Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Little Empire

I am apparently, unintentionally constructing a city in my dreams. It grows through bits and pieces of detritus from childhood and adult memories of various cities that fall gently like feathers into puzzle places, creating neighborhoods and streets and an evolving overall experience of the place. The city isn't one whole that's gradually coming into view through a mind's-eye lens, but the parts; not from the ground up, adding trees here and a shop there, but as already living, thriving, quarters of a city rich in history. The city is constructed from bits of real places transcribed faithfully by the dreams and also from images of places never visited. Some parts are both: real memories distorted into imaginary pictures. Sometimes a piece of the dream city is not based on the visual appearance of a real city, but rather on a particular area of it reinterpreted through non-visual elements into dream-visual representations. An event, a smell, sounds, complexity or simplicity, the people, a mood, warm nostalgia and urban rawness, food, books, livelihoods are foundations of the visualizing picture.

In separate dreams, I've long revisited the same neighborhoods, fleshing out further details, building more complex histories to them through different experiences. This isn't accomplished through some kind of architectural intentionality, but through walking, and seeing and hearing what appears at and beyond each footstep.

It was only this week, however, that I realized, while walking with a friend in a dream from one Parisian neighborhood into another, that I was also walking from one dream into the separately constructed urban world of another dream, and that that dream neighborhood was connected at its edges to another previous dream neighborhood. In a moment of epiphany in the interior of the dream, I gained the basic contours of a map, a rough picture of north and south, east and west, not of many distinct cities but of one city coming to life.

I may not have yet understood what other parts of the city already exist in previous dreams, but as of this week I do have the initial map composed from the separate dreams.

The first part of the city - although I'm no longer sure there is an original first part - is Italian and Greek and Japanese and Balkan nestled in a hilly landscape. It begins from an elevated Acropolis standpoint in the center of a dry, overcast city, which slopes softly downward on all sides from this point. Here, one has a panoramic view, which I describe with some authoritative familiarity to visiting friends. The subway system converges here and radiates from this point, extending to distant neighborhoods I've never visited. Most immediately, in the heart of the city, there are monumental architectural forms of marble, granite, and limestone. These give way to residential neighborhoods. Towards the south, the subway system ends at an industrial, Osaka port. There are no modern high-rise buildings, only sculpted Italian cypress trees standing over the neighborhoods. This perspective of the city is like looking at a subway map - an elevated position above the concreteness of the city and its daily lives.

The connections between this view and the second part of the city are tenuous. I'll have to await further dreams to clarify the geography, if they're so willing. But two parts of what I now know is the northern part of the city are closely connected. One is busily urban - lights from advertisements mirrored in long rainy avenues, traffic, crowds of people as shoppers, workers, tourists. It is Paris near Opéra or midtown Manhattan or Tokyo's Shinjuku or Seoul,... all of them combined in one buzzing din. As one walks further north, one arrives at the old city, which is a network of narrow Japanese alleys of low wooden structures overhung with wide eaves as shelter from the elements. The shoji doors often have red or saffron paper. These are shops that only local people frequent, and mostly only the older, dying generation. I love this neighborhood deeply precisely because there's so much of it that I don't understand, and I wander here for hours. Here, you can buy bags of rice or supplies for Buddhist ceremonies or vast varieties of salted plums. Each shop is different. Many offer wares or foods that are unrecognizable to my Western eyes and tastes. I want to try so much, but I don't know how to start or even how to ask.

Further north and moving towards the west are neighborhoods where I lived as a youth in Bangkok and Taipei. They appear very different now, but the feeling of the places is similar. My father's work is here, a concrete bureaucratic building given organic form by the mossy black stains from decades of tropical rain. Plants charge out of the gray urban landscape as they're not supposed to do, in their slow, colonizing way. There is a soccer field, brilliant green from a recent downpour. Coconut palms rising from walled compounds seduce the imagination with lush, hidden gardens. Behind the buildings with their official plaques, the embassies and institutions, the mountainside rises in whispering tall grasses before becoming dense jungle.

To the west are the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. More specifically, the antique bookstores at its St. Michel edge. I browse the bookstores for medieval texts on geological activity, wander the narrow stone streets, reemerge somehow at rue Mouffetard. In between, I rest in a sunny square belonging to Amsterdam or Prague, full of pigeons and lovers. One street appears repeatedly. It is part Cairo, part Paris's rue de la Roquette, part medieval Spain. It's an active street of tiny restaurants, bars, and stores. I visit in the daytime and at night. I apparently know this neighborhood well as the people almost always greet me with friendly familiarity. Yet, it also has the mood of disinterested transience that neighborhoods have when they're listed in tourist guides.

The southeastern part of the city is a working class area, famous for its flea markets and bulk goods. The concentrated buildings and activity that comprise the core of the city taper off here. The city is coming to its end. This is outside Budapest, dusty Mediterranean Beirut, the limits of Paris' suburbs, old Tien Mu; its artery is one broad, dusty street of Mexico or East Africa running parallel to the sea. It's an area that, in ten years, will be full of high-rise hotels lining the beach. For now, even without seeing it, one knows the beach is filled with trash and tar. One walks too far here before seeing anything other than dust and drab stores selling commercial cookware or building supplies. But there is the flea market and its endless tarpaulin-covered stalls with gaudy Eastern European trinkets, World War II weapons, and Chinese candies. I am constantly looking for something in the flea market. My mission is carried out with such focus that I lose whoever I'm with at the time. This gives this entire area of the city, to me, an overwhelming sense of loss. I am trying to recover something when I visit this part of the city.

Moving back into the city from the south, one eventually enters a very chic world of beautifully restored stone houses and cobblestone streets, elegant lighting, and Italian gardens. The streets are marked quaintly with signs matched to the architecture, unlike the utilitarian signs elsewhere in the city. High cultural events take place here, glimpsed occasionally through perfectly clear doors of glistening glass. Only the very wealthy live here. Like the working class area to the southeast, no one walks the streets here either, but for very different reasons. It's an extremely pleasant and safe area, but closed off by its residents in response to imagined aggressions. I visit here only in passing. Every time I am in this neighborhood I am meeting someone somewhere else. I always think that I'd like to spend more time here because I have the streets to myself....

I'm not sure when the construction of this city began, but it has been a long time. I love Italo Calvino's book, Invisible Cities, but I haven't opened it since I first read it in the 1980s. In that book, the cities are recounted by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Each individual city is a part of a larger atlas of Kublai's empire. The Venetian's descriptions are ultimately fantastic interpretations by Kublai. They are creating a mythical atlas together. But note this passage at the end of the book as the Great Khan contemplates the waning days of his empire. Marco says,
At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.
Has the book, largely forgotten over more than two decades since reading it, resonated through that twisting parallel world of dreams? Has it bidden its time not as a set of particular descriptions or as generic literary appreciation, but as a secret project I would consciously uncover later in life? And what about the discovery that my landscape is one continuous city rather than many, as I had always thought?

Calvino's passage above hints at Plato's Republic. The Republic is, of course, a foundational masterpiece of political philosophy. In the Platonic craft of dialectical synthesis of content and form, the dialogue's detours into ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology arrive harmoniously in a final, ideal city. The construction of the book is, in fact, the constitution of the ideal city-state, the republic of the title. But since it is a purely ideal city without earthly reality, its constitution has played another Socratic role. Socrates and the young Glaucon have also constituted the nature of the soul through the dialogue. The soul and the ideal city have the same basic structure, and both exist only beyond empirical reality. Socrates has educated Glaucon by constructing the ideal city within Glaucon, in nurturing Glaucon's soul. Could it be that a series of dreams are attempting to reconstruct my own fragmented soul?


Anonymous said...


Italo Calvino would be proud. And I say this even though I never got to know Calvino intimately, in his native city or any other for that matter. Still, he got to know me and to shape me and my expectations, when I travel through cities that are new to me, in much the same way that you suspect your serial dreams are constructing for you a soul that you have lost or, perhaps, never before recognized as your own.

Yes, Italo Calvino would be proud of your narrative attention to the theme of loss ... something about which Plato, with his inner-outer dyad of the impossible city, would have nothing to say except that you are, of course, merely remembering the truth.


MT said...
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MT said...

And what about the discovery that my landscape is one continuous city rather than many, as I had always thought?

I think I have had a dream epiphany like this--that is, a dream that I experienced as making sense of dreams from nights dating back to my childhood and startlingly implying that my sleeping self was as continuous as my waking one, with its own memories. And I swore the mother of all dream vows that I would write it down when I woke, but I didn't, because I suck at remembering my dreams...except perhaps while dreaming. So thanks for reminding me! At the same time, I have a party-pooping concern that the epiphany could be just a dream epiphany, and not a real or true one--as in, these suddenly unified dreams weren't actually related until the dream relating them. Or as in, were these truly past dreams being perceived as related or was their attribute of "being from the past" just a part of your dream. Do these not seem like sensible concerns? Maybe they wouldn't to me, if I remembered more or better whatever your post is reminding me about in my own dream life.

MT said...

Anyway, not to be blasé--I think this is super far-out, whatever it is.

helmut said...

The epiphany was indeed a dream epiphany, rather than something that happened when I woke up. Or it may have happened in that strange middle state between the one and the other. Dreams are clever trickster beasts, so the possibility that one dream was a synthesis dream of previous dreams that never actually existed is a possibility. But I've written down dreams in the past and have a sort of waking record to myself that they actually existed as separate dreams and separate places. The making-sense dream might still just be that - a dream that links up others that really are only separate entities, so there's nothing that's taken place over time but just one moment of linkage. That could be. There's reason to be suspicious. Dreams usually aren't so cleanly narrative, with beginnings and ends and all that.

But even if this is the case, it doesn't matter for the idea of a city constructed neighborhood by neighborhood, maybe especially because the epiphany took place in the dream rather than me consciously forcing some overall story onto a collection of dreams. The only problem is that I might have killed off this process by writing about it.

MT said...

I sympathize with the fear and certainly hope not to have been complicit in any murder, real or dreamed, but if the experience is the marvel it seems it's not something easy to meddle with consciously. I concede the city part is cool, but what grabs me is the implication that our dreaming self isn't born anew each night with incidental resemblance to the nights before, but has a memory and is an extension of those nights in the way our daytime self is--independently and as if behind a Wall. It's the discovery of an alter ego, whose existence we've denied on waking every morning since we were infants, except it/he/she really exists...or so says the dream.

helmut said...

I don't think I'm making up that alter-ego. It's pretty much me, after all. But you're right about the continuity. Dreams tend not to work that way. And, in this case, they often don't as individual dreams - they're par for the course dreams, with no clear narrative and displacements in time and space. But that they go together startled me. And, really, I don't think I'm doing all that connecting work while awake and just not realizing it.