Saturday, May 26, 2007

Marco Polo in three strands


FIRST STRAND

A swimming pool in some state between California and Nebraska: it's warm outside, the afternoon sun disappearing somewhere beyond the raised freeway that cuts a swath through this town with a name not worth remembering. Three older children whose names I don't know are with me in the pool. One of the children has his eyes closed and repeatedly and obnoxiously yells "Marco!", to which all the rest of us, trying desperately to stay out of his you're-it reach, respond "Polo!"

SECOND STRAND

A decade or more later, I am standing in Barnes & Noble just before the border between Washington and Oregon. It is raining. I have a gift card to spend, and I find myself following a string of interesting book titles from one Italo Calvino. I settle on two, If Upon A Winter's Night a Traveler and Invisible Cities.

Weeks later, I sit down to read Invisible Cities. Each chapter begins with an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan; this is representative:

POLO: Perhaps the terraces of this garden overlook only the lake of our mind...

KUBLAI: ...and however far our troubled enterprises as warriors and merchants may take us, we both harbor within ourselves this silent shade, this conversation of pauses, this evening that is always the same.

POLO: Unless the opposite hypothesis is correct: that those who strive in camps and ports exist only because we two think of them, here, enclosed among these bamboo hedges, motionless since time began.

KUBLAI: Unless toil, shouts, sores, stink do not exist; and only this azalea bush.

POLO: Unless porters, stonecutters, rubbish collectors, cooks cleaning the lights of chickens, washerwomen bent over stones, mothers stirring rice as they nurse their infants, exist only because we think them.

KUBLAI: To tell the truth, I never think them.

POLO: Then they do not exist.

KUBLAI: To me this conjecture does not seem to suit our purposes. Without them we could never remain here swaying, cocooned in our hammocks.

Each chapter following such exchanges is composed entirely of descriptions of cities which Marco Polo purportedly visited throughout the great Khan's empire. Each description is rarely more than a page in length, something like this:

Summoned to lay down the rules for the foundation of Perinthia, the astronomers established the place and the day according to the position of the stars; they drew the intersecting lines of the decumanus and the cardo, the first oriented to the passage of the sun and the other like the axis on which the heavens turn. They divided the map according to the twelve houses of the zodiac so that each temple and each neighborhood would receive the proper influence of the favoring constellations; they fixed the point in the walls where gates should be cut, foreseeing how each would frame an eclipse of the moon in the next thousand years. Perinthia--they guaranteed--would reflect the harmony of the firmament; nature's reason and the gods' benevolence would shape the inhabitants' destinies.

Following the astronomers' calculations precisely, Perinthia was constructed; various peoples came to populate it; the first generation born in Perinthia began to grow within its walls; and these citizens reached the age to marry and have children.

In Perinthia's streets and square today you encounter cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men, beared women. But the worse cannot be seen; guttural howls are heard from cellars and lofts, where families hide children with three heads or with six legs.

Perinthia's astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations are wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.

Hundreds of cities, so described, haunt or sing from the pages of this strange and wonderful book.

THIRD STRAND

Later still, I am looking for information about explorers and come across the works of one Marco Polo, his huge work given the unassuming title of simple Travels. This great work is the descriptive travelogue of Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian explorer who claims to have traveled from his home in Venice to the court of Kublai Khan in China. His work consists of brief descriptive chapters which read like this:

Having stayed a while at Soldaia, they considered the matter, and thought it well to extend their journey further. So they set forth from Soldaia and travelled till they came to the Court of a certain Tartar Prince, BARCA KAAN by name, whose residences were at SARA and at BOLGARA [and who was esteemed one of the most liberal and courteous Princes that ever was among the Tartars.] This Barca was delighted at the arrival of the Two Brothers, and treated them with great honour; so they presented to him the whole of the jewels that they had brought with them. The Prince was highly pleased with these, and accepted the offering most graciously, causing the Brothers to receive at least twice its value.

After they had spent a twelvemonth at the court of this Prince there broke out a great war between Barca and Aláu, the Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, and great hosts were mustered on either side.

But in the end Barca, the Lord of the Tartars of the Ponent, was defeated, though on both sides there was great slaughter. And by reason of this war no one could travel without peril of being taken; thus it was at least on the road by which the Brothers had come, though there was no obstacle to their travelling forward. So the Brothers, finding they could not retrace their steps, determined to go forward. Quitting Bolgara, therefore, they proceeded to a city called UCACA, which was at the extremity of the kingdom of the Lord of the Ponent; and thence departing again, and passing the great River Tigris, they travelled across a Desert which extended for seventeen days' journey, and wherein they found neither town nor village, falling in only with the tents of Tartars occupied with their cattle at pasture.

Here, then, is the experience of postmodern culture. A figure whose name I recognize from a childhood game appears as a figurehead in a book about the postmodern condition: exploring themes of perception, truth, experience, and the poverty of language used to describe and relate that experience to another. The book's primary literary charm is the use of a real world figure in the mode of that figure's expression, all to express modern angst in a beautiful literary work. Calvino's work has no beauty unless it springboards from the real Polo, dimly known.

And most strange of all is that in my own experience, the last work for me to encounter is that of the real Marco Polo. In fact, I think Invisible Cities worked on me more profoundly because of my lack of knowledge about the historical person. I came to Calvino's work more malleable because I had only a dim understanding of who Marco Polo and Kublai Khan actually were; their fantastical aspect allowed for more room upon which Calvino could paint.

EPILOGUE

Most who refuse Christian faith in this culture do not refuse the faith that Christians know. The have come to know faith in Christ as a childhood game: in glimpses, in games, in jokes, in clips in movies and cartoons. They encounter symbols they do not understand, words they cannot know, ideas which seem monstrous, strange, cryptic, or wicked.

Perhaps that is why athiest popularizers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have such a loyal following in popular culture--because the faith they attack is one experienced only in false reflections, faint echoes, shadows cast upon a cold wall. When these figures begin to paint their picture of the venom and violence of Christian faith, they paint upon white canvas, unsmirched by experience of Jesus and the people among whom He dwells.

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