In Eudoxia, which spreads both upward and down, with winding alleys, steps, dead ends, hovels, a carpet is preserved in which you can observe the city's true form. At first sight nothing seems to resemble Eudoxia less than the design of that carpet, laid out in symmetrical motives whose patterns are repeated along straight and circular lines, interwoven with brilliantly colored spires, in a repetition that can be followed throughout the whole woof. But if you pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced that each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things contained in the city are included in the design, arranged according their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving. All of Eudoxia's confusion, the mules' braying, the lampblack stains, the fish smell is what is evident in the incomplete perspective you grasp; but the carpet proves that there is a point from which the city shows its true proportions, the geometrical scheme implicit in its every, tiniest detail.
It is easy to get lost in Eudoxia: but when you concentrate and stare at the carpet, you recognize the street you were seeking in a crimson or indigo or magenta thread which, in a wide loop, brings you to the purple enclosure that is your real destination. Every inhabitant of Eudoxia compares the carpet's immobile order with his own image of the city, an anguish of his own, and each can find, concealed among the arabesques, an answer, the story of his life, the twists of fate.
An oracle was questioned about the mysterious bond between two objects so dissimilar as the carpet and the city. One of the two objects -- the oracle replied -- has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds revolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation.
For some time the augurs had been sure that the carpet's harmonious pattern was of divine origin. The oracle was interpreted in this sense, arousing no controversy. But you could, similarly, come to the opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness.--from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver. [HT Saar Frierling]
The day after the most talented side the Dutch had ever fielded in the world cup was humiliated by the Germans in San Siro, I bought a copy of Invisible Cities in the Feltrinelli in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele next to the Duomo. I spent the day in the Feltrinelli store because I was broke and it had excellent air conditioning; it seemed like a refuge from the turmoil in my heart. After the defeat, Peter and I had said our goodbyes at the hostel; he was going to go back all the way down to the boot of Italy, whereas I was going to try my luck scalping a ticket for the Brasil - Argentina match in Turin before heading to (recall) Sestri Levante on weightier family matters. Before leaving Milan, I solved my money problems by selling my ticket to the semi-finals to an optimistic German fan in an alley behind the train station. A few days before Peter and I had been arrested there as dangerous hooligans in front of hundreds of cameras, but now nobody seemed to care.
I read the book on a train crossing the Northern plains of Italy. I found it contrived and later could not recall a single image from it. After the Summer when Peter's mom, who grew concerned about lack of news from him, asked me where he had traveled to after our split I had to confess that I did not recall what he had said to me; Bari, Tarente, and Lecce all seemed like plausible destinations for him. Years later, long after he had resurfaced safely, it crossed my mind that my self-absorption made me a perfect fall guy for a murder since I could not convey knowledge of any facts that could establish a plausible alibi.
Yet, a few days ago, nudged by a friend, I re-read the passage quoted above; it enchants me now; a true map does not just capture the relations of what it purports the represent, but also helps get you from any initial conditions or (implied) coordinate on the carpet to where you need to go. That is to say, it's not just a copy of some original, but also a teleological object that can presuppose your true ends. And when you have an image of that carpet in your mind, you are never lost in the bustling streets of Eudoxia.
It is notable that the idea that a city could be a carpet is found in Plato's Republic (557C), where the democratic city is compared to a garment of many colors, embroidered with all kinds of hues, a trope repeated in (recall) Al-Farabi's Virtuous City, where he claims the democratic polity/regime is "on the surface, it is like an embroidered garment replete with colored figures and dyes" and Ibn Rushd's Commentary on Plato's Republic. The name of the city, Eudoxia, may well be a nod to Plato's friend, the astronomer-mathematician Eudoxus.*
To mention Socrates, is to evoke Socrates's claim (recall 592ab) that there is a pattern of the best polity laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it. On my reading of Socrates, the embodied relations of the pattern can be configured differently at different times (while still being a proper copy of the heavenly pattern). So, that in each context we must explore these relations anew.
At this point one may object and claim that for Socrates the best polity is not the democratic city and so it cannot be the true pattern, even if glittering. This connects with a more disconcerting possibility: the name of the city, Ευδοξία means 'good deeds' (Εύδοξος can mean 'good opinion' or 'good glory.') The inhabitants of the democratic city think of their own as the best and blessed by the gods, but their deeds can't justify it.
Calvino's narrator points out against the consensus of the experts, that the cosmos, which Eudoxia mimicks, may, in fact, not be teleologically organized, but one in which epicurean chaos/chance rules. This is a cosmos in which the nightly screams are not part of a vindicating theodicy, but the unanswered, lonely calls ignored by the cowardly and servile burghers who stay inside while their neighbors are deported. And while writing the previous sentence I am transported back to the dusty carriages of the Ferrovie dello Stato staring out on the quiet, industrious towns of Lombardy.