Nr. 18    Juni 2011
TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Signs and the City. In honor of Jeff Bernard

Urban Space as an Impenetrable Network of Signs

Gila Safran Naveh (University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


In this paper I propose a semiotic reading of Italo Calvino’s “Cities and Signs” from his collection, Le citta invisibili, which invites us to reflect on man’s position in modern world in relation to the laws governing discourse. In response to what he perceives as “una crisa della Ragione”, a crisis of reason, Calvino explores here the notions of “indeterminacy”, “uncertainty”, and “chance” all governing modern life. The impossibility of absolute knowledge –already explored by Kafka—entails according to Calvino, a lack of legitimacy to certain heuristic interpretative models.

I show that a story such as “Cities and Signs” is a perfect example of Calvino’s privileging literature because it displays an awareness of its own limitation as a complex network of arbitrary signs, of its being a game of language capable of ordering reality and of calling into question our philosophical assumptions. Calvino’s “city” is space turned into an “urban thick network of signs”, and modern man “a perpetual interpreter of its impenetrable signs.” The text reveals poignantly that according to Calvino, for today’s writer the story is a written page, a world in which autonomous, unknowable forces are as work.


In the elaborate narratological paths of Le città invisibili, Calvino theorizes about the act of storytelling. To my mind, he views literature as a language game which, in essence, could offer various grammars for ordering the world of words and not as a mirror of the world. Thus, he posits fabulating as endless dissemination of other stories. Calvino adopted a style that can be easily committed to memory, where it may serve as a model for action and storytelling, as designed to consolidate itself into the experience of the reader and to claim a place for itself in his memory. His narrative strategy responds to “una crisi della Ragione,” a crisis of reason. And so, he hopes to explore the question of indeterminacy plaguing modernity. The impossibility of absolute knowledge—acknowledged and explored already by Kafka—entails, according to Calvino, a lack of legitimacy to certain heuristic interpretative models. What matters most, according to Calvino, is to conceive of literature which displays an awareness of its own limitations, “as a game of language capable of ordering reality and of calling into question our philosophical assumptions.”(1) Literature, according to Calvino, is a geometrical design, a structure of symmetries and options, a chess-board on which the black squares and the white squares exchange places in accordance with a very simple mechanism.... For today’s writer the story above is all a written page, a world in which only autonomous forces are at work?(2)

“Today,” argued Calvino in Il Menabò:

…We have begun asking from literature something more than a knowledge of the period or a mimesis of the external aspects of objects or the internal aspects of the human soul. We want a cosmic image from literature...that is, at the level of the stage of knowledge that historical development has put into play.(3)

Calvino asks his reader to substitute the passive dread of the labyrinth with a literature that both reaffirms the distinction between consciousness and the sea of objectivity. He also defines the means by which man could escape from the labyrinth. The heroes of his stories adopt a “phenomenological” approach to the world, even in the casual encounter with rocks, clouds, lizards, statues.(4)

In Calvino’s world vision, the underlying order of human nature is as precise as the logic of dreams, yet, as elusive. The perpetual tensions between the characters of his magnificent tales and their environment, which they indefatigably attempt to know and to master, allow him to deploy a large scale investigation of the ways in which texts call into question the concepts of identity, self, and ego, as unitary fictions.

There is a dialectic process between “poiesis” and “praxis” at the foundation of Calvino’s work.

The extravagant artistic configuration of his fiction and his political message are not isolate impulses but interconnect to express his vision of human activity. This successful artistic integration of social concerns makes him one of the most important writers today.

We suggest here that the reader learns something more from Calvino’s work. Calvino’s imagery embodies a lesson which is meant to make his readers aware of how to face their own problematic realities. However pessimistic some of his work is, Calvino insists that there is no need for total despair. In Le città invisibili, for example, a fragile, invisible harmony between mankind and the external world can be glimpsed. Yet, this harmony becomes possible, according to Calvino, only with man’s moral, intellectual and physical strength to deal with his surroundings. Man is summoned to learn from disorientation and bewilderment to become finally free. (5)

To study the universe which he deemed uncontrollable, Calvino used lists as a stylistic tool in his fiction. The final passages of Invisible Cities offer a perplexing example of the vertigo experienced before the lists of today’s cities which give way to utopias, dystopias, and the Infernal City underlying them all. I investigate below Calvino’s parable “Cities and Signs,” one of the tales in the collection of stories Invisible Cities, because I find it most telling of his use of parabolic genre to convey his insights about the urban space and man in modern times.

Cities and signs

You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are. Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something—who knows what?—has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of temples the god’s statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes—the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa—so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form or position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant.... (6)

This text foreshadows Calvino’s misgivings regarding cognitive abstraction. The collection of stories depicts a fictional encounter between Marco Polo, the Italian traveler, and Kublai Khan, the mighty emperor and can be viewed as a meditation on the possibility for humans to construct abstract models. In an attempt to organize his vast chaotic empire, the Khan proceeds to construct a fantastic generative model from which all the empire’s cities may be deduced. Calvino fabulates about the great emperor Kublai Khan’s desire to create perfect order in his vast empire by engaging in fantastic chess games with Marco Polo. The Khan fails, because his empire is not controllable. Calvino, much like the French philosopher, Merleau-Ponti, who favored the notion that the world is that which we perceive, argued in favor of cataloguing. The modest merit of cataloguing, according to Calvino, resides in the fact that it makes the perceived world intelligible.

Even a cursory scrutiny of Calvino’s parable “Cities and Signs” reveals its remarkable stylistic features. The depiction of Tamara, forever inviting yet destined to remain eternally unknown to its visitor because it lies beneath an impenetrable, thick coating of signs, exhibits a distinct likeness to Kafka’s parable, “An Imperial Message,” and to Borges’s, “Cervantes and the Quixote.” Like these other authors’ parables, Calvino’s tale narrativizes a return to a beginning and to some primeval origins, not as an actual return, rather as a detour, a deviation, or an écart. At the same time, it postpones perpetually the enlightenment of the would be visitor, and denies him the competence to decode its signs, by means of a complex rhetorico-poetic mechanism.

With a movement typical of modern enigmatic parables, Calvino’s tale engulfs the reader into its abysmal topos and alludes persistently that it is itself only a system of signs and a continual deferral, namely, it shows an explicit awareness of its own parabolicity.

The tale of the man who wishes to “visit” the “city of Tamara” can be read as an allegory about modern man who, in order to acquire knowledge, enters a web of signs and signification with no possibility of exiting it. In this telling story about modern urban space, Calvino hopes to teach his addressee that whenever man aspires to gain a more intimate understanding about things as they are, he inevitably finds himself incapable to know the laws governing the signs which replace the things and the laws codification.

Posited as an infinite semiotic net, the city of Tamara will thus elude continually a real visit, or desire to know. The visitor, as Calvino’s reader, is destined to see/read forever mere formulas of “things” and not things. The real “things” in the city of Tamara and the “signs of these things” are in discord as elements of discourse. In representing the city of Tamara as discourse, Calvino was able to comment about discourse as a world of dualities which cannot resolve themselves in an original, forever lost unity, as a world “without a telos or an arché,” in Derrida’s view. And, if we are to take seriously the metaphor of the labyrinth language in Calvino’s portrayal, his parable tells about language and textuality, which provide a space whose beginning and end are lost, whose rationality escapes him who has the misfortune of being in it and who must submit to its meandering without the hope of ever unraveling it.

Calvino presents a subject, or sujet opérateur, who lacks the necessary competence to “visit” and “know” the city of Tamara. The discursive subject “you”/”man” needs therefore to enact a reflexive transformation and acquire the expertise needed to “really” discover it. However, Calvino’s tale points discursively to the impossibility for the man to acquire such competence. A visit of the city never quite takes place, despite the fact that “the man” finds himself at a certain point in time inside the place designated as “the city of Tamara.” Calvino explicitly states that: “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain, or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it."

The account begins with a subject designated “uomo” (man) who journeys through a desert-like space. His action is temporalized by the adverbial marker “for days,” and amplified by a punctual temporal marker “only rarely.” The itinerary of the “man”, a well ordered sequence of states and of transformations, begins with a shift in gears, or a débrayage, of the narrative.(7) The bareness of the place visited by the protagonist is punctured by the inscription of objects “trees and stones,” the components in the parabolic tale which are “the things which are only what they are.” The verbal “walks” brings into focus a transformation of states that is temporalized by another modal and adverbial marker “for days,” “among trees and stones.” The adverbial “for days” belongs to the durative, the cumulative, and the habitual. This marker is integrated further with a second temporal element, “only rarely,” which is of the order of punctuality, and discreetness. The image created by the modern parabolizer is of man wandering in a desolate place, a place with no deeper meaning: “stones and trees” are “only what they are.” The gaze fixed on the ground obviously produces no illumination in the man. At this point, the invitation/injunction in Calvino’s text is to enter the city and begin deciphering to find a deeper meaning to what is being seen.

To advance the plot, the next sequence produces a synecdocheal switch in subjects. To the agent/subject “you,” who “walks,” “for days,” the narrative adds the agent/subject “eye,” which “lights,” “only rarely,” and only when it “recognizes a thing,” as “the sign of another thing.” The initial action of the subject “eye” takes place in the deserted place outside the city, among “tree and stones,” those things designated as being “only what they are.”

The middle section of the narrative takes place inside the city. There, the man/visitor moves among things which are individually “the sign of another thing,” and “all the rest is silent and interchangeable.” The lighting of the man’s “eye” takes place on objects/things, but this illumination is contingent upon certain laws for recognition. Indeed, the condition of possibility for the “eye” to “light” on a particular thing is to recognize the codification, namely, to understand the substitution laws according to which that object/thing is placed in a particular spot in the city. However, we were informed at the beginning that here everything is a sign of something else.

The marker “man” has to deal only with signs of things and not the things themselves. This is to say that in entering Calvino’s semiotic urban space, this parabolic city, man enters the universe of interpretation, which is potentially infinite. The enlightenment of the subject “eye” in the narrative is co-referential with the subject “man,” and contingent upon the recognition of unique laws of substitution, in this city/web of signs/language. These laws are imposed as the only criterion for categorization of a thing/object, as a sign of another thing.

The following narrative sequence begins with scant moments of recognition, the acquisition of “a knowledge,” by the visitor, an insight about some vague existing law of exchange of one concept for another. The text reads: “Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then, only when it [the eye] recognizes that thing as the sign of another thing.” Knowledge is being equated with deciphering a certain exchange of codes and signification and is narrationally restricted by the use of the adverb “only rarely.” Calvino restates at the level of syntax that the competence is obtained by a subject other than the initial subject, which was marked “you,” even though “the eye” is co-referential with the subject “you” and the subject marked “eye.”

A new narrative segment begins with a shift to the temporal with the adverbial “finally” and the toponymic element “the city of Tamara.” The moment in which the subject penetrates the city is made to coincide, not with the eye “seeing things,” but with the eye who “does not see things,” only “images of things.” This apparent paradox is pointing to the discovery of the “eye” in the preceding sequence, namely, that the “eye” is presupposed not to see things as things, but as mimetic images of other things.

The basic relation between the eye, or I, and the cosmic flux are being explored here.(8) Until Louis Marin, one considered the image as a lesser being, that is, a being without power, or a weaker and inferior being.(9) Calvino, the semiotician attuned to reinterpretations of the image as the powerful holder of the essence of the thing it represents, parabolized about the informed “eye” which does not spend time seeing things, but “recognizing” laws of representation, namely, viewing “things as images of other things.” By portraying a visit of the city as a process of indexing of symbolic representations, Calvino too reinstates the powers of the image as well. He shows in his parable that the recognition of the existence of such laws may facilitate only a limited familiarity with a restricted number of things, “as the signs of another thing": a print indicating the tiger’s passage, a marsh announcing a vein of water, the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. But “the print,” “the marsh,” “the hibiscus flower,” etc., are all emptied of their original signification and invested with new meaning, semantically and pragmatically removed from the original one.

Beyond their new meaning, “the print,” “the marsh,” “the hibiscus flower,” etc., perform speech acts; they “announce,” “indicate,” “warn.” Other things are precluded from performing such speech acts, by being defined as “silent,” and “interchangeable.” Finally, objects cannot become interchangeable; the laws governing the place preclude a reversal of signification.

The reader is led to think that the proliferation of data could serve as an instructional device to the visitor. However, this is not the case. Calvino comes back to show that the information offered is deceptive. An array of minimal units which might be used to make sense of flux become involved in this deception. And, while the writer offers the reader an exceptionally ordered world, the abundance of elements embodies no values of beauty or taste. The city is fragmented and categorized in ways which elude our normal sense of order. The movement through space does not produce any “advancement” in the visitor’s understanding of the place; it represents only a displacement away from the city’s real objects and from the things contained in it, a displacement occasioned by the complex semiotic web of representations governing the parabolic city.

Calvino offers no longer “imperial messages” to be decoded. The city he envisions demands to be read as a page of text, an unknown and unknowable text, absconding the laws of its legibility to the “eye”/”I” that reads it. In this parable, the subject, in-visible and un-attainable, imposes its will and its power on the visitor, by telling him how “it” must be read. In essence, for the subject to “visit” the city is to understand “visiting” as other actions: reading and interpreting. With this adroit rhetorical transformation, Calvino thematizes man’s encounter with the world of things, as a perplexing encounter with language and its laws of symbolization. His parable speaks of man’s loss of power to “name,” and stages the drama of his incapability to understand the being of things communicated through language. And while Walter Benjamin could still claim that “man is the name giver, and all nature, insofar as it communicates itself, communicates itself in language, and so finally in man, hence, he is bound to the language of things,” (10) Calvino can tell only about a radical loss of man’s ability to comprehend the being of things. To interpret properly the text/texture of things in the parabolic city, “the visitor of Tamara” must recognize what are the things whose “images” and “signs” are the things his “eye lights” on. He thus becomes a reader and a decoder of the riddles of language sprawled before him. He is continually kept thinking, interpreting, and repeating an imposed discourse, with an enigmatic order.

The translation of the name-less into the named is no longer at man’s disposal; though his gaze, things do not grow more perfect, as was the case in the Scriptures. The modern urban space in Calvino’s tale, the city/text, with its thick encodings, becomes the acting subject, as soon as the visit begins. The city keeps the visitor in its mesmerizing grip, by prescribing its rules and by imposing them as the only possible actualization of a visit. In Calvino’s modern parable, the city/text has the power to act autonomously, a power of which the visitor was stripped and which, we are told, he will never regain.

By becoming a visitor of the city/text, the “man” ceases to be an agent of change; he is turned into a “subject in a state of,” a sujet d’état, impotence, subjected to the power of the city/text. The man in this modern parable cannot become a connoisseur of the text which is the city; he remains subjected to unknown laws and transformations imposed on him. In a sense, he is like K, the man of Kafka’s Trial. The visitor must “read” an ankle bracelet as voluptuousness, a gilded palanquin as power, an embroidered headband as elegance, etc. Therefore, while he believes that he visits the city, he only records the names by “which the city defines itself and its parts,” that is to say, he only reiterates the laws of the city, which are also the laws of discourse.

Subjected to a “heavy coating of signs,” the man remains trapped in language, in the vast interplay of signs, between hyper-interpretation and the impossibility of interpreting them. Signs are generated as a passage between two moments, explains Derrida, only a notion of presence, a presence always already lost. Signs operate a motion of interiorization without attempting to retrieve the thing itself. Yet, “by the mere fact that the sign is subjected to the work of negativity within the dialectics of interiorization and exteriorization, it will reappropriate, not the thing, not the signifier, but the signified.” In reading signs, we lose the thing, but we gain meaning. This supplement of signification generates in turn a “thickening” of the literary sign, and a reduplication of the “auto-referential” in literature.(11) The sign does not fulfill its signification except through a process of substitution and representation, since for a sign to act as a sign, there needs to be a complete substitution of the represented by that which represents. The visitor of Tamara trapped in the interplay of signs and signification, does not, cannot discover/uncover the city, and, as a consequence, has to leave “without having discovered it.” He comes away instead with a different system of valorization, and will attempt to enact it outside the boundaries of the city.

What then, constitutes a visit of the urban space called the “City of Tamara”?

Perhaps, it is the recognition by modern man of the existence of laws of exchange among signs and perfect obedience to them. But this is also to say that visiting the city means, in Calvino’s world view, entering a labyrinthal world, fashioned upon the laws of discourse. A visit is then a decoding of the laws of discourse and, therefore, the “actual” visit is perpetually deferred and, in actuality, never takes place. In short, a visit of Calvino’s city, which is itself a text, can take place only mimetically.(12)

But, a “literary,” rather than a literal, visit means at the same time that the subject “man” is seduced and moved to an impassioned state, despite (or because) the ruse. The parabolic city tempts its visitor to go on repeating its discourse, and acknowledge his defeat, namely recognize that he is fundamentally incapable to construe a personal narrative about it. Contrary to the expectations evoked by the idea of “visiting,” namely, a sequence of actions with multiple discoveries, the sojourn through Tamara is construed upon an impossibility of initiative and produces no real discovery of the place. The visitor is made to reproduce the city’s discourse and, therefore, Calvino fated his protagonist to disillusionment.

Not surprisingly in Calvino’s story, when the visit comes to an end, “the visitor,” expelled from the city without a clue, continues to reiterate its discourse outside its boundaries. In the last narrative sequence, introduced by the temporal adverb “outside,” the subject “man”/”you” has his eyes uplifted and observes “the sky” which “opens, with speeding clouds.” The banished visitor, now an “outsider” to the city, is conditioned by the parable to “see” in the motion of clouds “shapes,” even though these shapes are given by “chance” and “wind.” He goes on interpreting long after his failed visit. He who was incapable to visit the city because he did not know how to decode its symbolism, continues compulsively to practice the rules of Tamara and attempts to decipher the shapes given this time by chance. Not unlike Freud’s neurotic, the visitor remains a reader/visitor and obsessively reproduces incomprehensible laws.(13)

"Outside,” the neurotic modern visitor gazes upon the sky. His “eye” moves away from the “land” “which stretches, empty to the horizon” and looks up towards the heavens, to read and decode their signs. And even though the rules of Tamara remain unknown to him, he continues to read things as signs of other things. He has acquired a certain competence, but more amazingly, an ambitious aspiration: to decipher the heavenly images/text.

An interesting message takes shape. The symbolization of the heavenly topos, compulsively explored by the neurotic, is governed, ironically, by “chance” and “wind.” The man who could not “really” visit the city of Tamara, a human creation, thus easier to interpret, attempts foolishly now to “visit”/”read” the sky and the domain of the divine, impenetrable and above human understanding.

To underscore the senselessness of the visitor’s behavior, Calvino submits him to further ridicule and failure. Whereas in the early narrative sequences, the city of Tamara, covered “with a thick coating of signs,” offered the man at least the illusion of possibility to discover, or uncover it, the sky, despite being “open,” remains radically forbidden to this faltering man. The “speeding clouds” and their shapes are being continually reshaped and changed by accident.

At the discursive level, Calvino stages an ordered passage from an initial state to a final one, through a succession of actions containing verbs of the type “do.” These actions induce shifts from states of conjunction with the valorized object (the visit of the city) to states of disjunction from it (impossibility to visit the city). Yet the parable de-contextualizes its primary narrative, and displaces itself away from an actual “visit.”

“Cities and Signs” has a well defined beginning, a series of transformations, and an ending. But in the end, Calvino does not interpret his parable/story. In fact, we suggest that the labyrinth he has created cannot be decoded/”uncovered.” A continual displacement occurs in the narrative, which revolves around a lack, an impossible task. The man looking for enlightenment is trapped in this modern parable as in a black hole, and revolves like a dervish between hyper-signification and meaninglessness. On the one hand, a proliferation of signs and “coating with signs,” with no “openness” to knowledge becomes man’s lot. On the other, the paranoid fear of emptiness compels the “visitor,” turned compulsive reader, to inscribe perpetually the non-inscribed and the non-systematized space.

The linguistic deep structure of Calvino’s story evidences kinships and dissimilitude not expressed openly in the text.(14) The actor “city of Tamara” has an actual role: preventing
the subject from uncovering it. We distinguish a fragmentation in the organization of the spatial domain relative to a place/topos designated “the city of Tamara.” The space is organized as follows:

Outside ———> inside ———> outside
The actions are organized as follows:
OUTSIDE You......................... walk....................... for days‚
  the eye................... lights...................... only rarely
  the eye................... recognizes............. Law X* of symbolization
  a print ———> tiger’s passage
  a marsh ———> a vein of water
  the hibiscus flower ———> the end of winter
  all the rest ———> “silent”
  all the rest ———> “interchangeable”
  trees and stones ———> are ———> only what they are

A new sequence begins with a shift in temporality:
“Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara.”

The city defines “herself,” the visitor does not. This is visible at the level of “being” and “doing” modality structure. While the visitor thinks he acts, he is actually made to re-act, “made to do” (on lui fait faire); he is made to record the names with which “she defines herself and her parts."

statues..................are seen
statues..................are portrayed
worshipers............can recognize
worshipers............can address their prayers
buildings...............occupy positions

A new shift returns us to the initial definition of “things” which are not valuable in themselves, but as “signs of other things.”

Headbands...................stand for...........elegance
gilded palanquin...........stand for...........power
Averroès........................stand for...........learning
ankle bracelet................stand for...........voluptuousness

For the “inside” of the city there are two deep structural trajectories: that of the “man,” and that of the “eye.” This is reinforced linguistically through a shift in narrational gears. With this shift the city becomes operating subject/agent, while the visitor is reduced to passivity and to re-acting.
________   :    ______________
There is also a structural opposition between the “city covered with codes” and the “empty stretched out land.” Likewise, a syntactic parallel between “law” and “lawlessness,” or chance.

INSIDE      =   a perfectly functioning law established/ reinforced by the City of Tamara
OUTSIDE  =   lawlessness, of clouds shaped by “chance” and “wind.”

We note different treatments of the subject “you”:
You / outside1 . . . . . dim understanding of a law of symbolization
you / inside . . . . . . .   reduced to a recognition of the law of the city
you / outside2 . . . . .   “intent on recognizing” the law of the city
The seduction of the visitor/reader is expressed as follows:
If A1 = actor1 ——> you/the eye/the visitor
and A2 = actor2 ——> the city of Tamara
V = Vouloir = Wanting to Do
F = Faire = Do = Operate a transformation/a state of being, an état

O = valorized object/object of desire, then we have an equation of the type:
O1 = visit the city of Tamara
O2 = discover the city of Tamara
VF1 = Want to visit
VF2 = Want to discover the city of Tamara
A “wanting to do” by actor number one is the linguistic negative to that on the “wanting to do” of the second actor.
O3 = See things as images of other things
O4   = Repeat the discourse dictated by the city
O5  = Read the city as a written page
O6  = Think what the city wants him to think
On = Obey all the city’s injunctions

The “dysphoric” and the “euphoric” components of the narrative are presented as alternate moments. The parable’s phoric, or emotional program is unknowable to the reader, because the city’s narrative program is an anti-program to that of the visitor.
The subversive aspect of the visit is ascribed in deep linguistic structure to the city. The city “textualizes” the visitor as well; he becomes a part of “her written text.” The movement of the marker “you” is unidirectional:
OUTSIDE the city of Tamara —> INSIDE the city of Tamara —> OUTSIDE the city of Tamara.
Syntactic parallelism in this sequence insures that A1, the subject man, transforms the outside A2 into another inside, namely, he converts the “empty” “stretched out land” and the “open sky,” into a topos covered by “a thick coating of signs.” Calvino shows parabolically that after his encounter with the “city”/”language”/ “textuality” man is fated to reproduce it as a human habit--the habit of textualizing.

The laws of the city, and the corresponding occurrences of indexed things:

I.                          “that thing as the sign of another thing”
print....................the tiger’s passage
marsh.................the vein of water
hibiscus flower..end of winter

II.                         “the eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things” (the eye needs to
                           de-code according to a prescribed law of decoding)
pincers..............pointing out..........tooth drawer’s house
tankards............pointing out..........tavern
halberds............pointing out..........barracks
scales................pointing out..........grocer’s

III.      a sign that something—who knows what—has as its sign X
IV.      wares displayed in windows are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things
INSIDE —— the things are petrified, impregnated, and immobilized in signification
OUTSIDE —  the land opens, the land stretches out, the land is empty to the horizon, the sky opens, the clouds are speeding.

The juxtaposition of “outside” and “inside” acquires yet another linguistic expression. Outside the city, there is a mobility and a flexibility characteristic of the things “shaped by chance and by wind,” a lightness owed to the void, and to the lack of signification. To the burdened multitude of precisely-shaped representations of things, shapeless speeding clouds are the reply of emptiness. The choice of clouds seems poignant. The visitor lacking all competence, is free in a way like the clouds. He ends up losing his autonomy to the city/language/text by assigning “figures” to the clouds, to be understood both as shapes of things and as images, as figurative speech and as symbolization: a “sailing ship, a hand, figures an elephant."

In assigning meaning to shapeless and meaningless clouds, man enlarges the boundaries of the city/language/text. In the end, his desire to obey the order of the city/text allows him to remain in the space and time of the parable, absorbed in the fictional space generated by the narrative. In other words, the visitor/reader who could not get back to the things themselves, becomes himself a law of the city, namely, of textuality.

The parabolic city has incorporated the non-city, and covered up this movement with new signs. Calvino’s own “circular ruin” do not allow exiting either. The “leaving” the city is only a simulation and a further drawing in of the outside.

As the city of Tamara, Calvino’s tale retreats into auto-referentiality, underneath a “thick coating of signs,” leaving us “outside,” with the calm platitude of speeding clouds and land stretching out, empty. Calvino has taken us for a circular ride and expelled us, desirous to “recognize, to see ships, and hands, and elephants in the speeding clouds.”

In reiterating the impossibility of escaping the moment of representation and of capturing the “thing itself,” Calvino captures in his story about a modern urban space our absolute lack of power to uncover/discover things for what they really are, because we are in the grip of language and its processes of symbolization. In doing so, Calvino also theorizes about the act of writing. His story is an isotopic world with illusory referentiality. Referentiallity moves the reader through a series of transformations, simulations, and displacements, and making us have “an intention to recognize…,” and a desire to perform, namely, to remain in the quest for what the city might be underneath its “thick coating of signs.” Rather than resolving the original tension, the parable passes before our own “gaze” as “a speeding cloud” and leaves us too “intent to recognize”… In the purest sense, the work of discourse, Calvino’s invented urban space “stretches over the empty land.”

Calvino’s “inventive fancifulness” is an effective means of drawing the reader towards moral and social concerns. Beneath Calvino’s tireless shimmer of fancy, his concern over how men live together has carried into our minds we find the civic ideal unfolding within us. John Updike claims about Le città invisibili:

“the gift of space that this book ends by calling for, then, is just what the book itself bestows; amid the crowded, confused, consuming “infernal city” that is “already here, the inferno where we live every day,” art and imagination, creating inner space, are offered as amelioration.”(15)  



1 Italo Calvino, Gli amori, trans. W. Weaver et al. Our Loves (San Diego: Harcourt, 1984), x-xi.
2 Jo Ann Cannon, Postmodern Italian Fiction, 13.
3 Italo Calvino, “La Sfida al labirinto,” Il Menabò 5 (1960), 99.
4 Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar (Turin: Einaudi, 1983); idem, Le città invisibili (Turin: Einaudi, 1972).
5 Italo Calvono, “Cibernetica e fantasmi,” 22.
6 Italo Calvino, “Cities and Signs,” in Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili), 5.
7 A. Greimas, “Paraboles” in Signes et paraboles, Christian Metz ed. (Paris: Du Seuil, 1977) 182.
8 Charles S. Pierce, “Elements of Logic,” in Collected Papers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 34-5.
9 See Jacques Derrida, “By Force of Morning,” in Critical Inquiry 22.2 (1996), 175; Cf. Louis Marin, Des pouvoirs de l’image: Gloses (Paris: De Seuil, 1993), 16-17. He reclaims the power(s) of the image.
10 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings 1913-1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 64.
11 Jacques Derrida, Le puit et la pyramide, 82; idem, analysis in La dissémination, 288–301 and 275–276.
12 A.J. Greimas, “Pour une théorie des modalités, Language 43. 2 (1977), 17-18.
13 Sigmund Freud, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices,” in The Complete Works by Sigmund Freud, vol. IX, (1907), 117-127. Freud shows that the neurotic goes on repeating compulsively the gesture of the original trauma, with no possibility to extricate himself from his predicament (outside of psychoanalytic treatment).
14 A.J. Greimas, "Pour une théorie des modalités," in Language 43 (1978), 2-16. The modality of “can”, “believe”, “do”, “want” (pouvoir, faire, croire, vouloir) are concatenated with “savoir” (knowing), and “etre” (being).  The epistemic model is of the form
The “Alethic” (chance) modalities can be obtained by further homologating couples of modal categories such as “devoir etre” (having to be) with “pouvoir etre” (being able to be) to obtain “compatibility”, “conformity”, “contrariety” and contradiction”.
15 John Updike, “‘The Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino,” The New Yorker, 24 February 1975, 140.