Thursday, February 1, 2024

Wolves, swans, mirrored cities, and Kubla Khan

As regular readers will know, reading in restaurants is something I like to do. Sometimes total silence is best, but sometimes background noise is a must. To everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn.

Unless I happen to be reading a big hardback that's bulky enough to stay open on its own, it's not convenient to read a physical codex while actually eating. What I usually do is read a book while I wait for my order, switch to reading something on my phone while I eat, and then switch back to the book after I finish. Today the book I brought was William Weaver's English translation of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. I read this before my meal:

You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell, but also because at night, by the fires all around the market, seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, at each word that one man says -- such as "wolf," "sister," "hidden treasure," "battle," "scabies," "lovers" -- the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles. And you know that in the long journey ahead of you, when to keep awake against the camel's swaying or the junk's rocking, you start summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles, on your return from Euphemia, the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox (pp. 36-37).

Hidden Treasures (the breakfast cereal) have come up on this blog before, so that got my attention. I also thought it a bit surprising that wolf was the first item on the list, a list of words presumably chosen because they reflect universal experience and would evoke some memory or other in just about everyone. Do you have any tales of wolves to tell, reader? Neither do I. But I suppose things were different in the 13th century, when Invisible Cities is set.

When my food arrived, I switched to reading the Book of Isaiah on my phone. I read this:

And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations (Isa. 61:4).

At that moment, I happened to glance up at the television on the wall, and the screen was filled with the phrase "RAISED BY WOLVES" repeated many times. Since I had just read about wolves in Calvino and raising-up in Isaiah, this caught my attention. There followed a rapid series of wolf- and moon-related images, interspersed with images of basketball players, and it became apparent that the whole thing was about an NBA team called the Minnesota Timberwolves. At one point, there was a city skyline along the bottom of the screen, an upside-down version of the same skyline at the top, and a full moon suspended in the sky between them. The whole thing then rotated 180 degrees, with the moon remaining stationary, until the city and its gravity-defying inversion had traded places.

The idea of being "raised by wolves" synched in a general way with something I had read the night before in Colin Wilson's Spider World novel The Magician, about how "Human babies were taken from their parents and brought up as spiders." This idea of being raised by animals other than wolves made me think of Raised by Swans, a rock band prominently featured in a not-very-good Liam Neeson movie I had seen some years ago. I couldn't remember the name of the movie, so I looked it up. It's called Chloe.

After I'd finished eating, I went back to the Calvino book, only to find myself reading, "In Chloe, the great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. . ." (p. 51). Then, just two pages later:

The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake . . . . Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside-down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror . . . (p. 53).

The name Chloe, juxtaposed with the mirrored-city imagery seen in the "Raised by Wolves" spot, made me think again about Raised by Swans. I remembered that I had mentioned swans recently, in "Assorted syncs: Finnegans Wake, Kubla Khan, dayholes." I had mentioned that Alph, the name of the "sacred river" in Kubla Khan, is also an Elvish word meaning "swan," and that I remembered this from childhood without having to look it up. Kublai Khan is one of the two main characters in Invisible Cities, and I mention that at the end of the post.

This restaurant is located near a used bookstore, and I rarely patronize the one without visiting the other. The synchronistic context described above made me pick up a book that would not otherwise have interested me at all: a very long novel called Swan Song by Robert McCammon. The teaser on the back cover begins "In a wasteland born of rage and fear," echoing the Isaiah passage quoted above, and it introduces a character called Swan and another called Sister. Sister, you will recall, comes right after wolf in Calvino's list.

Just now, as I was writing this post, I ran a search for timberwolves raised by wolves and clicked on the first result. I was greeted by this image:

I suppose that's a reference to the "alpha" as the leader of a pack of wolves, but it's also pretty close to the sacred river in Kubla Khan and the Elvish for "swan."

Note added: Just after posting this, I checked a few blogs. A recent Vox Day post mentions Minnesota and High Elves and links a site called Alpha News.


William Wright (WW) said...

The phrase "Raised by Wolves" reminds me of Jungle Book. Mowgli is raised by wolves. Kipling said that Mowgli was a made up name - in other words, though it meant "frog" in the book, this wasn't based on any known languages.

As an amphibian, Mowgli would be able to live and travel on both land and water - perhaps even Many Waters?

A frog crossing space has come up in your own posts, where in one instance you reference Pepe the Frog crash landing on a shooting star. The 'thumb'-nail image for that video you posted has Arnold's head swapped with that of a green frog as he flees the temple (likely skipping out of this world for another).

And Mowgli in Elvish (Maugli) could mean something like "silent honey" (silent as in doesn't speak much).

Mowgli does live in a jungle and ultimately has to deal with a predator, Shere Khan, whom he skins in the end.

WanderingGondola said...

Earlier this week, the local evening news briefly reported on an odd occurrence in the UK. That swan was definitely not in a rush!

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