Zora’s secret

19 May

In Fado and the Place of Longing, I describe the ways in which the city of Lisbon and fado songs bear witness to each other. As the fado singer Beatriz de Conceição sings, ‘Lisboa é testemunha’ [Lisbon is witness] to the life of its citizens and the history of change in its streets.  By asserting this in song, Conceição also proves fado itself to be a kind of testimony, presenting evidence of the everyday life of those same citizens and streets. The questions that interest me in this area concern the desire to bear witness, the methods by which subjects do so, and the ‘use’ that can be made of both witnesses and their testimony.

Memory and forgetting are intricately connected to our sense of place, as a number of late twentieth century works have shown.  A number of these works draw on ideas from the classical period relating to the use of place in the perfecting of memory. The history of mnemotechnics has been well described by Francis Yates, but I have also been drawn to the more poetic work of Italo Calvino. Calvino’s Invisible Cities presents itself as a series of tales told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about the cities he has visited on his travels. All these cities are grouped according to a range of features: memory, desire, signs and meanings, continuity and discontinuity, and so on. Zora, a city associated with memory, is presented as the exemplification of mnemotechnics:

Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced. The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower. the melon vendor’s kiosk…

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, tr. William Weaver (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974), p. 15.)

To a certain extent, this relates to the idea presented in earlier posts of the city as a text which can be read, although there is already a suggestion in the associative nature of the series of memory places that this is not a text that can be taken in at a glance but one which has to be negotiated ‘point by point’. Like the memory theatres described by Yates, it is the bringing together of the spatial and the temporal that aids recollection. But Calvino/Polo finds a paradox: in order to be an effective memory theatre, Zora cannot change. By remaining static, the city ‘has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.’

A related idea comes in the form of the danger presented by repetition, as in another invisible city, Zirma, where the narrator is forced to claim that ‘The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind.’ But memory is equally redundant: ‘it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.’  The desire to fix something that is in danger of being lost leads to often paradoxical ends. As Paul Ricoeur recounts, the tool which would come to be seen as the ultimate solution to such a problem – writing – was the very thing that, for Socrates, would be the end of true memory, demoting recollection to recitation.  And, as Jacques Derrida showed, the philosophical problems raised by the interaction between memory, speech and writing would continue to resound well into our own era.  Similar problems emerge with the onset of recording technology in the photographic and phonographic eras, as numerous thinkers have explained (key figures for my purposes include Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Sylviane Agacisnki, Andreas Huyssen and Evan Eisenberg).

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