Commentary on Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi”
Only a small number of books enter my special shelf reserved for works that are so significant that I shall never relinquish them. I have recently added Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi”. (www.blomsbury.com ISBN 978-1-5266-2242-6)
This enchanting story is like a sketch by a masterful artist; it is not so elaborate as to be vulnerable to criticism based on its internal inconsistencies, yet it is sufficiently well drawn to perfectly evoke an idea in the form of a mysterious place and people that the reader yearns to understand.
Major Spoilers Alert
If you have not read the book (and I thoroughly recommend that you do) then what follows would spoil your enjoyment of it. Please only scroll down if you are content to read major spoilers.
Discussion of the book can reasonably include questions such as:
- Is it all happening in his mind?
- What is the nature of the House?
- Is it all a metaphor for something?
In this essay I will offer up my own insights. These are of course no more or less valid than anyone else’s. For brevity, I will hereafter refer to the narrator in the story as “P.”
Mental Breakdown Explanation
I do not subscribe to the idea that P’s whole experience is some sort of psychosis. Whilst not impossible, such an explanation would require a complex multi-layered schizophrenia. Specifically we would be required to accept that:
- Parts 1,2,3,4 & 6 are a complex and highly detailed delusion that P. has constructed in his own mind, based around his readings and researches into the life of Laurence Arne-Sayles. P. has been ill, and has resided somewhere (unknown) and presumably been looked after by others (unknown) for the 6 years that he was missing from the real world.
- Part 5 describes events in the real world in November 2012 – which is when the mental breakdown occurred.
- Part 7 is either (a) further delusion entirely, or (b) these journal entries are from the real world, but a world in which P. continues to have major relapses; such that he believes he has revisited the House with both Sarah Raphael and with James Ritter.
Such a mental construction would require P. to:
- Invent the House, its two living and 13 dead people.
- Invent its confusing but entirely consistent topography.
- Invent the placement of statues and other landmarks, and describe them consistently.
- Invent visits to that imaginary place by people who know each other, and who make consistent references to each other and to an alternate reality.
- Be so exactly and precisely insane that he never makes a single inconsistent entry in his journal, despite the fact that some of the entries are made when he has (inside the delusion) forgotten prior events described in those same journals.
Personally I think this is all too much, and if such effort is required to dispel the fantasy elements of the book, then I don’t want to make that effort. I would rather accept the story as a fantasy, and not attempt to “shoehorn” it into a real setting.
The Nature of the House
The universe that contains the House shares many qualities with our own. Time passes in the House, unattended things decay according to the laws of thermodynamics. As in our universe, the time dimension in the world of the House has curvature – evidenced by the fact that a force of gravity is experienced by objects. Whatever supports the House must therefore have equivalent to planetary mass – the sun rises and sets, a moon waxes and wanes and causes tides. In a place where sun, moon and stars are observable, navigation by compass directions is viable – hinting that the mass supporting the House may be roughly spherical like ours.
However, the topography of the House is extraordinarily labyrinthine. We have no mental map, never any clear idea of how the House is arranged. For example [Page 28], P. sets out from “home” (the Third Northern Hall) and travels via the Eleventh Western Hall, then (eventually) descends a staircase in the Forty-Third Vestibule and arrives at the Thirty-Seventh South-Western Hall. Is travelling eleven halls to the West the shortest (or only viable) route to the 37th Hall on the SW axis? Or was P. just travelling a longer but (for some reason) preferred route?
Another intriguing example occurs on [Page 7]. P.is looking out of a window in the Eighteenth South-Eastern Hall, and observes the Other in a window across a Courtyard. We know that the Other has ventured as far as the Eighth Northern Hall [Page 25], but P. is convinced that the Other rarely travels further than “4 or 5 halls” from the First Vestibule [Page 49]. Since halls are on average at least 100m long [Page 49], how then is P. – who at this time is at least 1.8 km away from the First Vestibule – able to see the Other in a window?
We know that:
- There are numerous references to Halls with many Doors, and Passageways/Corridors with many Doors. Some Doors lead directly to other Halls, some lead to Corridors [Page 129]. At least one reference is made to a Hall Door that aligns with a window in the Corridor outside. [Page 58]. It seems that all possible arrangements of Halls, Passageways and Doors are encountered. Corridors may twist and turn, and may run alongside structures, or be orthogonal to them.
- Courtyards intersperse the Halls and Passageways, but are never described as bounded by anything other than Halls and Passageways. All courtyards are internal. There is no outside other than the celestial objects [Page 6]. Halls, Vestibules, Corridors/Passageways and enclosed Courtyards comprise all that exists on this world.
- P. identifies Halls using a 4-axis coordinate system of 8 axial directions. The axes are N/S, E/W, NW/SE and NE/SW, and the 8 axial directions from the First Vestibule are N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW. [Page 49].
- Halls are specified by quoting an axial direction (e.g. “NW”) and a number (e.g. “3”) e.g “The Third North-Western Hall.” [Pages throughout].
- Halls are sometimes oriented along the N/S axis, and sometimes along the NW/SE axis. [Page 49]. This may explain why P. sometimes gives directions by compass orientation (“the Western Door“, “the Southern Wall“) yet sometimes resorts to orientation relative to the door by which you entered (“go through the third door on the right“).
- Routes from one location to another are sometimes meandering [Page 133] sometimes simple (SW,2 leads to SW,3). Sometimes one can look ahead from a doorway via a “line-of-sight” [Page 5] – yet P. also writes “I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an end, only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the far distance” [Page 5]. It seems that over relatively small distances the House layout may be either simple or convoluted, but observed from a great distance it would lose the differences of fine detail and appear to be an endless maze of non-distinguishable arrangements of Halls, Passageways, and Courtyards.
- Vestibules need only a number to identify them, e.g. “The Ninth Vestibule.” [Pages throughout]. The use of the specific term “Vestibule” may imply that they are usually located “off” the Halls in the traditional sense of the word Vestibule. Identifying locations on a plane using only one index number implies one of two possibilities – either: (a) P. can construct a route covering all possible Vestibule locations using a continuous path on a plane surface (for example a spiral) – or alternatively (b) he simply numbered the Vestibules in the sequence in which he discovered them, and manages to remember where they are; possibly via their relationship to nearby Halls.
- Vestibules are different to Halls. They have staircases; sometimes four (First Vestibule), sometimes fewer (the Ninth Vestibule has three stairways). Staircases allow of transfer between the three levels of the House (Lower, Middle, Upper). Tides regularly rise up these stairways from the drowned Lower level, tending to arise from the primary compass directions [Pages throughout].
In our universe, features 3 & 4 would be incompatible with 2 & 6. There is no system on a surface such that all places can be located by specifying a single 4-axis direction and one index number e.g. “(SW,3)”. In our world, the minimum required to locate any place on a surface requires more data; for example:
- 2 axial directions and 2 index numbers (for example Latitude & Longitude, e.g. 50 degrees North, 2 Degrees West), or,
- 1 basis vector, 1 rotation value and 1 distance value using an “polar” style coordinate system (Identify the vector “North from here“, then rotate clockwise 55 degrees, then travel a distance of 5 kilometers).
In our universe, if all reachable places are located on the four axes N/S, E/W, NW/SE and NE/SW, then as one moves outward along any axial direction from the centre, empty spaces must appear to each side, eventually causing the far Halls of another axis to be so far away that they become invisible.
In our universe the curvature of space is minimal, and contributes little to our everyday experience of how objects are arranged and how they move. In the House, the curvature of space might be significant over human-scale distances. Its geometry seems to be non-Euclidean; walking the same distance in a square – north, then west, then south then east – does not necessarily return you to your point of departure. Parallel lines may meet somewhere. The internal angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees.
There is no easy way for us to visualize such a place, but its nature is hinted at by the overt reference to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose etchings of imaginary prisons have fascinated art lovers, or the work of the artist Mauritz Cornells Escher who also challenged our perceptions using tricks of perspective to present objects with apparently impossible geometries.
We may be able to gain some insight by considering surfaces that can exist in our universe because they are not “flat”. Consider for a moment the truncated cuboctahedron. Its surface has at least one of the peculiar properties we need to describe the world of the House – starting from the front face, you can provide directions to any other face by specifying one of 8 axial directions, and an index number which is simply a count of faces to be traversed in that direction.
But on this object, regardless of which axial direction we set out from, after just 4 traversals we arrive at the opposite face – and from that place there is nowhere else to go. That is because the surface of the shape is curved in the 3rd dimension to such an extent that the surface folds back on itself. If we could somehow “flatten” this object without destroying the connectivity, we might have some idea of how the Halls of the House are arranged – but such is impossible in our universe:
Interestingly, if we further partition some of the octagonal faces, we end up with a set of shapes matching precisely the set of Courtyards described by P. in his journal [Page 6] as being bounded by either 3, 4, 6 or 8 sides:
The Memory Palace
OK, so the story is a fantasy set in a place that could not exist in our universe. But what is the story really about?
Other writers have striven to find metaphors contained in the House. I particularly enjoyed Elyse Martin’s “Beloved Child of the House: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and the Renaissance Memory Palace“. Martin neatly draws an analogy with the Memory Palace (famously employed by the 2010 BBC incarnation of Sherlock Holmes), but is forced to reject a good fit; most crucially because the Halls were clearly not created by one person for their own purposes.
Martin also perceives echoes of Plato’s Theory of Forms (and writes about this far better than I could, which is why I refer the reader to her work.) The Platonic Forms connection resonates for me. In my later career I expended much thought on matters related to the “The Problem of Universals” that underpins these ideas . As a researcher in Information Science, I was particularly interested in teaching computer systems about the world by means of formalized ontologies – which is to say, by defining relationships between things and their properties. To create such ontologies demands that we interrogate the subject matter of the information in a deep sense. Inevitably, this raises philosophical questions about why and how we define things by their properties, and whilst a property can clearly be held in common by many things (for example having the colour blue), it is not so clear as to how or where the property “blue” itself exists. It is tempting to see the House as the residence of the true forms of ideas – of which those in our world are but a shadow.
Personally, I do not perceive a good fit for the Platonic Forms metaphor, crucially because the House so clearly operates in a very real and very imperfect way. Time passes in the House; therefore there must be celestial reference points, and there are – sun, stars, moon. Time and tides, chemistry and biology are all clues that that (at least in many ways) this place operates on familiar fundamental principles described by quantum physics and general relativity.
Neither the House nor the Statues serve well as idealized representations. Entropy increases, things decay, things break and fall down under gravity, creatures become hungry. Worse yet, memory and even thoughts decay here. Our protagonist in the story is in very real danger – without “outside” influences, I wonder whether he may eventually forget to eat; eventually he may forget to breathe. Is that what happened to the People of the Alcove?
Personally, I find a more comfortable metaphorical fit in Carl Gustav Jung’s Theory of Archetypes . In later life Jung worked with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli on the idea that psycho-physical patterns support an underlying reality that gives structure to manifest phenomena. From this perspective, the statues may represent ideas that are present in the collective unconscious.
Some years ago I created and published an “adjusted” Tarot deck based upon the work of A.E.Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. I re-aligned the Tarot to fit with my own philosophy in respect to the Theory of Archetypes – thoughts which I included in the published work “The Systematic Tarot“.
I believe that the Statues can be thought of as representing Jungian Archetypes. These things are idealised but not fixed, they change and mutate with cultural norms. They are things that have arrived in the Halls through a distillation of their properties that arose in the real world. As Laurence Arne-Sayles says; “…it was created by ideas flowing out of another world. This world could not have existed unless that other world had existed first.“
The story of “Piranesi” even maps convincingly to the Tarot Trumps when appreciated as reflecting Jung’s Process of Individuation. Below I lay out the Trumps in the normal numbered sequence, mapping each one to the events of the story.
And retrospectively, this new person ponders – from multiple perspectives – which statue in the House represents Sarah Raphael [Page 242]:
“In Piranesi’s mind Raphael is represented by a statue in the forty-fourth-fourth western hall. It shows a queen in a chariot, the protector of her people. She is all goodness, all gentleness, all wisdom, all motherhood. That is Piranesi’s view of Raphael, because Raphael saved him“
“In my mind Raphael is better represented by a statue in an ante-chamber that lies between the forty-fifth and the sixty-second halls. This statue shows a figure walking forward, holding a lantern. It is hard to determine with any certainty the gender of the figure; it is androgynous in appearance. From the way she (or he) holds up the lantern and peers at whatever is ahead, one gets the sense of a huge darkness surrounding her; .above all I get the sense that she is alone, perhaps by choice, or perhaps because no one else was courageous enough to follow her into darkness.”
With this train of thought I do not imply that Susanna Clarke intended this isomorphism; my guess would be that it bears no relation to her creative process. But that is precisely and exactly the point. My mapping is an example of what Jung and Pauli called synchronicity – a connection between events that is not a causal relationship – rather the connection is meaningful because of the way our minds work.
Time and Tides, Topography and Tarot…
Peter Vodden June 2021
“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” (Susanna Clarke)
I enjoyed your thoughts on Piranesi very much. Thanks! P.S. Your page number for the Sun Tarot has a missing digit I believe.
Glad you enjoyed those musings – and thanks for identifying the typo!