A few thoughts on Italo Calvino, a string of warthog’s teeth and gifts that speak louder than words.
The setup is simple: a fictionalized Marco Polo traverses the various lands in the emperor Kublai Khan’s vast kingdom, bringing back accounts of the strange and wonderful cities he has visited. These descriptions, all inspired by Venice, are by turns beautiful, thrilling and unsettling, often a combination of the three.
There is a section about 30 pages in, that comes in between two of these stories. We learn a bit about the history between these two figures, the explorer and the emperor, and how they communicate. It begins: “Newly arrived and quite ignorant of the languages of the Levant, Marco Polo could express himself only by drawing objects from his baggage — drums, salt fish, necklaces of warthog’s teeth — and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of the jackal, the hoot of the owl.”
It is typical of Calvino’s postmodern sensibilities that he would use his writing to explore the limitations of verbal language. It’s why I love this passage, this discussion of the power of objects to tell stories and create connections in a way that language alone sometimes cannot.
My background is in design, specifically product and furniture design, so it has always seemed natural to me that there is a particular language of objects. All things, and especially human-made things, have a history and a symbolism that we understand often unconsciously. Even an object without a history, something entirely new, creates its own message from that very lack of familiarity. Materials, who made it and with what intent, how it’s used and how necessary it is to human life — all of these things can and do exist outside of written and spoken language.
But what stayed with me most from this section was the idea of the object accompanied by a gesture. Working in the world of gifting for the last decade or so, it’s something that I’ve kept coming back to because what is a gift if not an object plus a gesture? Thought, care, consideration: these are all things that add context to the object, turning it into a gift and conveying a message that goes beyond language. When words fail us, we offer what we can: light, food, comfort, joy — proof that, even for a moment, you were in our thoughts. Gifts are generosity, and generosity seldom survives explanation.
Of course, Polo does come to learn the emperor’s language, and is able to convey his meaning more precisely: “But you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past: to be sure, words were more useful than objects and gestures in listing the most important things of every province and city — monuments, markets, costumes, fauna and flora — and yet when Polo began to talk about how life must be in those places, day after day, evening after evening, words failed him, and little by little, he went back to relying on gestures, grimaces, glances.”
Gifts are often physical things, of course (although we have added both digital and donation gifts to our offer!), but they are also hugely symbolic. One of our first gifts for Airbnb was a tiny stool you could make yourself, precisely because of the network of associations that come with such a simple piece of furniture. All at once it is an extra seat for a guest, a bedside table, a step to a higher shelf and a myriad of other things, but most importantly it is the embodiment of hospitality, openness and warmth, perfectly encapsulating the idea that people can belong anywhere.
This is what excites me about gifting, what Calvino describes as “a void not filled with words”. That’s where we thrive: choosing the right object, accompanying it with the right gesture, and creating meaningful and memorable connections.