Lecture Notes to Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities

First Lecture – Introduction to the novel

Please download the Powerpoint presentation below:

Week 1 GK Intro

Also consider the following questions regarding this presentation:

Invisible Cities (1972) is a novel written by the worldwide acknowledged Italian author Italo Calvino.

1 – What was the context in which this book was written? What was the author’s particular goal?

2 – Explain in the detail the theme and settings of the novel.

3 – Why could this novel be regarded as a “Third Manifestation”? Explain the background to this.

4 – What can you tell about the structure of the novel?

5 – Which ones are the most prominent features that Calvino takes from Marco Polo’s travel notes in order to structure his novel?

6 – How does Calvino’s novel relate to Psychoanalysis?

7 – How does Calvino make use of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and prominent “figures”?



Later Lectures – Chapter 1 of the novel – The Subject of the Unconscious

Please study the diagram below and the explanation that follows:

Yüzler ve Vazo 3

The Subject of the Unconscious – Explanatory Notes to the Diagram

We distinguish the subject from the individual by saying that a subject comes into being as a construct of language and discourse, which can only happen in relation to an Other, that is within an established society and its culture. The subject cannot emerge without this Other, and therefore we are all always marked by the values and thoughts of the era and society that we were born into. It is very difficult to even imagine how our lives would have been seemed to us were we were born in another era or society. Due to the impact of subjectification, we tend to believe that the values and beliefs of our times and society are like the “nature” of being human.

In order to become a subject, the new born human must go through a number of processes that finds it within the culture and society it was born into. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, it is the city of Diomira that describes this initial situation: We are born into a world that existed before us, and usually people have planned our lives even before we were born. For example our parents have already chosen a name for us, and they often have ideals of what we will become in the future: A doctor, an engineer, a pilot! As the city of Isidora points out, the Other is already there in the world, and as Dorotea describes to us, the world of this Other is cultivated, organised, structured and readily waiting with its roles that need to be filled by the new born when the time comes.

However, at the beginning of our lives, we are far from being able to understand all this. Initially, the new born baby is not only foreign to language, but also unable to seperate itself from its environment. It belongs to a world where it cannot control its body, where there is no language and meaning in the sense we understand it when we have become full-fledged subjects. This is a strange period in our lives, a period of which we almost do not remember anything due to a lack of any signification. The Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freund spoke of this new born simply as “It” (in German: Es). The French Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on the other hand, placed this new born “It” into a realm that he called the Real. Interestingly enough, to Lacan, the Real is our absolute truth, but we will never be able to reach this truth because first, when we were in that realm we hadn’t access to language yet, so we could not make sense of it, and second, once we have access to language, we lose access to the Real forever, because now language stands between us and the Real as an unsurmountable barrier. The Real – our experiences when we were a baby – remains registered only in our unconscious and we can discover it only retrospectively, by giving meaning to the past as we remember parts of it.


It is a long and complicated way for the new born to become a subject, that is, to become someone who recognizes and is recognized by other humans within language.

The first step to this is what Jacques Lacan calls the “Mirror Stage”. At some point, between 6 to 18 month of age, the new born baby starts to recognize itself in relation to a semblable – something in which it can recognize itself. In the diagram, this is shown as a relation between one’s reflection (a’) and one’s concept of self (a). In other words, the baby starts to recognize itself at the point where it manages to mentally construct the relation (a-a’). This is the first condition to speak of one’s “being there”, the I. Since the meaning “I” is a mental construction between a signifier (here, one’s mirror image a’) and a signified (here, one’s mental concept of the self), it can be said that the “I” is one of the first signs that the human being ever produces after its birth. In Calvino’s novel, it is the city of Zaira that describes the first ever production of a sign, which equals to the birth of meaning, and the advent of a “meaningful” existence. Both Lacan and Freud see this process as an example of identification. Lacan calls this realm the Imaginary, because it is trough imaginary relationships with images that the baby manages to create an identity and a sense of being for itself. The imaginary is based on misrecognitions in regard to one’s self, nevertheless these misrecognitions are absolutely necessary if a baby is to become to recognize itself as a “human”.

The production of this first sign, which was called imago by Freud, is the pre-condition of becoming a subject. This is the next stage for the baby, to cross yet another line and step over into the realm that Lacan called the Symbolic. Between 18 to 36 month, we observe how babies learn to speak and thereby start to discover via language their position and relations to others in society. It could be said that a great variety of discourses start to appeal to baby, thereby implying the roles and meanings that it has in the eyes and minds of others. The baby learns for example that it cannot “own” its mother completely for itself, it discovers roles such as “father”, “mother” and “child”, it realizes that there are certain rules that it must follow etc. All these discoveries make the child realize that it holds a position in society that goes beyond mere the self that it created for itself during the imaginary stage. It realizes that it must supress some of its wishes and needs if it wants to hold a valuable position among other fellow humans. The moment of obeying to a rule and giving up on a wish coincides with the opening of a space for the unconsious. In the diagram, this stage is described as the big Other (A) starting to address the “I” (a). When the baby complies with the demands of the Other and transforms itself into what it is asked to be, it becomes a subject (S). Lacan position this subject into the realm of the Symbolic, and formulates the relationship here as (S – A). Calvino describes this process and its outcomes in the city of Anastasia.

Both, the imaginary and the symbolic are marked by a loss. In the imaginary stage, the baby produces for itself an imago. However, this comes at the expense of misrecognitions about the self, plus a loss of the Real. Whenever there is a threat to the unity of the imaginary self-image, the “I” will react to it with aggression for fear of losing its identity, however illusory this identity may be. On the other hand, anything about oneself or the world that cannot be grasped through the languages one is familiar with, will feel “uncanny”. In other words, these will be encounters with the Real, but a Real that is now alien to us due to our acquaintance to language and we will therefore do everything to avoid encounters that we cannot give a meaning to. The Real, that is, senselessness, turns into something unbearable to us, although our lives began in it.

In the symbolic stage, a further problem is added to this: One’s meaning is not to be found in oneself, but it is always determined through the relationship to the Other. Lacan calls this the gap and says that it can never be entirely filled because of the nature of language itself. In language, meaning is always a result of relationships between signs – there is no sign which has a fixed meaning, but only relationships between signs that temporarily hold up the meaning every sign has – and because signification never stops, no meaning can be fixed forever, the meaning of signs will always be in flux as discourses unfold. Since the subject itself is constructed in language, a subject can never be completely sure what it means to itself and others. As relations change, so will our meanings. The gap will therefore keep producing the wish in the subject to fill it and fix it at a certain meaning. We will turn for answer in regard to what we mean to others. But the other, too, ultimately cannot give us an answer because it depends on others too. We can only give what we don’t have and only ask for what others don’t have. Lacan calls our insatiable but impossible wish to fill the gap and fix our meanings Desire. Desire means that we are torn for our entire life between hope and despair in regard to filling the gap, and only death will give us relief from this core existential problem. Calvino refers to the symbolic order that maintans both subjectivity and the gap that results from it, in the cities of Tamara and Despina.

The subject, although made of flesh and bone, is a product of language. We classify our body, desires and experincies according to categories that are established in the languages that surround us. We find ourselves not only traversing the physical world, but also language itself. As we live, we will not only speak but also be “spoken” by language. The more we use language, and the more we spell out our name, the more we are grounded in it as subjects. Calvino addresses this in the cities of Zirma and Isaura.

What we do not realize is that by speaking a language  we surrender to its underlying formal logic. What does this mean? On the one hand, it means we are enabled to produce meaning, we can speak, express, create – this gives us a sense of autonomy and agency, we feel that we are capable of doing things and changing the world. On the other hand, we are bound to the limits of these languages that produce and hold up our subjectivity – we are subject to determination and we are never acting completely free. Karl Marx formulated the dialectic between autonomy and determination by saying that “it is humans that make history, but they make history under conditions that are historically determined”. Calvino describes this dialectic in both the city of Zora and the city of Dorotea.

Some questions you might want to consider here are:

1 – What are the stages of subjectification – the becoming of a subject?

2 – What is the Mirror Stage about?

3 – How is aggression related to the imaginary?

4 – How does one become a subject through language and relations to others?

5 – How is Desire related the gap and to language in general?

6 – How is autonomy and determination of the subject related to the formal logic of language?



In the explanation above, I refer to a number of cities from Calvino’s novel. Below you can see the diagram that features these cities.

An Overview of the cities in chapter 1 of Calvino’s novel

Calvino 2

Also check out Chapter 1 on my blog Third Manifestation.



[Possible Questions for the Final Exam]

  1. In the epilogue of Chapter 2 of Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino compares and contrasts meaning to signalization. What is the main difference between these two forms of exchange, and what is the role of polysemy in this?
  2. In regard to the references to Jacques Lacan’s and Walter Benjamin’s work in it, what is the goal of the prologue in Chapter 2?
  3. In the cure of Neurosis, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud invented the revolutionary method called free association:  During their treatment, analysand’s were asked to say whatever comes in their mind. What has this to do with the recognition of the trivial? How do you think could the telling of trivial things lead to the discovery of the surpressed “I”s in someone? [Reference: Chapter 2, Prologue]


Project Assignment

In one of the songs, the musician Tori Amos says, “I carry a hundred girls in my hair”. The author Anais Nin says “there is more than one person in me”. Another author, Orhan Pamuk, says “Some people are very certain about themselves, they seem to exactly know who they are. Maybe this is because they only allow one person to grow within themselves”.

At what expense does one become “only one person”? Why are the other person’s we lose, so important? Which particular passages in chapter 2‘s epilogue are related to these arguments and how? Discuss.

  • Min. 500 words/2 pages
  • Due to January 15, 16.00.
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