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In My Mind Are All The Tides
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.
I read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke in four days. If I hadn't tried to savor the experience, I might have finished it in two. Only a fraction of the books that I read grip me like this one, make me think about their world and takes notes, frantically analyzing every single word on the page. After finishing it, I skimmed reviews, looking for signs that others had been moved as much as I had. My findings were meager so I'm continuing the conversation here.
Disclaimer: This is more of a eulogy than a review. It contains major spoilers.
The Beauty of the House is Immeasurable
The nameless narrator lives in a place he calls the House or the World, an endless series of vestibules and halls containing a multitude of statues. Some are flooded with sea water, some are home to fish, birds, or bones but none contain other living humans. From the beginning, I was fascinated by the House.
In short, the House is a maze of halls, vestibules, and corridors filled with various statues. The lowest of its three levels is flooded, parts of the upper levels are flooded periodically. In his efforts to map the House, the narrator learns enough to be able to navigate his environment with ease and predict the tides. He talks to the birds that also inhabit the House and interprets their movements as signs from the House itself, reminiscent of ancient Roman augury. He discovers several skeletons which he calls the People of the Alcove and cares for with offerings of water, food, and flowers.
As far as the narrator knows, he and the Other, a mysterious man he only meets twice a week, are the only living human beings in the House. Over the course of the story, we learn that others who have come to the House in the past have gone insane from loneliness and some curious quality of the House itself. The narrator, on the other hand, seems perfectly coherent.
This is obviously thanks to the religious narrative he has constructed around the House. As it provides him with nourishment—fish, seaweed—and allows him to survive, he believes himself to be its Beloved Child. This faith in the House comforts him whenever he encounters something disturbing or something he doesn't understand.
Do you trust the House? I ask Myself.
Yes, I answer Myself.
And if the House has made you forget, then it has done so for good reason.
But I do not understand the reason.
It does not matter that you do not understand the reason. You are the Beloved Child of the House. Be comforted.
And I am comforted.
The more I read about the House, the more I came to wonder about its metaphorical meaning. What does it signify?
One day, the narrator meets a third man, the Prophet, who reveals the origins of the World to him. According to the Prophet, when the wisdom of the ancients was forgotten, it didn't simply vanish but flowed from our known world into one of several other words. The House, which the Prophet calls a Distributary World, was created by wisdom, knowledge, or ideas flowing out of our world. The Other is looking for this secret knowledge and has recruited the narrator—whom he calls Piranesi—to help him. The Prophet claims this endeavor is futile.
Before I had seen this world, I thought that the knowledge that created it would somehow still be here, lying about, ready to be picked up and claimed. Of course, as soon as I got here, I realised how ridiculous that was. Imagine water flowing underground. It flows through the same cracks year after year and it wears away at the stone. Millennia later you have a cave system. But what you don't have is the water that originally created it. That's long gone. Seeped away into the earth. Same thing here.
I literally got goosebumps reading this passage. What a unique concept!
After this, Piranesi suggests that the statues are embodiments of the knowledge that was lost, like footprints of someone long gone. Later in the book, he adds that representations are not inferior to the thing which they represent, and so the World of Statues isn't necessarily inferior to the world the ideas originally came from.
'I do not see why you say I can only see a representation in this World,' I said with some sharpness. 'The word "only" suggests a relationship of inferiority. You make it sound as if the Statue was somehow inferior to the thing itself. I do not see that that is the case at all. I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal and not subject to decay.'
Now, doesn't that sound suspiciously like Plato's allegory of the cave to you? Of course, someone chained to its wall who has only ever known the cave and the shadows marching by on its wall would assume those shadows to be all there is to the world. Are Piranesi's statues the perfect, undying ideas themselves or their shadows though? The narrator clearly sees them as the former, everyone else as the latter. (We will revisit this conundrum in a bit.)
Looking for Statues
Towards the end of the book, I started to read the House as a metaphor for Buddhist enlightenment. This is after the narrator returns to the real world and accepts his new identity as encompassing both Piranesi and Matthew Rose Sorenson (the man he was before being imprisoned in the House).
Piranesi lived among statues: silent presences that brought him comfort and enlightenment.
I thought that in this new (old) world the statues would be irrelevant. I did not imagine that they would continue to help me. But I was wrong. When faced with a person or situation I do not understand, my first impulse is still to look for a statue that will enlighten me.
Here, too, the statues are perfect, more intelligible than our messy, confusing reality. Personally, I agree with the narrator: The House was by far the most fascinating aspect of the book. So much so that I was disappointed when the story didn't go deeper into what it is and what it might or might not contain. Maybe the message here is that I should not expect arcane knowledge and enlightenment from a novel, however well-written. Words can never replace lived experience, after all.
And maybe the House was always supposed to represent different things to different people.
The Written Word
Another intriguing aspect was words, their importance throughout the story. The written word is most notably present in the journals the narrator keeps before, during, and after his years in the House. They help him survive in so many ways: In them, he keeps maps of the House and calculates the movements of the tides, but they also help him remember who he is. When he discovers that he doesn't remember anything about his life before the House, they teach him about how he got there, about the Other, the Prophet, and the People of the Alcove. As I have also been recording important moments of my life in my journal since the age of seven, I was delighted to meet another meticulous taker and keeper of notes in Piranesi.
Then there is the written communication between him and someone he calls the 16th Person or 16. Their messages to each other—scribbled in chalk or laid out with tiny pebbles on the floor—mark his first contact with a human being other than the Other (if you disregard the Prophet who wasn't so much communicating with him but more lecturing at him). The messages also reveal to him that the Other is not his friend, while the 16th Person is trying to help him.
Perhaps the most striking use of language is the way Piranesi capitalizes certain nouns, such as the House, its various Halls and Vestibules, the Statues and the Birds in them, the Other and the Prophet. I was puzzled by this until I read this review by Leah Schnelbach.
He capitalizes words the same way we capitalize proper names in English—it’s a sign of intimacy and regard that goes above objectification. Piranesi names all Birds with the capital because he regards them all as his siblings; the Fish he eats are gifts from the House, the Statues are his companions in the House, the House is Parent, World, Home, God.
And what a beautiful and elegant way to show Piranesi's relationship to the things and beings around him from his own perspective!
Its Kindness Infinite
Remember when I was stumped by whether the House's Statues represented ideas or their shadows in Plato's cave? Even after the narrator returns to our world, he keeps going back and forth between it and the House. He, Raphael (the 16th Person) and James Ritter (another ex-prisoner of it) enjoy visiting the House every now and then to walk among the Statues.
Then it occurred to me that the House might also represent a safe space for those who don't quite fit in with society and its norms. The neurodiverse, for example. They might appreciate the solitude, its purity that is untainted by humans. When Raphael first learns of the People of the Alcove and concludes that at least one of them must have been murdered, her first reaction is sadness that the House has been tainted by human crime. The narrator himself might have been changed by the House or he might have realized it lets him be himself without having to live up to others' expectations anymore.
Either way, the House cares for its children. It is infinitely kind—which implies that humans are not. At the same time, he accepts that he can't spend all his life in it. He limits himself to brief visits. It might feel lackluster but I believe this is the best possible ending for a story such as Piranesi.
In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall. I imagine I am walking the path from the vestibule to the hall. I note with precision the doors I must pass through, the rights and lefts that I must take, the statues on the walls that I must pass.
Last night I dreamt I was standing in the fifth northern hall facing the statue of the gorilla. The gorilla dismounted from his plinth and came towards me with his slow knuckle-walk. He was grey-white in the moonlight; and I flung my arms around his massive neck and told him how happy I was to be home.
When I awoke I thought: I am not home. I am here.
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