Sunday, November 18, 2007

Paradox of Porta Ludovica (A Study of Ambiguous Triangulation)

A short explanation on who I am and why this site is named for a place that may or may not be in Milan.

In the movement from Porta Ludovica to Piazza Napoli both the now and the various has-beens (Gewesenheiten) are present at once, as well as the horizon of the maintaining (Behalten) and of the oncoming (des Zukommendes).

Who's Running this Show?

Hello, and welcome to Porta Ludovica, a website dedicated to the works of Umberto Eco. Allow me to introduce myself -- my name is Allen Ruch, and under my nom de plume "The Great Quail," I am editor of the Libyrinth, a rather large site devoted to exploring postmodern literature. I have also always wanted to say that I had a nom de plume, particularly because we Quails have rather attractive plumes.

If you are reading this, you are currently being fed information from New York City, in the United States. It is here -- in Brooklyn, somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft's old house and the former residence of Walt Whitman -- that I live and work, in a small apartment festooned with strange paintings of bunnies who stare down benevolently on my Macintosh and my pet hamster.

So why "Porta Ludovica?"

From the very first conception of the Libyrinth, I knew that I wanted to get an Eco site online as soon as possible. Joyce would have to be first -- some things, after all, must be dealt with -- and I knew that Borges should come next; for so many of the other authors have so carefully created Borges as their necessary precursor that it would be ingenuous to postpone him. I had intended to create an Eco page next, but for some reason I just had the urge to catch up on some García Márquez books that I hadn't read, and I figured I'd strike when the iron is hot, and so "Macondo" was born. Realizing that maybe it would be more logical to do the Kafka page next, I decided to yet again postpone an Eco page.

Then a series of events occurred which I decided would be foolish to ignore. First of all, I stumbled into a membership of the Jorge Luis Borges Center, meeting a delightful professor who offered to help me out on an Eco page. Then Eco's novel, The Island of the Day Before was published in English; which meant that any other book I'd been planning to read was just rendered utterly uninteresting by the intriguingly dense, intellectually inviting, and oh so attractively covered in shiny blue new novel sitting expectantly on my shelf. . . . And finally, I discovered a copy of a recent Vogue magazine featuring an interview with Eco, and there was a picture of him, in full color, frowning across a table at me as if to say, "If you're going to do the damn thing, get it over with before some other idiot enshrines me as a god."

Well, being a good Jungian, I can recognize synchronistic events as well as the next Police fan. The time was obviously ripe, so I leaving Gregor to scuttle stoically around his room, I picked up Island and again immersed myself in the kaleidoscopic world of Eco's fiction. Inspired by Roberto's dancing atoms, unsafe amounts of coffee, and vague delusions of grandeur, I hammered together the basics of the Website while my former house was being buried by two meters of snow. By the beginning of February I was happy, but I was faced with a bit of a problem -- I didn't know what to name it. I was lucky for the previous three sites: "The Brazen Head" came to me in a dream; "The Garden of Forking Paths" seemed so obvious that I was almost nervous; and "Macondo" was just waiting to be plucked like a plump yellow banana. I immediately ruled out any pun on the name Eco; and having proudly resisted that temptation, I just as immediately succumbed when I wrote the "Links" page. (I confess: "Eco and Narcissus" was the cookie that made me smash the whole jar.) After discarding a few possible names pulled from Pendulum and Island ("Abulafia," "Punto Fijo," "The Hold of the Daphne," etc.) I suddenly decided on "The Aedificium," taken from the Name of the Rose. But something just didn't seem right. Eco's oeuvre is so varied, I didn't feel that it was appropriate to pull a name from his most popular work -- and a name that primarily conjures images of darkness and mystery. ("Bernard Gui's Fun Pages" didn't seem entirely appropriate, either.) True, darkness and mystery are important aspects of Eco's work, but what about the dazzling play of light in Island? What about the irony, the humor, the wry wit of his essays? After some further reflection,"The Aedificium" just seemed too limiting.

Back to the drawing board . . . And while I would love to invent some clever little bit of apocrypha, the fact is that I just paged through Misreadings, re-reading some of the essays. Finally, in "Industry and Sexual Repression in a Po Valley Society" I found what I was looking for: "The Paradox of Porta Ludovica (An Essay on Topological Phenomenon.)" A small and very humorous piece written as "alternative anthropology," it represents the "scholarly investigation" of Milan by a cultured team of non-Europeans. (Eskimos, inhabitants of the Marquis Islands, etc.) The topic is the question of the spatial and temporal reality of Porta Ludovica, given the fact that the unusual layout of Milan tends to keep the Milanese native in a perpetual state of bewilderment, unable to use common sense and spatial logic to successfully navigate the city -- incapable of using Porta Ludovica as a reference point, as the spiralling geography of Milan constantly confuses any attempts to triangulate successfully. In short, it is virtually impossible to arrive in Porta Ludovica through any methods of normal logic or directional orientation. In a hilarious series of "excerpts" from various "scientific analyses," the Porta Ludovica paradox is expanded and elaborated with increasing unreality and confusion so that the final excerpt is a virtually incomprehensible (yet apparently sublimely and logically argued) refutation of a "normal" timeframe, complete with metaphysical jargon studded with bulky German expressions.

Porta Ludovica! What a wonderful name for the Web site! Granted, a "real" Porta Ludovica truly exists, but viewed in the light of Eco's little anthropological fantasy, it rather easily acquires almost mythological overtones, particularly for someone unfamiliar with the genuine location . . . Porta Ludovica, where reality is contained in a "magic space;" a place only tenuously connected to other related spatial points, denying unilateral thought, confirming a universe of uncertainty -- even, at times, unsure of its own existence. With only the slightest slant in the direction of postmodernism, it becomes a small analog of Avalon, of Shangri-La, of the Goblin Market, Arcadia and Wonderland -- in fact, to any one of a hundred mythical places with which we share a secret coexistence, a portal to a world just at the edge of our reason. And with a small but knowing nod to Net culture, perhaps to even that "consensual hallucination" of Cyberspace itself.

In addition, the name "Porta Ludovica" itself has an almost magic resonance. To an English speaker, "port" is a word heavy with connotations -- a place of transition, or arrival and departure, a mingling of cultures, a way-station, from the airport of Casablanca to the spaceport of Mos Eisley. And "Ludovica" is also freighted with suggestive meanings as well; it brings to mind, among other things, the first line in Finnegans Wake ("by a commodius vicus of recirculation. . . "), the cyclical theories of time in the work of Vico, and to a Burgess fan, it immediately summons up images of the "Ludovico Technique," from A Clockwork Orange. Romantic, restless, mutable, cyclical, cynical, sinister . . . The name finally settled down in my mind, warm and fuzzy with contentment.

Now that I had a name I was happy with, all that was left was to design the title image. After a few hours, I came up with a pair of images that I liked: one was of a darker, more occult aspect, and the other more bright and inventive. Getting the opinion of a few other Eco enthusiasts, I decided to go with the "lighter" image as the main graphic that opens the page. The other one I used for the graphic on the "Works" page. The site was complete. All that was left to do was upload it -- and so another star was born from the binary dust of code and the gravitation of desire; another member shining forth in the constellation of the Libyrinth, another constellation expanding silently in the boundless galaxy of the Internet. (And another frustrated poet shamelessly spewing purple prose.)

So there is the story of Porta Ludovica. I hope that you enjoy your stay, and please don't hesitate to write me with corrections, questions, contributions or criticism.

Excerpt from Misreadings
The following excerpt is taken from Umberto Eco's Misreadings:

To explain the bewilderment, passivity, and resistance to enculturation also characteristic of these natives, other scientists have espoused the hypothesis originally proposed at the ethnological level by Professor Poa Kilipak. She formulated it in these terms: the Milanese native is in a condition of bewilderment because he lives in a "magic space" where the directions front, back, left, and right are not valid and consequently all orientation is impossible. There can therefore be no endeavor with a defined goal -- hence the atrophy of various cerebral functions in the native, and a by-now-ancestral state of passivity. According to the native's understanding (or, actually, according to the scientists who favor positive acknowledgement of magic categories), the space where Milan stands is unstable, preventing any directional calculation and placing the individual in the center of coordinates that vary continually.
"Milanese Space" is excellently described by Professor Moa in his Paradox of Porta Ludovica (A Study of Ambiguous Triangulation). All individuals, whether civilized inhabitants of the Marquis Islands or European savages, Moa asserts, move in space according to "orientative programs" carried out through triangulations. These triangulations are based on the assumption of a Euclidean plane geometry. . . .
The Porta Ludovica paradox is another matter altogether. Here is Professor Moa on the subject:
"We will posit a Milanese native who has achieved an intelligence level capable of grasping abstractions. He formulates the simplest hypothesis concerning his habitat: namely, that Milan has a circular, spiral structure. Of course, no Milanese native could attain such a level of operative intelligence, precisely because the topological space in which he lives prevents him from conceiving any stable pattern . . . Assume then that the subject in the past has had the following experience: he has learned that he can reach Porta Ludovica from Piazza Duomo along the straight line Via Mazzini -- Corso Italia. Then he has learned that he can reach Piazza General Cantore (Porta Genova) from Piazza Duomo along the straight line Via Torino -- Carrobbio -- Via Correnti -- Corso di Porta Genova. Concluding that the two straight lines represent radii of a circumference of which Piazza Duomo is the hub, he ventures to take the Piazza General Cantore -- Porta Ludovica connection along the Viale D'Annunzio -- Porta Ticinese -- Via Giangaleazzo arc of the circumference. His attempt is crowned with success. So he then, unwisely, draws a general rule, as if the space in which he moves were stable and unchangeable, and ventures a further operation: having discovered the line Piazza Duomo -- Via Torino -- Via Correnti -- Via San Vincenzo -- Via Solari -- Piazza Napoli, he interprets this as another radius of the same circle and thinks to connect to Porta Napoli with Porta Ludovica by an arc of that circumference. He knows that the third radius is longer than the first two, and he knows therefore that the circumference where Piazza Napoli is located is beyond the circumference that includes Porta Ludovica. He decides therefore to alter his route at a certain point on this new arc, turning toward the center. He starts along the circumference arc by Via Troya, Viale Cassale, Viale Liguria, Via Tibaldi, Viale Toscana, Via Isonzo (slight turn toward the center), Viale Umbria, Viale Piceno, Via dei Mille, and Via Abruzzi. Arriving at Piazzale Loreto, he turns again toward the center (otherwise, he knows, he will end up in Monza) and follows Via Brianza, Viale Lunigiana, Viale Marche, and Via Jenner, turns again toward the center, adjusting his route, along Via Caracciolo, Piazza Firenze, Viale Teodorico, and Piazzale Lotto. At this point, afraid of still not having reached the inner coils of the spiral, he turns again towards the center, along Via Migliara, Via Murillo, Via Ranzoni, Via Bezzi, and Via Misurata. At which point he finds himself back in Piazza Napoli, having completed the circuit of Milan. Experiments show that after this the subject loses all capacity for telling direction. No matter how he adjusts his course toward the center, reducing the apparent arc of the circumference, he will find himself at Porta Ticinese, Piazza Medaglia d'Oro, but never at Porta Ludovica. This leads to the supposition that Porta Ludovica does not exist for anyone in Milanese space who triangulates from Piazza Napoli. In fact, an attempt from any direction will inevitably be frustrated. All efforts at orientation must be made, if possible, independently of any preliminary notion of Milanese space . . . Milanese space stretches and contracts like a rubber band, and its contractions are influenced by the movements the subject makes in it, so that it is impossible for him to take them into account as he proceeds."

For contributions, comments, advice and inspiration, I would like to thank Ivan Almeida, Jonathan Key, Erik Ketzan, Karen Ruch, the members of the Specula List, and of course Umberto Eco.

by A. Ruch
3 August 2002