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Italo Calvino was obsessed with stories.
He was interested in stories that are told for generations. Over and over. And again and again.
These are stories that are probably as old as us human beings. We told them years ago sitting around a fire in a cave and we tell them today, through various new formats, such as video games. They are completely familiar because, whether they are a story from the future or the past, they are timeless.
When writing about Voltaire’s Candide, Italo Calvino uniquely points out that Voltaire’s novel is, above all, about speed. As a reader, we are intrigued by its accelerated rhythms, of traveling around Europe and the globe at such an incredible pace. The story unfolds in one, two, even three countries a day. People die, lie, kill, love and deceive each other with such quickness that it is easy to lose track.
Despite its eventfulness, it is still believable.
Candide is therefore, as Calvino points out, a novel that depicts a place that does not exist. Candide depicts utopia.
Calvino’s definition of utopia is simple: it is a non-place. Not a place of wishes or longings of how things could be. Just a non-place.
But this is not entirely true.
Calvino shows us how Voltaire depicts a very particular link between reality and a non-place: utopia. The reader recognizes the names of people and places in Candide. They may even get a sense that the events happening in the novel, could be linked to those which are happening in reality.
So, without referencing reality, there would not be a utopia.
That is why utopia is often a misused word. Utopia is not real, but it is nevertheless not completely detached from reality.
It exists in-between.
I once believed that utopia was the Internet. That was back when the Internet was distinguishable as being someplace different from the here and now, but that’s a utopia we have already arrived at, so it’s no longer a non-place. It’s time to look for other utopias.
Sometimes I’ll be driving by a neighborhood that I don’t know well, in a city like Los Angeles or Athens or the edges of New York. I’ll see a neglected lot, maybe there is a lone tree and some scrap material scattered around. This lot could be on the edge of suburbia or squeezed between downtown developments. That undeveloped and perhaps abandoned land is a utopia, because it’s an unformed place where thoughts can grow undisturbed.
And more than a place, it’s also a perfect moment in time. It’s someplace that though you know little about, it allows you to imagine the most.
Rather than its Greek origin as the non-place, I tend to think of utopia as a more personal matter, a subjective vision for a potential goal, a Fata Morgana, a place that perhaps does not exist right now, but one which you’ll definitely want to reach eventually. That place needn’t be geographical, it could be a personal achievement or a professional goal, a way to re-organize the reality you are working on. It’s the reality that you want to be realizing, whether it’s a building, an exhibition or a book, its rules and its organization are that of utopia, of a new garden of thoughts where you can only plant seeds and sit, imagining the glorious and ideal life that will grow out of them and surround you.
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