Sunday, April 10, 2011

Venice's Ways

Of central importance through all of Proust's long great In Search of Lost Time are two very different paths that the narrator and his family take when they go for walks in the country. The shorter route, which the narrator (a boy at the time) knows well, is called the Méséglise way (also Swann's Way by the family). The much longer route, with a very different landscape and inhabitants, is the Guermantes Way.

Upon the simple facts of these two different routes layer upon layer of meaning accrue for the narrator (and reader) over the course of the book. They become for him (and us), not just very different paths and landscapes and experiences and fantasies of his childhood but a kind of template for all of his life that follows--orienting the development of his psyche and imagination well into his adulthood. We, like him, become used to seeing the world of the novel in terms of what seem to be these two irreconcilable "ways" and it is a distinctly gratifying shock when after some 3,000 or more pages he discovers that the old paths of his childhood are actually not distinct at all, but connected.

I'd never had any experience that even remotely resembled this in the real world until the other day in Venice. For in Venice, like no other place I've ever lived, one's entire sense of the city, of how one sestiere relates to another, of the distance between two points, of the city's entire size and shape, can be magically reconfigured by the flukey discovery of some narrow previously unnoticed series of calli linking a certain campo to another. All of sudden the very campo that had seemed so definitively anchored within the bounds of Castello--the focal point around which so many of my ideas of that sestiere arranged themselves--turns out to be just a short easy stroll from a church that had uniquely embodied for me what I'd thought of as the obscure center of the sestiere of San Marco.

Ever since cities have existed writers have exclaimed at--in indignation or joy--the sensory overload that assails a visitor to them. Venice isn't unique in this regard. But as everyone knows, Venice can easily seem like the most illogical city one is ever likely to visit in the West. When you are really lost in Venice the map you hold your hand is as worthless as a car to get you where you really want to go.

One is so rarely in the clear in Venice, it's difficult to orient oneself. In most cities you can look for a landmark, peer down an avenue to figure out which way is north. In Venice the Grand Canal could serve a similar function--if only it were straight.

Learning your way around Venice is like learning a language. You can learn some essential routes like you learn essential grammar, but fluency comes only with unexpected whole-body experiences. The well-trod path that runs between the Rialto and Piazza San Marco, or between the Piazza and L'Accademia (following Via XXII Marzo), are like the utterances of a phrase book offering the most limited of communications, the narrowest of experience--like the well-known path I'd come to rely on to get me home from my Italian class in a predictable amount of time.

During those very rare very brief times when I feel I've really learned some bit of the Italian language my memory, my mind recedes far into the background. It's not that I'm translating what I've heard or consciously remembering a phrase, it's just that my ear instantaneously catches what's said, and my mouth miraculously produces the response seemingly all on its own. And so too at those times when I feel like I've learned a bit of the city, my eyes catch every significant detail without thought, and my feet themselves seem to feel the way forward.

Perhaps because there are so few really useful street signs in Venice, so few of the things that our sense of logic depends upon to orient us in other cities, imagination can, if we have the time to let it, come to the fore. Associations come thick and fast. We remember our way because of the way the sun falls upon a certain facade at a certain time, the way the cobblestones become uneven just at this stretch, the way a certain group of people seated at an outdoor table once caught our attention just before the calle where we must turn left.

Venice: the city of many ways.

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