Berenice and the Taboo

by Prof. Stiliana Milkova

An essay in translation from the Fall 2017 issue.

by Dario Voltolini | translated by Prof. Stiliana Milkova | Parallax | Fall 2017

Photograph by Clio Schwartz

On Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.


Dario Voltolini is a contemporary Italian writer, the author of novels, short story collections, radio plays, travel narratives, and a range of nonfiction texts. His literary works often dwell on human relationships in an urban, post-industrial world to find profound meaning underneath the most prosaic occurrences. The theme of the writer’s task in a global, overpopulated world emerges in “Berenice and the Taboo: On Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.” In this essay Voltolini reflects on Calvino’s famous novel taking the last city, the “hidden city” of Berenice, as his starting point. Voltolini discusses the question of Time (and its manifestations) as Calvino’s Other, and taming—or representing—that otherness as the writer’s task. When I read this essay in Italian I was captivated by its ideas, by its close reading of Calvino’s text and its broader implications for literature and society in general. Translating it in to English posed a single challenge: capturing Voltolini’s thought, rendering it legible, while also preserving his original language, his own “agile, incisive, sparkling” imagery.

In this essay I examine a particular aspect of Calvino’s poetics—his self-representation as a writer—that I have always deemed problematic. What I have in mind is a certain unresolved tension which afflicts me as a writer too, and perhaps for this reason I tend to notice it in the work of others. This tension arises from the general problem underlying the relationship between the writer and the Other, or better yet, to put it more abstractly, the writer’s relationship with otherness.

Berenice, the last city in Invisible Cities, exemplifies this tension: Highlighting specific themes elaborated in Calvino’s characteristic style, themes still resonant today with the depth and complexity of their implications. Berenice has much to give and to reveal to those of us who deal with meaning—that is, those of us who write. In Berenice, Calvino explores the relationship between the city of the just and the city of the unjust. He depicts it as the progressive nesting of the city of the just within the city of the unjust, but within the nested city the seed of injustice already germinates, and inside the city of the unjust, in turn, germinates the seed of justice, and so it continues in an infinite game of mirrors. It seems to be an idea borrowed from the mathematical theory of recursion. Here is a brief quote from Berenice to illustrate this process:

[I]n 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 rancor, rivalry, resentment; 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.

Having said this, I do not wish your eyes to catch a distorted image, so I must draw your attention to an intrinsic quality of this unjust city germinating secretly inside the secret just city: and this is the possible awakening—as if in an excited opening of the windows—of a later love for justice, not yet subjected to rules, capable of reassembling a city still more just than it was before it became the vessel of injustice. But if you peer deeper into this new germ of justice you can discern a tiny spot that is spreading like the growing tendency to impose what is just through what is unjust, and perhaps this is the germ of an immense metropolis.

Besides the fascinating image of a city nesting successively in itself its own opposites, I am always struck by something else. I am not a Calvino scholar, but as a writer I hear a call which in my own writing I have repeatedly tried to ignore or avoid so as to be able to do my work—because when you come this close to a planet as large as Calvino’s you risk being pulled away from your own course by its gravitational force. But in the end, I must confront this call, and I can begin doing it here.

So let me first discuss what disturbs me: Calvino’s unresolved tension, his persistent stumbling block. The telltale move which always takes me by surprise is when Marco Polo concludes his narrative: “From my words you will have reached the conclusion that 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.”1

Drawings by Bridget Conway

Calvino’s double construction is curious. On the one hand, a remarkable recursive progression over time; on the other, the complete negation of time itself as suggested by the coexistence of all future Berenices within an undifferentiated present moment devoid of temporal movement. This is not merely a question of rhetoric—there is something else. Here, in my opinion, is Calvino’s taboo subject, the blind spot of his otherwise astute and penetrating eye. Why construct this sequence unfolding in time only to invalidate it in the end? What kind of operation is Calvino performing? What kind of logic underlies his discourse? Marco Polo is right to suspect that Kublai Khan “has reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities.”2 In fact, Marco Polo has just stated it! Not only has he told Kublai Khan precisely that, he has already conveyed this idea through the dynamic images used to describe Berenice: wheels will jam, a new mechanism will arrive, a cuisine evoking an ancient golden age, fermenting rancors, a city digging out its space, the awakening of a love for justice, a city more just that it was before it became unjust, a tiny spot spreading, a growing tendency—and from these data it is possible to deduce the future Berenice. The outcome of these dynamic transformations is even more striking: Calvino’s vision of an immense metropolis as the rhetorical and narrative realization of the germinating Berenices. An initial tension already inhabits the text here. Berenice’s game of mirrors is infinite, but the city’s realization as an immense metropolis stands in direct contradiction to it. Calvino seems to hypothesize a qualitative discontinuity. The nesting of the just city within the unjust one does not proceed in a straight line (or even in a half line, from the golden age onward), but rather leads to a discontinuity (the metropolis), an entirely different formation.

This initial tension is subservient to the real, central tension in Calvino: the tension between a process occurring gradually over time (the recursion of the just and the unjust Berenices) and a condition of complete immobility—the city Marco Polo reveals to Kublai Khan at the end. The figure of the metropolis bridges these two opposite visions. The figure of the metropolis works as a rhetorical linchpin allowing Marco Polo (Calvino) to negotiate the vertiginous slippage between the premise of Berenice’s existence and the text’s conclusion which invalidates this very premise. This is Calvino battling his own taboo: time. The irrational course of Marco Polo’s narrative already underscores this ongoing battle. Calvino cannot fight fairly either. The match evolves in three phases: 1) a city reverses into its opposite and vice versa, in a progression that is temporal, but otherwise flat and infinitely identical to itself; 2) even if that were not so, even if this progression did not unfold as infinitely identical to itself, but instead culminated in a qualitative change such as an immense (infinite) metropolis, then all of its reversals would occur simultaneously; 3) Berenice indeed is a point devoid of time where nothing can ever unfold and yet everything unfolds all at once, inextricably so, without any movement, as in a photograph.

It is both curious and symptomatic that to reach this conclusion Calvino invents the striking image of “yes” and “no” wrapped one within the other. First, he offers us an infinite game of mirrors over time, then he tells us that it is not so, that in fact everything happens all at once. What is he actually negating? The negation seems to imply an overt, ongoing dispute between Calvino and time. And for any narrator, time is not a trifle; for any narrator, time is the most important matter.

Now, I’d like to take a step to the side, to move the knight, as it were. I’d like to revisit the first of his American Lectures, the cross on which, in my opinion, Calvino crucified himself, exploring the familiar concept of lightness. By now, citing Calvino on lightness has become a routine, almost Pavlovian practice. At the beginning of the lecture, Calvino claims, as I recall, to feel a strong tension between the opacity, weight, brevity, and rigidity of the world and the language, the literature he wanted to create—picaresque, lively, agile, incisive, versatile, sparkling, polished like silver. He claims to perceive an already irremediable difference between what should have been his literary material (the world, everyday life) and his own writing. He claims he does not want to peer inside this heavy, inert mass, because it would be like staring at the Medusa’s eyes—he would turn to stone. And thus he invents, following the myth’s logic, the possibility of looking at this world indirectly, by way of mirrors, reflections, and triangulations.

Not as a critic or scholar, but personally, I believe that Invisible Cities provides the most convincing example of Calvino’s game of mirrors. This game enables him to attain what cannot be looked at directly. What cannot be looked at directly Calvino renders in the image of the weight of the world, and this weight is what I referred to earlier as otherness. Calvino knows he is not free from the obligation to deal with this otherness—no writer ever is—but he deals with it indirectly. He weaves webs, sets traps to get the better of it; always in search of solutions as incomplete, uncertain, or variable as they may be. He turns to already existing literary and scientific discourses, that is, to already established representations of otherness. Here in a nutshell is the metaliterary Calvino, while in his confrontation with temporality— which is the most petrifying aspect of otherness—we find the metanarrative Calvino.

For Calvino, contingency, mortality, limitation, uniqueness, and nothingness constitute total otherness—our private human Medusa—which he holds captive through his game of infinite possibilities, or at least he tries to. And in Invisible Cities he is more successful than anywhere else. In If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler, Calvino again plays the game of possibilities but he takes it to the extreme, to the point where the game itself reveals its limits. His attempt to create a collection of cities, as if arranged on a chessboard of his own invention, is also the attempt to tell, to narrate, to inscribe all possible cities. In the logic of set theory, all the real cities—past, present, and future—exist within the set of all possible cities. Any given real city is one of all possible cities. But the game does not work if we substitute “imaginable” for “possible.”

If we could imagine by way of literary creation, by way of the genius of invention, all the possible cities, then we would be able to imagine all the real cities, past, present, and future (and perhaps this is Calvino’s insight). It doesn’t work this way, however. There exist cities that were not imaginable before. The set of all imaginable things and the set of all the real things do not coincide completely but rather overlap in increasingly disturbing ways. There are unimaginable things that do occur. And therefore, if we could have full and total visibility of time and space, backward and forward, present, past, and future; if we could describe everything that exists, even by means of chessboard combinations, then we would really fence in everything that exists. We would deliver a blow to the Medusa; she would be the one afraid to look. Everything would be reflecting surfaces. We would have put the Medusa in check.

But this is impossible to do. And the sign of its impossibility lies in the question of time: Time as the site of otherness and not as quantity. Destructive time, time that gives birth and inflicts death, time that allows or rather brings about transformation. Time as the site of discontinuity and catastrophe, of the new and the unforeseeable, of our infinite ignorance and epistemic myopia.

Let me give a banal example. I don’t have the exact number but I know that today, for the first time in human history, 60 percent of the global population lives in cities. It used to be that city dwellers were a minority and now the reverse is true. So will this new condition produce qualitative change? We cannot foresee this even within the progression of all possible Berenices containing “yes” and “no” always within the same plane. Does the immense metropolis presuppose immobility or exactly the opposite? We cannot know, but we can dread it. We use literary combinatorics to pursue facts, but to no avail. This is a dramatically real yet exquisitely theoretical game of chess which appeals to anyone harboring the illusion that it is possible to impose immobility on the multiform and thus harness it once and for all. In a book someone gave me just this morning, Calvino says: “We raise our eyes from the page only to peer into darkness.”3

What is the main point then? How do we come to grips with Calvino’s call? What are the vertiginous dynamics still facing us today, especially us writers, all those riddles not resolved but posed by Calvino? The main point is that when faced with the irreducibility, illegibility, and otherness of facts or reality, we respond in different ways. Calvino’s way is to turn elsewhere in search of notions of otherness already established, made familiar, and therefore acting as a shield (weapon) against the Medusa. This is the game of mirrors I was referring to earlier.

For the author of Invisible Cities, the ideal city is the legible city. I remember reading that for Calvino, Paris was the champion among all cities. Paris was to him a legible city—he would walk around reading whatever interested him directly from the walls, from the streets. Paris for Calvino was a city enmeshed in writing, a cultural city, a text. Of course, it is obvious that the legibility of Paris derives from the fact that it is a much perused (written) city.

But the task of the writer, or one of the tasks in any case, is to confront total illegibility and otherness, to commit to rendering them more legible. To write is to make legible. The line, the threshold Calvino stood on (it will always remain a threshold since death stopped him when he was about to cross over and announce his new direction, for it is clear Calvino was on the verge of a new direction) is the demarcation line between otherness reduced to legibility (familiarity) and the reconfiguration of the already legible into further legibility. Calvino often intentionally thematized this very line, debating it and problematizing it. And this problem of (il)legibility, already founded on a tension, is grafted onto the question of temporality, which I suggest is Calvino’s own taboo, and thus opens space for new inquiries into his narrative. As a writer, Calvino was rent by infinite tensions, by unexpected fissures. Nonetheless, he did his best to offer us, in addition to his works and life, his interpretations and his biography. And yet, he still remains one of the most mysterious writers of the twentieth century. Although in his various essays, Calvino time and again battles with obscurity, illegibility, opacity, and otherness, it is in his clearest crystals that the darkest abyss opens. Perhaps because displaced, negated, or left behind. And Invisible Cities is his diamond.

1Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. (Harcourt, 1974), 162-3. English translation modified slightly to reflect better the original wording.

2Ibid., 163.

3Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).