard Babylonian version.
The story of the apocalypse of the flood as related to Gilgamesh and, by extension, to his eventual audience back in Uruk has for us a didactic function vis-a-vis humanity that has "survived" the flood which is directly parallel to the function of the hero's experience of the death of Enkidu. That is to say, it is intended to bring about a heightened awareness of the fragility of life and through the experience of the death/apocalypse of an "other" prior civilization to bring about a transformation at the level of the community analogous to the one undergone by the hero. As a part of the frame, probably conceived by Sin-leqiunninni, the new knowledge Gilgamesh brings back of the flood, following the final romance-like complication of the "prickly plant," issues in Gilgamesh's final invitation to Ur-Shanabi, upon completing his journey of return to the city, to inspect and admire the walls of Uruk:
Go up, Ur-Shanabi, pace out the walls of Uruk. Study the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork. Is not its masonry of kiln-fired brick? And did not seven masters lay its foundations? One square mile of city, one square mile of gardens, One square mile of clay pits, a half square mile of Ishtar's dwelling, Three and a half square miles is the measure of Uruk! (11:326-34)
The narrator repeats the same words to the audience in the prologue. The quest for eternal life ends with a celebration of works of architecture, or "urban planning" and of walls, which, unlike the poem (evidently a sturdier spatial construct against the stresses of time) have not survived. The conclusion might appear an utter ironic failure. But Gilgamesh's simple description of a great civic work is significant, for by giving it he signals his renewed appreciation for the city as home in the face of the inevitability of the journey's end. The image of the walls of the city and of the poem itself which Gilgamesh writes down on "stone tablets" are not so much substitutes for immortality as constructs in the realm of space which humanity constructs as a form of resistance against the tyranny of time. In light of this, it becomes clear why Gilgamesh is praised in the prologue to the poem, following his exploration of "the furthest reaches of the earth" for his role as "Restorer of holy places that the deluge had destroyed" (I: 45). Place (and architecture) as constitutive of human identity and as defenses against the temporality of the journey is what connects the Epic of Gilgamesh directly to the modern/postmodern debate about time and space as competing epistemological perspectives and categories of cultural understanding. From this vantage point, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Italo Calvino's Le citta invisibili offer mutually illuminating perspectives or responses to the problem presented by "the end of the journey."
2. "Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space" (Le citta invisibili)
Le citta invisivili appears at a crucial juncture in the history of the production of space, according to the authoritative analysis of that history by the geographer David Harvey. Noted for his concept of space-time compression and its potentially transformative implications for the social order, Harvey's work has been concerned, among other things, with how postmodernism emerged in response to renewed intensification of the pressures of space-time compression between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. (18)
For Harvey, the political and economic crises of the early 1970s were just the latest round in a series of adjustments in reaction to the emergence of the new geography of capitalist development which involved first and foremost "the conquest of space," and which Harvey traces to the mid-19th century (but via Lefebvre back to the late middle ages and Renaissance). (19) While social theory (as in Smith, Marx, Weber) has privileged time in its theorizations, the aesthetic has privileged space in elaborating its own response to pressures of space-time compression and of temporality by means of the "spatialization of time. "In terms of contemporary cultural practice, the best illustration of an institutional spatial resistance to the claims of history and temporality for Harvey is, tellingly, found in the field of architecture. But generally speaking, the spatial dimension of all aesthetic objects, whether they be buildings, paintings or poems seeks not only to "to illuminate temporal reality so that (we) might feel more at home in it, but [...] to abolish time within time, if only for a time." (20) As Petrarch understood long before Adorno or Bourdieu, writing itself as spatial practice "tears practice and discourse out of the flow of time." (21) This fundamental theoretical point made by Bourdieu and Adorno for the modern period was well-understood by humanist culture. In fact, it was foundational for Petrarch, for whom writing was to be "a place of rest" (Familiares 1.1). (22) The Epic of Gilgamesh, as we've seen, promotes the virtues of space, in particular, of architecture and words written on stone tablets as "spatializing" responses to the inevitability of the end of the journey. We should not be surprised if an artist of Calvino's cosmopolitan character and spatial preoccupations should have responded precociously by aesthetic means to the pressures of this particular aspect of the "post-modern condition." Indeed, Le citta invisibili has a kind of prophetic aura or resonance when we read it now. At the beginning of the new millennium, from the perspective of an internet-connected culture immersed in the economic and cultural phenomena of globalization, Le citta invisibili presents an aesthetic response to the experience of space-time compression, whose specifically spatial aspect we are perhaps better positioned to appreciate in the light of our reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The spatially overdetermined character of Calvino's book represents the response of literary aesthetics to space-time compression. As Gianni Celati observed in a review written at the time of the work's publication: "The book is [...] more a spatial than a temporal metaphor; it is not a book about memories evoked by traces of writing but a book about the spatiality of the traces. To reduce time into the space of memory is to deny that history or stories have some analogy with the dimension of the ego which is temporal, which is memory. Therefore accept the pure exteriority of the book as object." (23) This distinctively spatial aspect of the book, at both the levels of form and content accounts for its enthusiastic reception by architects and urban planners, the most recent expression of which, thirty years after the publication of the work, was the exhibition which the "Triennale di Milano" dedicated to it, which was mounted by architects, urban planners and conceptual artists of various disciplines. (24) Literary critical reception of the work has been no less attentive to the spatial dimensions of the artifact, from the earliest reviews, including an influential essay by P. V. Mengaldo who described the formal structure of the work as "seven sestina stanzas enclosed by two double sestina stanzas," (25) to more recent contributions like Robert Dombroski's important chapter "Le citta invisibili and Architecture." (26) In the most searching analysis of the architectural structure of the work to date, however, Carlo Ossola has revealed a latent structure designed to draw the reader toward the interior of the work and to its center, that is, to the "fulcro di ogni simmetria e di ogni specularita, al centro esatto del racconto (280 infatti tra le citta descritte) e della matrice geometrica che inscrive le 'citta invisibili,' Bauci, citta eponima di ogni 'citta invisibile' [...] se appunto 'Dopo aver marciato sette giorni attraverso boscaglie, chi va a Bauci non riesce a vederla ed e arrivato.' (27)
As Ossola has noted, at the center of Ovid's Metamorphoses (8: 611-424), just as Baucis is at the center of Le citta invisibili, one reads of Philemon and Baucis. The couple provide hospitality in their humble abode to the disguised gods Jupiter and Mercury who had been refused shelter by the other inhabitants of the valley. The gods remove Philemon and Baucis to a mountaintop from which they witness an apocalyptic flood that the gods bring down upon the valley, sparing only the pious couple and their cottage that is transformed afterward into a temple. Philemon and Baucis serve thereafter as custodians of that temple, until their deaths, when they are transformed into an oak and a lime tree. The spatial and architectural motif of the myth, in particular, the humble cottage of Baucis and Philemon transformed into a sacred temple, clearly appealed to Calvino who sought to recognize and "give space" to what was not inferno. Yet, the intertextual resonance of Baucis for Calvino is not exhausted by its Ovidian source.
The tale, which was depicted by such artists as Rembrandt ("Philemon and Baucis") and Peter Paul Rubens ("Stormy Landscape with Philemon and Baucis") was taken up and revised by Goethe in Part II, Act V of Faust, a passage which provides a vital intertext for the interpretation of Calvino's Baucis, especially for the implications of Goethe's rewriting of Ovid as a cautionary tale about modern urban planning. In fact, Faust transforms by means of a dyke, symbolizing economic activity, technological progress and the subjugation of nature, a section of coastline into a garden "like an Eden." To achieve his plan, however, Faust must drive out the established population, including Baucis and Philemon, who resist his land reclamation project:
Baucis. Godless is he, he would savor This our grove and cabin here; Now the newly strutting neighbor As his subjects we should fear.
Philemon. Yet he pledged, you have forgotten, Homestead fair on new won land!
Baucis. Do not trust the ocean bottom, Steadfast on your hill-brow stand!
Philemon. To the chapel let us wander, Greet the parting sun once more; Ring and kneel in worship yonder, Trusting God as heretofore. (vv. 11131-11142) (28)
The pious, elderly couple continue serving God faithfully and ringing the bell of the chapel for which they are responsible. Their idyllic lives represent an affront and their home a site of resistance to Faust's titanic ambition to transform and to rule the world. The bell undermines Faust's sense of power and he desires to remove Philemon and Baucis:
Faust.... That aged couple must surrender, I want their linden for my throne, The unowned timber-margin slender Despoils for me the world I own.... (vv. 11239-11242)
Ultimately, Mephistopheles and his henchmen kill the old couple as a result of Faust's project:
Lynceus (the keeper of the watchtower of the palace). .... Woe! The inner hut's afire That was moist and mossy green Instant rescue would require. Yet no help is to be seen. Ah, the poor old pair that tended Else so watchfully their fire, Must their age in smoke be ended, Snuffed in conflagration dire! (vv. 11312-11319)
Philemon and Baucis die as a sacrifice to the earthly desire of a man supported by a pact with the devil. This particular episode of Goethe's poem has been read as an allegory of the negative consequences of human progress entailed in curbing nature by constructing an artificial world of cities, industries, transport, and intensified agriculture, symbolized in Faust by land reclamation and the expropriation of Philemon and Baucis, and has even been interpreted as a "founding classic of environmental health sciences. (29) "Placing Baucis at the center of Le citta invisibili represents Calvino's own architectural form of spatial resistance to the pressures of modernity, taking the form of an intertextual homage to the Philemon and Baucis of Ovid and Goethe who offered hospitality to the gods in their home/temple and resisted the encroachments of urban planning.
Another reader sensitive to the relevance of Baucis for the contemporary cultural debate was C. G. Jung, who, in his autobiography, tells of dreaming of Philemon without his companion Baucis. (30) It is likely, according to Muramoto, (31) that Jung dreamt of Philemon alone as the continuation of the story after the death of Baucis. According to Muramoto, the decisive insight that Philemon imparted to Jung was that after Philemon and Baucis, whose earthly home was destroyed by Faust, there is no space for the reception of the gods but in his [Jung's] soul. This figure of Philemon was clearly involved in Jung's mind with the figure of Faust. In another passage of his autobiography Jung criticized the conclusive solution of Goethe's poem:
In the days when I first read Faust I could not remotely guess the extent to which Goethe's strange heroic myth was a collective experience and that it prophetically anticipated the fate of the Germans. Therefore I felt personally implicated, and when Faust, in his hubris and self-inflation, caused the murder of Philemon and Baucis I felt guilty, quite as if I myself in the past had helped commit the murder of the two old people. This strange idea alarmed me and I regarded it as my responsibility to atone for this crime, or to prevent its repetition. (Memories, Dreams, Reflections 234)
The figure with whom Jung identified himself was not Faust but Philemon since he hoped to be hospitable to the gods in his work in contrast to a Faustian injustice and neglect of gods, just as, according to Ovid, Philemon with his wife received and entertained the gods. Jung's work will indeed consist in the continuation of Philemon and Baucis' holy mission and the atonement of Faust's sin. This explains why, according to Muramoto, Jung had the following inscription carved in the stone of the entrance to the tower of Bollingen, the small village in Switzerland where he had a rural retreat:
Philemonis sacrum Fausti poenitentia [Shrine of Philemon Atonement for Faust]
Jung's desire to recover a reverence for the gods was tantamount to reverence for the "place" of Philemon in the face of the onslaught of modernity. Jung explicitly interpreted Nazism in relation to the myth, in a 1933 letter which is cited by Muramoto to Dr. Jul. Paul Schmidt (1900-1953). There he described himself as "the advocate and avenger of Philemon and Baucis [...] hosts of the gods in a godforsaken age."
Whether or not Calvino knew directly the Jungian legacy of the Philemon and Baucis story, Jung's illuminating re-evocation of the myth sheds important light on Calvino's placement of the myth at the spatial center of Le citta invisibili. Like Jung, Calvino was engaged in attempting to recover, in the shadow of the apocalypse, and in the midst of the inferno of modernity a place other than the inferno, and sought to protect it and make it grow. Jung's Philemon lost his wife when Faust burned his house, and therefore Jung could only recover the gods in an inner space, "in the soul." Calvino's Baucis, on the other hand, is widowed of her Philemon and, by extension of Jungian gods. While Jung's resistance to modernity takes the form of recovering gods from the sky, Calvino, the secular humanist, will focus on the terrestrial world and on recovering a place that is not infernal in the earthly realm. The place of Philemon in the soul for Jung corresponds in Calvino to a literary territory that must be carved out and protected.
In the history of the establishment of territory or place we have already noted, throughout travel literature and anthropology, that the figure of woman, in this case the wife of the pious couple Baucis, has a special, incorporative role to play. Accordingly, the figure of woman has a vital function in Calvino's invention of the "invisible cities." In fact, the names of all the cities of the book "vantano una stupenda ed esotica onomastica femminile, da Zobeide a Sofronia, da Aglaura a Zemrude, da Eusapia a Perinzia, nomi-numina che seducono il viandante e l'amante, allettando i piedi erranti nelle tortuosita del loro corpo urbanistico cosi come le mani erranti dell'innamorato di John Donne esplorano l'universo anatomico della nuova terra posseduta ('Oh my America, my new found land')." (32)
Yet, Calvino's Baucis appears to present an emblem of aesthetic fascination rather than of sensual desire. The city is suspended above the clouds, lifted up by slender stilts, and one reaches there by climbing ladders. The inhabitants rarely descend to earth as they have everything they need in the city which does not come into contact with the ground except for the long flamingo legs upon which it rests and, on sunny days, "a pierced angular shadow that falls on the foliage":
Tre ipotesi si danno sugli abitanti di Bauci: che odino la Terra; che la rispettino al punto di evitare ogni contatto; che la amino com'era prima di loro e con cannocchiali e telescopi puntati in giu non si stanchino di passarla in rassegna, foglia a foglia, sasso a sasso, formica per formica, contemplando affascinati la propria assenza. (83)
Appropriately enough, at the center of Le citta invisibili, having reaffirmed the aesthetic as a site of resistance against infernal aspects of modernity through the allusion to Ovid's Philemon and Baucis (and setting off intertextual reverberations to Goethe and Jung), Calvino proceeds to provide in Baucis an allegorical self-portrait of the artist in his characterization of the inhabitants of the city. They, in fact, recall the attitude of the artist Calvino in several respects. In the first place, the doubt about whether the inhabitants of Baucis avoid contact with the earth because they either hate it or love it too much captures the ambivalence of Calvino's artistic attitude toward the world which Cesare Cases described in terms of a Nietzschean "pathos della distanza." (33) That is, the longing for integration underlying Calvino's distance and detachment from the worlds treated in his fictions constitutes a fundamental tension of his art. According to Cases, for example, in Barone rampante, Calvino found a solution to his dilemma by locating his hero in the trees, so that from a distance he could have a relationship with men and be of some use to them without being too close, and therefore vulnerable to them. Here the inhabitants of Baucis are even further removed from the earth, and the object of their loving gaze is devoid of people. The earth itself has become an object of contemplation, as unencumbered place. It is striking that the author's signature is present in Baucis where the landscape is devoid of people, and that at the center of Le citta invisibili Calvino's "invisibile city" par excellence, Baucis, should contain also a statement of poetics privileging place, that is, the "Terra" (Earth) as the home of man and object of the artist's loving contemplation. What is particularly significant is that the inhabitants of Baucis contemplate their own absence, that is to say, the earth appears ultimately other to man's temporality. To contemplate the earth from such a distance, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, fascinated by one's own absence is to express an aspiration ("pathos della distanza") to transcend the dimension of the ego which is temporal through the contemplation of place (in fact, they love it as it was before them), beyond architecture, in the place and landscape of the Earth, whose meticulous descriptions have such a large part in Calvino's literature, from "Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno" to Palomar. (34)
In fact, alongside the Earth and the landscape of place, but beyond the temporal dimension of the ego, Calvino presents the pure exteriority of the book itself as object and as "spatialization of time," that is, as a means to counteract the temporality of the journey no less than the temple of Baucis and Philemon or the journey of Gilgamesh written down on stone tablets. That is to say, it functions as a "place" where communication and community can be established that transcend the temporal and spatial borders of an individual ego in time and space. This accounts for the renewed importance of travel literature (and literature as a form of travel) today, at the end of the journey, as a means of simultaneously enabling mobility and the constitution of home(s).
Calvino had illustrated vividly this function of contemporary "travel literature" in the very first of his "invisible cities," in his description of the "special quality" of the city of Diomira:
Ma la proprieta di questa e che chi vi arriva una sera di settembre, quando le giornate s'accorciano e le lampade multicolori s'accendono tutte insieme sulle porte delle friggitorie, e da una terrazzo una voce di donna grida: uh!, gli viene da invidiare quelli che ora pensano d'aver gia vissuto una sera uguale a questa e d'esser stati quella volta felice. (15)
This first of the "invisible cities" is programmatic for the book as a whole for the way in which it foregrounds the text itself and its material presence or place as establishing a connection with the reader directly ("those who now believe they have lived an evening identical to this") and thereby requiring the reader's participation in the construction of the "special quality" of the city of Diomira. Yet again it is the figure of a woman, this time on a terrace "whose voice cries ooh!" that functions as both the object of desire and nostalgic longing, and which enables the incorporation of the reader into the "territory" of the text. It is this form of literary mobility that marks the point of departure for renewed travel even at the end of the journey. Calvino's postmodern travel writing mediates the communication between those who travel and those who stay home, collapsing the gap between them through the space of the words on the page which like the woman mediatrix on the balcony bridge the temporal and spatial gap between writer and reader. The text and the place of the text serve as go-betweens and constitute a means of access to an alternative territory. Yet, this is no mere metaphorical journey according to the commonplace distinction between real and metaphorical travel. The spatial aspect of literature constitutes a real place and is potentially productive of real space in so far as it can instruct the reader how to identify "who and what in the midst of inferno are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." At the end of the journey in the material and physical realm of colonial travel inaugurated by Marco Polo, it is this other kind of journey and the production of that space, Calvino seems to suggest, that represents the point of departure for a new history of travel literature and of travel.*
Calvino, Italo. Le citta invisibili. Torino: Einaudi, 1972.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, transl. and ed. by B. R. Foster. New York: Norton, 2001.
La visione dell'invisibile, Saggi e materiali su "Le citta invisibili" di Italo Calvino, ed. Mario Barenghi, Gianni Canova, Bruno Falcetto. Milano: Mondadori, 2002.
Leed, Eric. The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
Petrarca, Francesco. Canzoniere, ed. by Marco Santagata. Milano: Mondadori, 1996.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.
Todorov, Tzvetan. "The Journey and Its Narratives," Transports: Travel, Pleasure, and Imaginative Geography, 1600-1830, ed. Chloe Chard and Helen Langdon. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1996.
* I would like to thank Piero Boitani, Vittorio Hosle, Luigi Monga, Colleen Ryan-Scheutz, Justin Steinberg and the participants in the graduate seminar on "Transatlantic Literature and History of Travel" at the University of Notre Dame (Spring 2003) for their helpful comments and criticism during the preparation of this essay.
University of Notre Dame
(1.) Giulio Ferroni writes: "[...] the planetary expansion of the industrial economy, the possibility of reaching rapidly and efficiently anywhere on the planet, the simultaneous presence of infinite means of transport everywhere constantly in movement have definitively altered the nature of the journey itself. [...] A certain type of tourism is only a means of transferring everywhere one's own world. [...] From the second half of the 19th century to today there is a literature of 'the end of the journey,' from Conrad to Celine to Beckett: in Italian literature one can find noteworthy manifestations in Pirandello, Landolfi, Montale, Gadda, Calvino, Morante, Caproni, Zanzotto, Sanguinetti and also many writers of the more recent generations" ["La fine del viaggio," in Storia della letteratura italiana: Il Novecento (Milano: Einaudi, 1991): 728-29].
(2.) David Harvey, "The Time and Space of the Enlightenment Project," in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989): 240-59. For a synthetic treatment of Harvey's construction of an "historical geography of space and time," including some of its implications for aesthetics, see "Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 80 (1990): 418-34.
(3.) For Todorov the classical period of modern western travel writing begins with Marco Polo and corresponds to the narrative of colonial journeys during "the long period that extends from the Renaissance to about 1950" (294).
(4.) William L. Moran, "Rilke and the Gilgamesh Epic," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 32 (1980): 208-210.
(5.) Antonio Pigafetta, The First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522): An Account of Magellan's Expedition, ed. Theodore J. Cachey, Jr. (New York: Marsilio, 1995): 4.
(6.) In the Discovery of America: the Question of the Other (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), T. Todorov described the discovery of America as "the most astonishing encounter of our history" (4) and set out to show that "it is in fact the conquest of America that heralds and establishes our present identity" (5).
(7.) For a spirited polemical take on the question, see Roberto Dainotto, Place in Literature. Regions, Cultures, Communities (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000): 1-33. David Harvey, "Between Time and Space," proposes "bringing together understandings that give space priority over time with those that give time priority over space" (430).
(8.) See also William L. Moran, "Ovid's Blanda Voluptas and the Humanization of Enkidu," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 90 (1991): 121-127.
(9.) Leed has noted "the vital importance of the agency of women in the procedures of incorporation--exchange of gifts, food, substances, recognitions--through which human groups absorb strangers and form lasting bonds to territory " (111-129).
(10.) Thomas Van Nortwick, "The Wild Man: The Epic of Gilgamesh," in Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero's Journey in Ancient Epic. (New York: Oxford UP, 1992): 17-19.
(11.) Theodore J. Cachey Jr., "Petrarch, Boccaccio and the New World Encounter," Stanford Italian Review: Perspectives on the Italian Renaissance 10 (1991): 45-59.
(12.) See Van Nortwick, Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: "Of all the things about ourselves we must learn to live with, mortality is one of the most fundamental and most difficult" (27-28).
(13.) Cf. Secretum, 3, 156: "Remember your sadness, your love of solitude, your flight from the company of others. Indeed, what Homer said of Bellerophon could equally be applied to you: 'This man, suffering and in mourning, who wandered into foreign camps, eating his heart out, shunning all traces of humankind' [The Secret, ed. Carol E. Quillen (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003): 116]. For Bellerophon as a source for Petrarchan solitude, see Manlio Pastore Stocchi, "Divagazioni su due solitari: Bellerofonte e Petrarca," in Da Dante al Novecento (Milano: Mursia, 1970): 63-83.
(14.) On Petrarch's Ulysses, see Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land, ed. Theodore J. Cachey Jr., (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 2002): 47-48 and Piero Boitani, The Shadow of Ulysses: Figures of a Myth (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994): 47-49.
(15.) See Caren Kaplan, Questions of Travel (Durham: Duke UP, 1996): 33-36 for discussion of Renato Rosaldo's notion of "imperialist nostalgia" and its relation to contemporary tourism as theorized by Dean McCannell, among others.
(16.) See Tzvi Abusch, "Mourning the Death of a Friend: Some Assyriological Notes," in Gilgamesh: A Reader, ed. John Maier (Wauconda, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1997): "Our story is one in which Siduri refuses to provide a home for Gilgamesh and advises him instead to return to his own home" (115).
(17.) Thorkild Jacobsen, "'And Death the Journey's End': The Gilgamesh Epic," in The Epic of Gilgamesh, 203.
(18.) Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 284-307; see also Robert S. Dombrowski, "Italo Calvino's Le citta invisibili and Architecture," in Properties of Writing: Ideological Discourse in Modern Italian Fiction (Johns Hopkins UP, 2000): 170-184, for whom "The concept of a postmodern moment in contemporary cultural history came into being in the middle of the 1970s across various artistic fields and individual disciplines and paralleled a new cognitive orientation in the human sciences" (171). One might want to explore the extent to which structuralism, with its notoriously ahistorical emphasis on genre and commonplaces itself represented a "spatializing" response to the renewed pressures of space-time compression during the 1970s.
(19.) Harvey, "Between Time and Space," pp. 425-427. See also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991): 252-271.
(20.) Harvey, "Between Time and Space," citing Karsten Harries, "Building and the Terror of Time," Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal 19 (1982): 59-69.
(21.) Harvey, "Between Time and Space," citing P. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977), 156.
(22.) Theodor Adorno, Minima moralia, 33: "For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live"; cf. Petrarch: "Interea iter inceptum sequar, non prius vie quam lucis exitum operiens; et quietis michi loco fuerit dulcis labor " (Familiares 1.1).
(23.) "Il libro e dunque una metafora spaziale (vedi alla fine l'atlante) prima che temporale ; non libro sulle memorie evocate dalle tracce della scrittura, ma sulla spaziatura delle tracce. Ridurre il tempo a spazio della memoria e negare che la storia o le storie abbiano qualche analogia con la dimensione dell'io, che e temporale, che e la memoria. Quindi accettare la pura esteriorita del libro come oggetto" (Gianni Celati, "Recensione inedita," in La visione dell'invisibile 108).
(24.) 5 November 2002 -- 9 March 2003: See http: /www.triennale.it/triennale/site_html/ INVISIBILI/index.html.
(25.) P. V. Mengaldo, "L'arco e le pietre (Calvino e Le citta invisibili)," in La tradizione del Novecento (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1975): 410.
(26.) Roberts S. Dombroski, Properties of Writing: Ideological Discourse in Modern Italian Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 2000): 171-183.
(27.) Carlo Ossola, "L'invisibile e il suo 'dove': 'geografia interiore' di Italo Calvino," Lettere italiane 39, 2 (1987): 247.
(28.) Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, A Norton Critical Edition, trans. W. Arndt; Ed. C. Hamlin (New York: Norton, 1976): 282-83.
(29.) Hans C. Binswanger and Kirk R. Smith, "Paracelsus and Goethe: Founding Fathers of Environmental Health," Bulletin of the World Health Organization 78, 9 (2000): 1162.
(30.) C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe. Trans. R. and C. Winston (New York: Vintage, 1965): 182ff.
(31.) Shoji Muramoto, "Philemon," in Jung and Goethe (Kyoto: Jinbuasholn, 1992), ch. 8.
(32.) Guido Almansi, "Le citta illeggibili, " in La visione dell'invisibile 124. According to Bruno Falcetto, in Calvino's 1960 treatment for the cinema of Marco Polo's Milione, "[...] il suo e spesso un viaggio fra le donne : dalle figure femminili centrali che sono termine di confronto esistenziale per il protagonista, alle donne comparsa, oggetto di fascinazione estetica, di desiderio sensuale. E qui Calvino, mi pare, sottolineando la centralita femminile nel Milione, tende a proiettare sul modello la propria inclinazione a vedere nei rapporti con la donna un momento decisivo dei rapporti con il mondo, una figura della relazione con la realta" ("Le cose e le ombre. 'Marco Polo': Calvino scrittore per il cinema," in La visione dell'invisibile 68).
(33.) Cesare Cases, "Calvino e il 'pathos' della distanza," in Patrie lettere (Torino: Einaudi, 1987): 160-166.
(34.) The kind of meticulous contemplation and description of place is a characteristic of Calvino's art and reaches a kind of apotheosis around the time he wrote Le citta invisibili in a non-fictional description of San Remo that appears in "Dall'opaco" which has been described as a "discourse with which the author's hypothetical original/primitive ego describes the form of the world" (Claudia Nocentini, Italo Calvino and the Landscape of Childhood. Leeds: Northern UP, 2000: 84).
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|Author:||Cachey, Theodore J., Jr.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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