For the past several weeks I’ve been slowly reading Italo Calvino’s lovely fever-dream of a novel “Invisible Cities.” I’ve been dipping into this book for three weeks now and I’m all the way up to page 30; it’s a very slender volume, but reading it quickly would make as much sense as gulping a fine wine, a waste in/to every sense.
The book imagines a conversation between an elderly Kublai Khan and a young Marco Polo, one of the people hired by the emperor to go forth and survey his empire. Most of the book consists of Polo’s dream-like descriptions of various cities, replete with extravagant imagery; the narrative is “structured around an interlocking pattern of numbered sections, while the length of each section’s title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or perhaps a city skyline.”
A sine wave. I like that. It’s like breathing. It is almost literally a waking dream in the shape and form of a book. You really have to sip from this and not gulp it.
So I hope this doesn’t feel trivial in the grand scheme of this grand book, but tonight, while engaging in my occasional evening “3B” (bath, book and bourbon) routine, I read this passage, which made me think of my beloved Doctor(s):
Marco enters a city: he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in the square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city where another of his pasts await him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”
And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
…and with that I conjure an image of our Eleventh Doctor, realizing how much he has not had and will never have, and poor Clara as she darts among all eleven, watching the First steal the big blue box in the first place, and watching all of the unimagined possibilities that will never come true down all those timelines because every choice you make cements things in a very real way, every choice explicitly says that specific things will not happen. In the business world they call this “opportunity cost,” and my goodness, it is a cost that is extraordinarily high. Every single thing we do spells out a hundred things we will never be able to do.
Or, as Marco Polo puts it in one of his earlier reports,
… my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and the caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me …