Friday, August 27, 2010

Italo Calvino's City of Clarice: On the Mummification of Law, Peoples, Cultures and Time

Almost a generation ago Italo Calvino wrote  Invisible Cities (William Weaver, trans., New York: Mariner Books; 1978, First Harvest/HBJ Printing edition (May 3, 1978) ISBN-13: 978-0156453806).  It has been described as a "strange, fantastic book, Invisible Cities describes dialogues between Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler, and Kublai Khan, the oriental emperor. It has no plot as such -- no beginning, no development of characters (no characters, for that matter, except for the two mentioned above) -- but it does have a sad, bittersweet ending."  Tal Cohen, Invisible Cities / Italo Calvino, Tal Cohen's Bookshelf, March 18, 1999.  The book is framed as a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in which Polo describes a series of fantastic cities he has purportedly visited, and about which the Khan and Polo converse.  Each description of a place visited is meant as a gateway for reflection, and the aggregate of fantastic cities described meant to conjure the bits and pieces of communal reality that describes the world.    

Invisible Cities has a particular utility for those who like to think about law (especially in its governance aspects).  The descriptions suggest the difficulties of the descriptive matrix within which  the positivist mania of law has been used to direct this or that form of human behavior.  Not that text itself is difficult to use to construct appropriate representation of desires.  And commands are the simplest desires to reduce to the imperative form (though obedience is another matter).   Rather it is the framework of assumption, the structural edifices that make up the forms of the cities of "law" that remain ephemeral.  Depending on the phantasmagorical city one constructs, on can fit one's command structure within it in a way that appears cohesive and reasonable from within it, but which  appears as insubstantial outside. But even internal cohesion may be difficult.

And thus the city of "Clarice" (Invisible Cities, supra, pp. 106-108).
Clarice, the glorious city, has a tormented history.  Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalleled model of every splendor, compared to which the city's present state can only cause more sighs at every fading of the stars. 

In its centuries of decadence, emptied by plagues, its height reduced by collapsing beams and cornices and by shifts of the terrain, rusted and stopped up through neglect or the lack of maintenance men, the city slowly became populated again as the survivors emerged from the basements and lairs, in hordes., swarming like rats, driven by their fury to rummage and gnaw, and yet also to collect and patch, like nesting birds.  They grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use:  brocade curtains ended up as sheets; in marble funerary urns they planted basil; wrought-iron gates torn from the harem windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires of inlaid wood.  Put together with odd bits of the useless Clarice, a survivors' Clarice was taking shape, all huts and hovels, festering sewers, rabbit cages.  And yet, almost nothing was lost of Clarice's former splendor; it was all there, merely arranged in a different order, no less appropriate to their inhabitants' need than it had been before.

The days of poverty were followed by more joyous times:  a sumptuous butterfly-Clarice emerged from the beggared chrysalis-Clarice.  The new abundance made the city overflow with new materials, buildings, objects; new people flocked form outside; nothing, no one had any connection with the former Clarice, or Clarices.  And the more the new city settled triumphantly into the place and name of the first Clarice, the more it realized it was moving away from it, destroying it no less rapidly than the rats and the mold.  Despite its pride in its new wealth, the city, at least, felt itself incongruous, alien, a usurper.
And then the shards of the original splendor that had been saved by adapting them to more obscure needs, were again shifted.  They were now preserved under glass bells, locked in display cases, set on velvet cushions, and not because they might still be used for anything, but because people wanted to reconstruct through them a city of which no one knew anything now.

More decadences, more burgeonings have followed one another in Clarice.  Populations and customs have changes several times; the name, the site, and the objects hardest to break remain.  Each new Clarice, compact as a living body with its smells and its breath, shows off, like a gem, what remains  of the ancient Clarices, fragmentary and dead.  There is no knowing when the Corinthian capitals stood on the top of their columns:  only one of them is remembered, since for many years, in a chicken run, it supported a basket where the hens laid their eggs, and from there it was moved to the Museum of the Capitals, in line with other specimens of the collection.  The order of the eras' succession have been lost; that a first Clarice existed is a widespread belief, but there are no proofs to support it.  The capitals could have been in the chicken runs before they were in the temples, the marble urns could have been planted with basil before they were filled with dead bones.  Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them.  Perhaps Clarice has always been only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill assorted, obsolete.
In thinking about the physicality of the representation of Clarice, one can see in it a description of every surviving old European city from Barcelona to Rome.  Indeed, some have made a lucrative business of the excavation of the past with a simultaneous overlay of modern interpretation and order.  There are constant reminders of new Clarices even in the smallest reporting from the most remote corners of the settled world.  Consider a recent entry from the popular "News of the Weird" series with wide circulation in American newspapers.  "One of the more famous cultural landmarks in Britain's South Tyneside is an 1890 toilet, 'Westoe Netty,' commemorated in a 1972 painting and which remained on display at the Beamish Museum.  In March, it was relocated within the building because, as New of the Weird has reported about other museum display toilets, a visitor could not resist using it.  The toilet will be moved to a nonpublic part of the building and be hooked up to public plumbing." News of the Weird, August 27, 2010. As Calvino suggested--it becomes impossible to determine the order of succession--toilet-art-toilet-?, and therefore its consequences for "knowing what it is and what it can be used for.

Yet Clarice also describes a golden city of law, abandoned, buried, reconstituted, rearranged, and suffering an endless nostalgia for a past to which it has no connection but which is essential for  the legitimacy of the present..  The first Clarice of Roman law (first only because its progeny cannot extract though they retain a hazy memory) of those legal Clarices before the Imperial Roman version of the age of Justinian.  But it also describes the American movement from a common-law-state to a regulatory law-state, with a short if intense cycle as a statutory law-state.  Nostalgic over the bits and pieces of the "first" American Clarice, we even continue to teach its relevance to law students within the typical first year curriculum, even as we realize the extent to which the American law-state has displaced it.  What survives is shifted, reused or moved to museums where they might be admired and mis-identified to the greater glory of the current version of the law-state.  Indeed, to some great extent, American law schools serve as the sort museum, preserving under its own metaphorical glass bells the bits and pieces of what survives,  not because these bits are useful but to appear to connect to legitimate the present by its connection to the past.  Yet in the act of preservation, the modern keepers of these artifacts acknowledge their disconnect and worse, the impossibility of knowing much about any of these preserved things.  The same over-layering haunts the legal systems of all other major systems.   Its acolytes--lawyers, judges, priests, imams, legislators, regulators--devote as much time to the preservation of their cities as they do to its elaboration  effectuated by the deployment of ancient and modern governance objects to purposes legitimated by their connection somehow to the old--to the great ur-textual Clarice. 

This is not meant as a call to abandon Clarice.  It is a reminder that mummification--of cities, law, people, cultures, and the like--are a fool's errand.  The connection to a past is both necessary and necessarily metaphorical.  The harder society seeks to preserve, to reduce the  destructive effects of the present to preserve the past, the farther we move from past to future disconnected from that we seek most passionately to preserve.           

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