Given my work with string of late and my continuing interest in cities (see www.tourstories.com) I was struck when re-reading Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ by the following passage:
“In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.
From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.
They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.”
What I think Calvino is talking about here is how despite perhaps the interval of one, two, three hundred years or more, the same basic human needs and relationships remain, existing between people who live today. In describing another city, he writes again about the relationships between people, but those which exist only momentarily:
“In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites.”
“Something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draws arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment…”
The same patterns are there, and if these lines were made of string like those above, one can imagine something like a cat’s cradle, constantly changing with these fleeting and ephemeral relationships.