Port Cities and Desire in the Work of Italo Calvino

Desire is projected across ‘empty’ space in Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Seascape with Distant Coast, by J. M. W. Turner, c. 1830-1845. © Tate. Image reproduced by permission of Tate and under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported).

Italo Calvino’s (1923-1985) Invisible Cities is a work of fiction that continuously reimagines the city of Venice. It demonstrates that the same urban landscape may offer numerous different promises to its various spectators: of new lives and new possibilities, but also of new sensualities, transgressions, and experiments. This article will draw on a number of excerpts from Invisible Cities to interrogate the relationship between port cities and desire in Calvino’s work. It will do so by investigating the role of the spaces surrounding the city: the fore- and hinterland. These ‘empty’ spaces pull heavily on the imagination, but have largely been ignored in the study of port cities, which has instead concentrated on their human occupancy and social vibrancy.[1] My main argument will be that Calvino’s book, often hailed as a sort of endless fuel for the imagination, is in fact severely limited by its treatment of desire. This is because it relies on phallocentric desire projection, thus ignoring the decentred pleasures of the port city’s other, more immediate erogenous zones.


Mechanisms of Desire

Invisible Cities assigns each of its imagined cities a defining label. One of these labels is ‘city of desire’[2]. Descriptions of the five cities with this label are directly informed by twentieth-century theories of desire – particularly those associated with Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Freud attributed desire to the Id – the unconscious, incalculable mind.[3] Meanwhile, Lacan theorized that human desire is based on the wish to please the Other.[4] To him, the Ego is object rather than subject.[5] To desire is to ask: what do you want?[6] Both theories are rooted in a complex of domination and submission, with the phallus as main physical, social, and linguistic symbol – a ‘phallocentric’ approach to human desire.

Freud and Lacan do not directly address the role of fore- or hinterland in the pursuit of desire. There is no immediate pleasure fulfilment to be found in the sea or desert, so Freud’s Id pulls a blank. Nor is there an Other to please. A solution is found in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the Body without Organs (BwO): the displacement of the self at the hands of desire, to a non-physical hinterland.[7] Constructing a BwO means voiding this hinterland of pre-existing elements and imposing new, imaginary ones: an act of territorializing potentiality driven by human desire.[8] The area beyond the city now teems with displaced needs. The BwO provides a new space for the Id to pursue desire – and for the Self to encounter the Other.


The Lure of Many Venices

Despina is one of the cities ‘of desire’. It is a city with two faces. A camel-driver on approach thinks Despina ‘a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel’.[9] The sailor, on the other hand, ‘thinks of [Despina] as a camel from whose pack hang wine-skins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea’.[10] Both travellers find their current surroundings – the foreland – exhausting; they use their imagination to populate the hinterland with fresh experiences.

These travellers are ever the subject (or at the very least, a very engaged object)[11] of their own imaginations. The windjammer and steamboat exist solely to carry the camel-driver; the caravan will not leave until the sailor has arrived. The only other people featuring in the description of Despina are voiceless, half-naked belly-dancers in sand castles; bodies-to-be-dominated in imaginary hinterlands.[12] Everything is designed to satisfy the Id, or to tease the Subject about possible relations with exotic Others. Meanwhile, the travellers ignore their physical bodies. Their minds are displaced: they are pursuing the BwO and all that it offers.



Calvino’s travellers leave the foreland (and city) unexplored, discarded by default. Desire is lack.[13] A counter-reading is offered by Hélène Cixous. She asks, ‘[w]hat’s a desire originating from lack? A pretty meagre desire’.[14] Subverting Deleuze and Guattari, Cixous asks why one could not return to the organ: to reclaim the body, and so reclaim desire.[15] Phallocentric displacement warps and limits. Why deny the body, the here and now?

The foreland returns to view; and the hinterland no longer needs to be cleared of pre-existing elements. Cixous’ traveller is excited to engage with others. She does not need to own them or remove them; no, she wants to ‘derive pleasure from this gift of alterability’.[16] Desire is to become o/Other (asking ‘what do you want?’ is now the same as ‘what do I want?’) but without domination – and without finality.[17] The whole body of the city itself acquires meaning. The traveller is now just one element among many.

And so one must ask: why does the sailor approaching Despina not look at his immediate surroundings? Why does he erase all that to chase some unattainable desire? Following Cixous, it becomes clear that displacement is not a necessary condition for the pursuit of desire; that in fact, it was a severe constraint all along. The foreland and city, too, can become spaces of freedom; and the hinterland needs not be dominated, but can be lived in, with others, and still be – or even become more of – a space of desire.



[1] Cf. Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Neapel,’ in Walter Benjamin, Kurze Prosa, ed. Tillman Rexroth (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991).

[2] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1974), 9; 12; 17-18; 32-33; 45-46.

[3] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1973), 105-111.

[4] Jacques Lacan, Écrits. A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977), 311-313.

[5] Ibid., 292-311.

[6] Ibid., 312.

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis/London: U. of Minnesota Press, 2005), 153-161.

[8] Ibid., 174-175.

[9] Calvino, Invisible Cities, 17.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ibid., 12.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 154.

[14] Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society vol. 1, no. 4 (1976), 891.

[15] Ibid., 880.

[16] Ibid., 889.

[17] Ibid., 893.

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