O, may I join the choir invisible!*
Umberto Eco once wrote, “We have a limit, a very discouraging and humiliating limit; death.” Alas, the great author and semiotician has met his limit. Aside from his most popular novel, The Name of the Rose, which I read way back when the movie came out in 1986,
I haven’t read a great deal of his work. However, I am a huge fan of Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan all about the places he has visited. Here’s my favorite.
In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fishnet and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the Story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock.
As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? Our pasts are layered throughout our present, even though most of us don’t really think about it. There’s a patina of history on everything. Likewise, the things we read become memories and also belong to both past and present. For example, we’ve all read (and watched) To Kill a Mockingbird, whose author, Harper Lee, also just died — it was a bad week for literature, wasn’t it? Eco and Lee may be dead but they’re not really gone at all. They’ve just joined George Eliot’s choir invisible:
“O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude…”