Brook WR Pearson
Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies
University of British Columbia
In his 1972 novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes a sort of inversion of Marco Polo’s Travels, in the form of a dialogue between Polo and the Great Khan. Polo tells the Khan of a series of cities within his own empire, each of which is named for a different woman. The very last of these, Berenice, is a strange nested set of unjust and just cities—‘the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable’ (pp. 162-63):
in the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in its turn: the certainty and pride of being in the right-and of being more just than many others who call themselves more just than the just. This seed ferments in bitterness, rivalry, resentment; and the natural desire of revenge on the unjust is colored by a yearning to be in their place and to act as they do. Another unjust city, though different from the first, is digging out its space within the double sheath of the unjust and just Berenices.
In the concluding pages of the book, the narrator tells us that the Khan’s maps also include the names of ‘the promised lands visited in thought but not yet visited or discovered: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoé, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria’ (p. 164). Kublai Khan asks Polo, from the perspective of his great experience, to which of these imagined futures we are headed. Polo replies:
‘For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you can hunt for it, but only in the way I have said.’
Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World.
He said: ‘It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’ And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it…’
But Calvino’s Polo sees a second, what he calls a ‘risky’ response to the recognition of our societal inferno that ‘demands constant vigilance and apprehension’. In taking this second way, one must ‘seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
The question then becomes, how do we do this? How do we formulate a response to centuries (sometimes millennia) of structural inequality that doesn’t simply bring about a new version of that inequality? At the moment, I believe that it is necessary that, in the logic of movements like Black Lives Matter and BDS, we recognize what is not inferno, and give them space, make them endure. This is the first step towards really meaning that ‘all lives matter’.