Michal Ajvaz: The City and Heaven

Eudossia is a city-labyrinth which features an intricate and complicated maze of streets; it also possesses a carpet into which were woven patterns both synoptical and symmetrical. Tradition has it that the layout of the city and the pattern of the carpet correspond to each other. When the city’s residents asked their oracle about this, they were told that “one of these objects (…) has a form which the gods gave to the starry sky and the orbits along which the worlds travel, while the other is its near-reflection.” The oracle’s answer didn’t exactly clear the matter up. Perhaps, it was reasoned, the carpet showed the archetype of the divine order and the labyrinthine layout of the city was a projection of this order onto the imperfect material of reality. Another possibility was that the archetype was the unpredictable labyrinth of streets and it was only later, in an attempt to simplify and schematize this labyrinth, that the geometric forms of the carpet came into existence. Does the form crystallize from the original chaos, or does the chaos result from the disintegration of the original form? Or do they give rise to each other? Or is there yet another possibility, one in which the embryos of order and chaos are hiding, as was indicated in the earlier story about Argie? And hasn’t this uncertainty about the basic essence of the place given rise to a city which is little more than a never-ending attempt to find an impossible answer?


Because of their struggle to define the relationship between reality and the ideal, the residents of Eudossia discovered that they had to live with a melancholy-inducing ambiguity that resulted from the undeniable possibility that all of the ideal truths are but a vain attempt to make sense of the original chaos of creation; indeed, that they themselves might well be trying to find a non-existing plan of the labyrinth in the futile hope that it would help us escape from the maze which holds us captive. The residents of the city Bersabea do not have such concerns and so do not suffer from that melancholy; instead they contentedly live enshrouded in a mistake that threatens each and every idealization, hierarchy of values, and targeted goal. To the residents of Bersabea the birthplace of order and the model for living is the heavenly city, a place which doesn’t have flaws or yield to change, doesn’t suffer from excess, and which will remain an archetype in perpetuity. And so they honor “everything which reminds them of the heavenly city, with the result that they hoard refined metals and rare stones, stifle passing fancies and cultivate level-headed and moderate ways.” Their relationship to the ideal image reveals itself in the way that they revere and hoard things, suppress what is transient, and curb what is excessive.

But aren’t these activities simply an expression of avarice, in the form of a craving after property; of cowardice, as seen by their inability to take risks; and finally of a yearning for the enthrallment of themselves and others? And doesn’t each ideal image, which should be venerated, which should express truth and unity, in fact spring from this craving after and hoarding of property? Isn’t, in reality, the picture that the citizens of Bersebea have of heaven an image of hell, a concentration of all evil? And isn’t the true heavenly archetype therefore the one that wrenches itself free from this image? That, which the residents of Bersabea — and not only them — imagine to be the gloomiest place in the world? Isn’t it a place of no account, a scrap heap, a cesspool, where everything is to be found that was left out of all the hoarding, possessing, and self-controlling — everything, that is to say, that rots and putrefies.Such a space would be an archetype of purity and freedom and would deserve a place in heaven.  “And at the zenith above Bersabea circles a heavenly body which deflects back all the affluence of the city and instead contains the hoard of things that have been cast out: it is a planet of quivering potato skins, broken umbrellas, discarded socks, sparkling shards of glass, lost buttons, candy wrappers, used tram tickets, fingernail clippings, kernels of corn, and egg shells.”


The residents of Bersabea wanted to possess, hoard, and control; their cravings created an immutable — and therefore lifeless — heavenly configuration. However, that which is solid disintegrates, and its pieces, getting scattered about and lost, no longer belong to anyone. Similarly, anything that has been given a precisely defined purpose inevitably develops problems and stops working. In Bersabea, it can be said, this disintegration, dispossession, and failure to function were the only indications that there was any life in the city. Tecla is a city of scaffolding, a city where they are always building. Here they have scaffolding on which they build more scaffolding, and cranes which raise more cranes. Tecla doesn’t need to protect itself against disintegration, because it isn’t and never will be completed, will never be whole and functioning, will never be anybody’s property. Its life is an ascending that will never achieve a final, fixed, and proprietary order.

The residents of this city, living on scaffolding that holds up other scaffolding, which in its turn holds up yet more scaffolding, are evidently satisfied with this way of life. It doesn’t seem as though they are bothered by the problems of order and chaos like the residents of Eudossia are. They presume that order produces itself in the course of the birth and destruction of forms, that it arises as a succession of transient strategies, “working plans” which are applied to the present moment and then expire; that beyond a succession of such transient strategies there exists no other order. Is the carpet of Eudossia truly eternal and unchanging? Won’t its colors run, revealing that there are holes in it? Weren’t there other carpets before it, and isn’t the carpet a reminder of the carpets that it replaced and an auger of the carpets that will, one day, replace it?

The city of Tecla looks at first glance to be an uninhabitable place, but perhaps it is precisely this sense of the uninhabitable that best expresses the essence of all dwellings — perhaps it is only possible to live on scaffolding, and it is always on scaffolding that one is living. Perhaps in this way the city resembles the universe, and so it isn’t necessary to ask what it is that the city mimics and what in turn is mimicked by it, what came before and what after. The city is part of the universe and so the residents might well be building their city according to the cosmic model — but isn’t this regard for the cosmic model something they only noticed incidentally, in the course of a construction that began without any particular aim or purpose, from a cosmic rhythm that works through their hands, eyes, and brain? “Night is descending onto the construction site.  A night full of stars. — That is our project, they will tell you.”


The life and times of the cities of Eudossia, Bersabea, and Tecla have been linked with the question about the relationship between the earthly city and the heavenly archetype. In the first of these cities we could see an ambiguity in the relationship, in the second city a mistake which has permeated into all of the established archetypes, while the residents of the third city found an archetype which isn’t an archetype, because it is in a constant state of demolition, never finishing itself and only prescribing for itself yet more change.

In all three cities, then, there are uncertainties to be found regarding the relation between the city and the heavenly archetype. Perinzia is a city in which, it would appear, the relationship to any kind of archetype and any kind of order is denied.  While in Eudossia the order was disturbed by disorder, “the braying of a mule, the begriming from soot, the stench of fish, (…) buildings, which collapse one after the other into clouds of dust, (…) fires and cries in the dark,” in Perinzia everything is much worse, here we meet bearded woman and three-headed children with six legs. Two explanations are offered for this state of affairs, and it isn’t clear which of them is more appalling: either the dis-order governing the city is a reflection of the dis-order which governs the universe, or the order that governs in the universe is quite inaccessible and reveals itself only as a delusion. Is it worse to live in a cosmos which doesn’t have any order but, in holding out the possibility of conflating the human and divine dis-orders, at least offers up some kind of meaning (even if a paradoxical one), or to live in a cosmos whose order is always unapproachable and hidden, where we can never touch upon its meaning but at least we know that it exists, and so can dream about it?


In Andrie the relationship between the city and heaven acquires yet another form. The routes of the streets follow the course of the planets and the order of the city reflects the order of the constellations and the stars. This analogy is, however, so perfect, the city so resembles the universe, that the differences between the two quite disappear, including the difference between that which is the model and that which is the copy. And so not only do changes in the heavens cause changes in the city but, alternatively, each change in Andrie brings about some new manifestation in the universe. “After each change that happens in the city astronomers peering out at the heavens discover the explosion of a new nova or the change from orange to gold of some remote point of light on the celestial vault, or the expansion of some nebula, or the twisting of some thread of the Milky Way.” It isn’t possible to determine what is original and what is reflected; both are interweaved into the network of similarities and influences. That which is illustrated by a metaphor is itself the metaphor of its metaphor — in Andrie, the metaphorical network has a cosmic dimension.

This reciprocity of cause and effect is extraordinary, because it was just said — unequivocally — that Andrie was created according to the plan of the cosmic order; the order of the cosmos must, then, have preceded the design of the city. So where did the model, the city, get the capacity to actually change its template, the cosmic order? Is a magical analogy operating here, a secret signature of numbers? Or is it instead about circular motion, which is facilitated by the tension present in each and every order. The being of an order doesn’t rest in immutability; the same power which builds the order also causes it to change, there is present in any order an eternal unrest, an eternal longing after change — from where else should an order instigate change than from its own contents? These contents are never perfect: mistakes are found in them, aberrations, calamities, and even outright revolts against the order; the order, however, utilizes these unanticipated conflicts and differences towards the goal of creating new forms from them, and then metamorphoses itself into these new forms.

The residents of Andrie are cautious when it comes to planning changes in the city, but their caution is different from that of the residents of Bersabea. For it isn’t a caution born from the fear of taking chances but rather from the fact that they know that change must be undertaken with due care and diligence so that it will take root, so that it will find its way into the order and truly change it. Cheap gestures and showy rebellions against the order will mean nothing if they don’t change the order and, especially, if they don’t from the beginning prove to the power of the order that they are truly uncontrollable.

Published in The Cafe Irreal, Issue 31.

Posted: August 26th, 2013
Categories: Detour/Dérive
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