Chapter II – The Meaning of Meaning

The Prologue

The second chapter of Invisible Cities is an astonishing attempt to interweave Jacques Lacan’s thoughts that culminated into the formulation of his infamous L Scheme, with Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on History”. It can be said that Calvino tries to establish parallels between Lacan’s views on the purpose of the psychoanalytical treatment and Benjamin’s views on the role of historical materialism, a connection that has not yet been explored much. One such attempt, however following a different thread of discussion, can be found in Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, published in 1989.


Recognizing the Trivial

The dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo starts with the former’s complaint about Polo’s emphasis on trivial, unimportant things during his recounts of the cities:

The other ambassadors warn me of famines, extortions, conspiracies, or else they inform me of newly discovered turquoise mines, advantageous prices in marten furs, suggestions for supplying damascened blades. And you?… You return from lands equally distant and you tell me only the thoughts that come to a man who sits at his doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool air. What is the use, then, of all your travelling? (23)

This opening sends us clearly to Sigmund Freud, who, as opposed to the way analytical treatment was conducted until the days he introduced his revolutionary method, asked his analysands to talk about anything that comes to their mind, as trivial as it may seem to them.


Imaginary, Resistance, Transference

Marco responds to Polo’s complaint with what could be seen as a reference to Freud’s notion of resistance:

Whatever country my words may evoke around you, you will see it from such a vantage point, even if instead of the palace there is a village on pilings and the breeze carries the stench of a muddy estuary. (23)

To which the Khan counters with words that one cannot fail to recognize as a speech at the level of the imaginary – especially when one notes the emphasis on the “I”, or the “meditating” Cartesian cogito:

My gaze it that of a man meditating, lost in thought – I admit it. But yours? You cross archipelagos, tundras, mountain ranges. You would do as well never moving from here. (23)

Polo seems to be aware of the level at which the mighty ruler speaks to him, partiularily because of the aggression – albeit latent – that is involved in Kublai’s attitude, because the latter must feel that the unity of his imago is threatened by Polo’s stance. Polo also seems to be aware that transference takes place:

The Venetian knew that when Kublai became vexed with him, the emperor wanted to follow more clearly a private train of thought; so Marco’s answers and objections took their place in a discourse already proceeding on its own, in the Great Khan’s head. That is to say, between the two of them it did not matter whether questions and solutions were uttered aloud or whether each of the two went on pondering in silence. (23)


Treatment and Cure

We clearly see Polo and Kublai Khan put against each other as analyst and analysand. The whole scene must be seen as an analogy of the treatment, including a reference to Freud’s infamous depictions that show him with a pipe:

In fact, they were silent, their eyes half-closed, reclining on cushions, swaying on hammocks, smoking long amber pipes. (23)

The following paragraph, in almost all its dimensions, is nothing but a recount of the path that leads to cure, backwards from symptom to traumatic core, along a process of free association:

Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to knew the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of  his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child. (24)


History is an Angel…

At this point, we witness a dramatic turn to the infamous eleventh paragraph in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on History”, in which he describes a Klee painting named Angelus Novus.

[…] Kublai Khan interrupted [Marco Polo]… with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?”… “Is what you see always behind you?”… “Does your journey take place only in the past?” (24)

One cannot fail to see the reference to Benjamin’s work:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History)


From Imaginary to Symbolic

From this point on, the prologue enters a stage where the L Scheme is completed by introducing the symbolic level into the treatment, in a way in which both Lacan’s and Benjamin’s views on history (both individual and collective) culminate in a shared climax:

All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was past that gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveller’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had [Freud’s notion of Nachtraeglichkeit]: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places. (24)

Calvino’s unifying perspective becomes quite clear at this point: Lacan aims to save psychoanalyses from the damage that ego psychology caused to it on exactly the same premises as Benjamin aims to save the notion of history from the damage caused by the notion of progress. Benjamin’s figure of the historical materialist is someone who is aware of the symbolic, just as the Lacanian figure of the analyst who returns to Freud, is.

It is at this point where both the analysand in treatment, and the historician freed from the notion of progress realize that other possibilities had to be given up or repressed in order for the things now existing to come into life. If every artefact of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarity, so is the “I”, who exists at the expense of other possible I’s that were repressed and forced to dry up:

Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taken one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts await him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches. (24)

[…] Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have. (25)


The Cities

All five cities that follow the prologue are concerned with the properties of signs and the notion of meaning. One could say that the city description are meant to elaborate on the meaning of meaning.







The Storyteller Marco Polo explains the properties of language and associates the chances that these properties bear with the attiude of the Flanuer and the Angelus Novus

Marco Polo discusses the meaning of meaning in a breathtaking chapter that interweaves Lacan’s L Scheme with Benjamin’s theses on history.


The Epilogue

The opening of the epilogue restates Marco’s status as a Benjaminian storyteller:

[…] Marco Polo could express himself only by drawing objects from his baggage – drums, salt fish, necklaces of warthog’s teeth – and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of the jackal, the hoot of the owl. (32)



Kublai Khan faces difficulties in fixing the meanings of Marco’s signs. But the emphasis here is rather on the polysemic nature of signs, whose ambiguity is always prevalent:

The connections between one element of the story and another were not always obvious to the emperor; the objects could have various meanings; a quiver filled with arrows could indicate the approach of war, or an abundance of game, or else an armorer’s shop; an hourglass could mean time passing, or time past, or sand, or a place where hourglasses are made. (32)



Moreover, meaning is always in a process of becoming, always postponed, never fixed, and it is this “space” which allows language to breathe:

But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off. (32)


The Failure of Words and the Unnameable

In the end, Marco Polo gains command of the emperor’s language, and his unique way of storytelling is replaced by words:

As time went by, words began to replace objects and gestures in Marco’s tales. (32)

However, this causes something in Polo’s recount to stagnate. Something remains unnameable, especially the existence of words themselves.

But you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past […] when Polo began to talk about how life must be in those places… words failed him, and little by little, he went back to relying on gestures, grimaces, glances. (32-33)


Meaning versus Signalization

The more anchoring of signs takes places, and the more communication is embedded into rules, the more Marco and Kublai’s “communication” suffer from it. Eventually, the epilogue ends with a long paragraph that contrasts polysemic meaning to the fixed signal, and communication to mere signalization, an issue that Lacan touched when he compared human communication to communication among animals:

So, for each city, after the fundamental information given in precise words, he followed with a mute commentary… a new kind of dialogue was established… as an understanding grew between them, their hand began to assume fixes attitudes, each which corresponded to a shift in mood, in their alternation and repetition… the repertory of mute comment tended to become closed, stable. The pleasure of falling back on it also diminished in both; in their conversations, most of the time, they remained silent and immobile.(33)


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