It is perhaps the poet or the dreamer who arrives at Heathrow Airport and, for the first time, feels entirely at home — disoriented and jet-lagged, of course, but unclenched, at ease. I was, for the first time in my memories, not searching or reaching for something; this place felt written in my bones. I was, for the first time, not awkwardly out of place, even though I was nearly run over every time I tried to cross the street. Look Right, though it appears on the sidewalk at many intersections, loses its meaning when you don’t remember what you’re looking for. (Look Right for traffic would be a better sign.) The juxtaposition of old buildings and statues, some older than i’d ever seen, and new ones only contributed weight to this familiarity. And, yet, i could not possibly have been remembering anything, because i’d never before been to London, because my ancestral culture — French and Irish, if that matters — stands in opposition to London’s consummate Britishness, because outside of the Underground, i did not, for one minute, know where i was nor how to get where i was going.
This is the weight of a past that has occured, that continues, daily, to occur, and that i, with the exception to two weeks in the early fall of 2009, cannot say that i remember, a past that is, of course, familiar to me in respects but ciphered in others. I encountered this past, not in museums nor in galleries nor at Stonehenge or Traitors’ Gate, but in far more ordinary places, walking. I can say of this feeling, in retrospect, only that it was comforting, this weight of others’ steps. I felt accompanied, even when i was lost, to know that the streets on which i walked had been walked on by millions of others, that the stones beside the stairs had been worn away by millions more. This is, of course, too fanciful a thought. Nonetheless, i was surrounded not by the mere thought of people’s memories, but by the material traces thereof: this groove eroded by countles fingers; this piece of graffiti, worn to illegibility by years and light and touch. These are not my memories. I remember nothing. And yet, here i am, surrounded by memory.
In his novel, Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino meditates on the confluence of memory and history in place: “I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways,” he writes, in the guise of Marco Polo addressing Kublai Khan, “and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past” (113). Calvino, here and throughout Invisible Cities, presents a conception of what architecture is and what it can do that opposes Bevan’s. Far from being so important to memory and to affect — and even to knowledge — that any alteration in its fixity is catastrophic to memory, the essence of a city does not consist in buildings and streets that do not change. To speak of those things as though they are eternal is equivalent to saying nothing. Rather, Calvino posits a relationship between present space — and that which inhabits (and will inhabit) it — and history that comprises the essence of the city. What strikes me as crucial to this observation is that the city itself is not merely an encryption of history; it does not merely hold memories for those who would inhabit or visit the city. Their memories are their own, just as the city’s memories are its own.