There is a fantastic book by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities, in which the author describes cities both imaginary and real, hypothetical and actual, existing in the imagination and in the realm of the historically true. Cities of the future, cities of the past, cities filled with trash, cities clogged with pollution spewing cars, cities traversing the length of one’s thought, that run as far as one’s mind can run, Calvino’s imagination creates them all.
The plot is relatively simple, as the entire book is a conversation between a traveler and a conqueror: Marco Polo has a long talk with Kubla Khan in his divan, in the middle of his crumbling empire.
Marco Polo tells Kubla of the cities he has visited on his way to the center of his domain, and Kubla relives his conquests through Marco’s stories, through the images and the mosaics of words flowing to him in their conversation. Hearing Polo, Kubla recognizes that his empire is crumbling, and the cracks can be seen in details of the Venetian trader’s journeys.
Kubla listens anyway, curiously, languidly, because in his listening and in the words that flow from interlocutor to listener, the cities of his eroding empire live once more, takes shape once more in the shadows of his auditory imagination. It is a fascinating account not only of physical travel, but also of the journey of imagination, memory, of the loss of our grand designs, the eventual disintegration of our most beautiful constructions.
What would a future Saigon – eternally shifting, ever hustling Saigon – look like? Will there be public and green spaces set aside for its various inhabitants? Will there be communities and places where collaborations can happen, where cultural or artistic events are made available to be enjoyed by its citizens? Will the future of Saigon lead to its eventual vanishing into the homogenous forms of so many modern cities, or will it evolve to an entity on its own, unique in the memories of visitors and locals?
These are questions that I hope I can explore further in my stay here. Looking at any major thoroughfare, and the tall cranes that line it, throws one to actively imagine its futuristic silhouettes. I cant help but create skylines in my mind of future Saigons, and the pictures formed, hazy and unfocused as they are, nevertheless captivate me.
One can’t help but superimpose cities one has visited with the most compelling skylines upon the current view. Shanghai gets mashed in there, as does Brooklyn, and sometimes Boston or Hong Kong.
… to be cont’d.
Đồ Sơn said:
(Freud on the city and the oceanic feeling)
“This brings us very close to the more general problem of conservation in the mind, which has so far hardly been discussed, but is so interesting and important that we may take the opportunity to pay it some attention, even though its relevance is not immediate. Since the time when we recognized the error of supposing that ordinary forgetting signified destruction or annihilation of the memory trace, we have been inclined to the opposite view that nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again, as, for instance, when regression extends back far enough. One might try to picture to oneself what this assumption signifies by a comparison taken from another field. Let us choose the history of the Eternal City as an example.1 Historians tell us that the oldest Rome of all was the Roma quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, when the colonies on the different hills united together; then the town which was bounded by the Servian wall; and later still, after all the transformations in the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which
the Emperor Aurelian enclosed by his walls. We will not follow the changes the city went through any further, but will ask ourselves what traces of these early stages in its history a visitor to Rome may still find to-day, if he goes equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge. Except for a few gaps, he will see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. He can find sections of the Servian rampart at certain points where it has been excavated and brought to light. If he knows enough— more than present-day archaeology— he may perhaps trace out in the structure of the town the whole course of this wall and the outline of Roma quadrata. Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient ground-plan he will find nothing, or but meagre fragments, for they exist no longer. With the best information about Rome of the republican era, the utmost he could achieve would be to indicate the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. These places are now occupied by ruins, but the ruins are not those of the early buildings themselves but of restorations of them in later times after fires and demolitions. It is hardly necessary to mention that all these remains of ancient Rome are found woven into the fabric of a great metropolis which has arisen in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is assuredly much that is ancient still buried in the soil or under the modem buildings of the town. This is the way in which we find antiquities surviving in historic cities like Rome.
Now let us make the fantastic supposition that Rome were not a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars were still standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus was still towering to its old height; that the beautiful statues were still standing in the colonnade of the Castle of St. Angelo, as they were up to its siege by the Goths, and so on. But more still: where the Palazzo Caffarelli stands there would also be, without this being removed, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely in its latest form, moreover, as the Romans of the Caesars saw it, but also in its earliest shape, when it still wore an Etruscan design and was adorned with terra-cotta antefxxae. Where the Coliseum stands now we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House ; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day as bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site also Agrippa’s original edifice ; indeed, the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old temple over which it was built. And the observer would need merely to shift the focus of his eyes, perhaps, or change his position, in order to call up a view of either the one or the other.
There is clearly no object in spinning this fantasy further ; it leads to the inconceivable, or even to absurdities. If we try to represent historical sequence in spatial terms, it can only be done by juxtaposition in space ; the same space will not hold two contents. Our attempt seems like an idle game ; it has only one justification : it shows us how far away from mastering the idiosyncrasies of mental life we are by treating them in terms of visual representation.
There is one objection, though, to which we must pay attention. It questions our choosing in particular the past history of a city to liken to the past of the mind. Even for mental life our assumption that everything past is preserved holds good only on condition that the organ of the mind remains intact and its structure has not been injured by traumas or inflammation. Destructive influences comparable to these morbid agencies are never lacking in the history of any town, even if it has had a less chequered past than Rome, even if, like London, it has hardly ever been pillaged by an enemy. Demolitions and the erection of new buildings in the place of old occur in cities which have had the most peaceful existence ; therefore a town is from the outset unsuited for the comparison I have made of it with a mental organism.
We admit this objection ; we will abandon our search for a striking effect of contrast and turn to what is after all a closer object of comparison, the body of an animal or human being. But here, too, we find the same thing. The early stages of development are in no sense still extant; they have been absorbed into the later features for which they supplied the material. The embryo cannot be demonstrated in the adult; the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue, but no longer exists itself; in the marrow bone of a grown man I can, it is true, trace the outline of the childish bone-structure, but this latter no longer survives in itself— it lengthened and thickened until it reached its final form. The fact is that a survival of all the early stages alongside the final form is only possible in the mind, and that it is impossible for us to represent a phenomenon of this kind in visual terms. Perhaps we are going too far with this conclusion.
Perhaps we ought to be content with the assertion that what is past in the mind can survive and need not necessarily perish. It is always possible that even in the mind much that is old may be so far obliterated or absorbed— whether normally or by way of exception— that it cannot be restored or reanimated by any means, or that survival of it is always connected with certain favourable conditions. It is possible, but we know nothing about it. We can only be sure that it is more the rule than the exception for the past to survive in the mind.
Thus we are entirely willing to acknowledge that the ‘ oceanic’ feeling exists in many people, and we are disposed to relate it to an early stage in ego-feeling; the further question then arises what claim this feeling has to be regarded as the source of the need for religion. To me this claim does not seem very forcible. Surely a feeling can only be a source of energy when it is itself the expression of a strong need. The derivation of a need for religion from the child’s feeling of helplessness and the longing it evokes for a father seems to me incontrovertible, especially since this feeling is not simply carried on from childhood days but is kept alive perpetually by the fear of what the superior power of fate will bring. I could not point to any need in childhood so strong as that for a father’s protection. Thus the part played by the * oceanic * feeling, which I suppose seeks to reinstate limitless narcissism, cannot possibly take the first place. The derivation of the religious attitude can be followed back in clear outline as far as the child’s feeling of helplessness. There may be something else behind this, but for the present it is wrapped in obscurity. I can imagine that the oceanic feeling could become connected with religion later on. That feeling of oneness with the universe which is its ideational content sounds very like a first attempt at the consolations of religion, like another way taken by the ego of denying the dangers it sees threatening it in the external world. I must again confess that I find it very difficult to work with these intangible quantities. Another friend of mine, whose insatiable scientific curiosity has impelled him to the most out-of-the-way researches and to the acquisition of encyclopaedic knowledge, has assured me that the Yogi by their practices of withdrawal from the world, concentrating attention on bodily functions, peculiar methods of breathing, actually are able to produce new sensations and diffused feelings in themselves which he regards as regressions to primordial, deeply buried mental states. He sees in them a physiological foundation, so to speak, of much of the wisdom of mysticism. There would be connections to be made here with many obscure modifications of mental life, such as trance and ecstasy. But I am moved to exclaim, in the words of Schiller’s diver : Who breathes overhead in the rose-tinted light may be glad!”
– Civilization and its discontents