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Finding Space in the Inferno: Observations on Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

Artbound provides an exclusive look at the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities." Watch our one hour special focused on the making of "Invisible Cities." here.

The stories in the book "Invisible Cities" are often less than one page, with the longest barely more than three or four. Yet, they are so rich, so compelling, so thoughtful, that a generation of USC students have always found new ways to surprise me with how they were touched by a story I had forgotten or not discussed.

As Italo Calvino writes at the end of "Invisible Cities" (1972), if we live in an infernal city -- and, he doesn't mean just L.A., but all modern cities -- how do we survive the inferno? His answer is that most people do so by becoming part of the inferno. He rejects such a stance, encouraging his readers (as they do at the end of the "Invisible Cities'" opera), instead to "seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." In other words, how do we as scholars, activists, and residents not simply accept the racial hatred, economic polarities, and health disparities of the modern age, but instead act and support those who are fighting to create a just, safe, healthy place for everyone?

That optimism first drew me to the book. As the "Invisible Cities'" opera crowd wandered on Halloween night through Union Station searching for the singers and dancers, I was reminded of two other reasons the book has enthralled me for decades.

Union Station | Photo: Joris Debeij

First, the book "Invisible Cities" can be read at multiple levels -- a surrealistic modernist classic delving into human psychology, an insightful exploration of social relations, or homage to Venice, the author's hometown. The interpretation that draws me is an exploration of the way the built environment and human life interact. Repeatedly, Calvino highlights issues urbanists debate.

For instance, is it the place or the people that make a difference? In Calvino's fictional city, Perinthia, the astronomers use their calculations (much like modern planners) to plan a perfect city. Yet, a generation later, the houses are filled with "cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women." Calvino ends the story, as usual, with his knife to the heart of the issue: the astronomers "must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters." Back in our world, if the planners did plan Los Angeles, which they did -- did we get exactly the city they wanted, the one they imagined, the "better city" we had hoped for?

Union Station | Photo: Joris Debeij

Union Station | Photo: Joris Debeij

Similarly, in Calvino's Fedorans, he reverses our conception of what is the foundation of society. Two-half cities coexist: one is made up of the roller-coaster, carousel, Ferris wheel and big top; the other holds the banks, factories, and schools. One is permanent, one temporary. Then comes the unexpected conclusion, "every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, [and] load them on trailers." Can the buildings of stone really be less permanent than the roller-coaster? Well, if the American economy is driven by consumer spending, not by manufacturing, don't we live in cities of consumption? Don't the retail sales go year round, and the banks get turned into restaurants? Haven't our ideas of permanent and temporary already been turned upside down?

Second, the most recent generation of architectural historians reminds us that the built environment is a dynamic living place that helps shape human decisions. And, other social scientists, especially those battling health disparities and other differences in social outcomes, argue the place you are born affects your life because of the resources available to you differ so dramatically.

Calvino is no social scientist. Instead, he delves into such issues as allusions, even through delusions in stories that present us with cities where everyone who we meet looks like someone we know who has died (Adelma) or another city the living co-inhabit with the dead and the unborn (Laudomia). In Leandra, he creates two sets of gods, one of which moves whenever we move (Penates), and one that never moves, staying with the house or office (Lares), Calvino suddenly shakes us from our self-centeredness, arguing that when we move into a house, we move into the memories that come with it. When we move, we take our memories and experiences, pains and joys with us, but we also leave them in the house we have left.

Union Station | Photo: Joris Debeij

When a spouse dies, people tell us, you should move. I never understood this sentiment -- why would we not want to stay in the place where our happy memories of the person who is gone happened? Yet, Calvino helps us see, that place is filled with those memories, will those memories keep us from starting surviving and starting a new life, will they imprison us in the old memories, the old ways, not allowing us to search for new experiences? Would that be okay? He poses these heartfelt questions with this simple story.

"Invisible Cities" is a rich text, offering us new insights each time we read it -- whether we care about the people or the places that surround us, he helps us understand them better. And, insistently, he reminds us, we are actors, affecting those around us. It is our city, don't be invisible.

Union Station | Photo: Joris Debeij

Union Station | Photo: Joris Debeij

Read more about Invisible Cities:

Invisible Cities: The Dematerialization of the Opera
Artistic director Yuval Sharon details his inspiration for "Invisible Cities," and the endless possibilities opened up by the use of headphones. The presence of wireless technology in the experimental work creates a new operatic experience -- and maybe even expands the definition of opera.

Invisible Cities: The Science of a Silent Opera
Sound designer Martin Gimenez explains the challenges of getting wireless technology to deliver the extraordinary sonic experience that befits the unconventional opera.

Invisible Cities: Composing an Opera for Headphones
In composing the music for "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone created many levels of orchestral detail that would evoke the elaborate and fantastical places that Calvino

Invisible Cities: The Choreography of Union Station
Dancers in "Invisible Cities" execute an array of moves in Union Station that range from rigorous solos to improvisational and hip-hop-like explosions, to glacially slow stances.

Invisible Cities: The Finale
Here's a roundup of Artbound's behind-the-scenes features examining "headphone" opera "Invisible Cities."

Artbound Special Episode 'Invisible Cities'
Artbound presents a one hour special focused on the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities."

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About the Author

Professor, Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California.
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