Joy and belonging in Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi – – J. Collin Huber
Where do you look for joy in modern culture? Over the past year, this question has felt particularly intimate as people around the world have been forced to turn their routines upside down, isolate themselves socially, and confine themselves inside their homes to avoid having an invisible enemy outside of them Walls lurk. What does joy look like under such circumstances? Where can it be found?
The pandemic life shows a number of parallels to that of the narrator in Susanna Clarke’s latest novel Piranesi. Named after the title, Piranesi lives in what he simply calls “the house”, a labyrinthine mansion with an infinite number of halls connected by stairs and vestibules, all of which are richly decorated with statues.
The top levels of the house fill with rain-puffy clouds that storm at regular intervals, while the lower chambers are flooded by the ever-changing tides of the sea. Piranesi lives between the two, living on a diet of fish and dried seaweed while weaving mussels in his hair and exploring new halls at every opportunity. From his point of view, his goal is simple: “I have a duty to bear witness to the splendor of the world.” And testify that he does.
The novel reads like Piranesi’s diary, in which he records his travels, calculates the tides and ponders his favorite statues. (He noticed early on that he had a particular fondness for an upright faun, a feeling that fans of CS Lewis will surely share.) To the best of his knowledge, only fifteen people have ever occupied his world. Thirteen of them are dead, and Piranesi tends their bones like holy relics. Apart from himself there is only the other, a quick-tempered, sharply dressed man who is consumed by a scientific commitment to discover the “great and secret knowledge” of which he is certain that it is hidden in the house.
Mysteriously, the other shows up only two days a week and sends Piranesi on strange errands to collect data for his search that he believes give him special powers such as telepathy and immortality. Sometimes the other comes with gifts like a new pair of shoes or plastic bowls to collect rainwater. Another time he simply greets Piranesi with a curt nod while he taps his “glowing device”.
The two men form the book’s crossroads and embody two completely different visions for the world, the place of humanity in it and how to get joy along the way.
Clarke’s original enchantment
Best known for her debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), Clarke continues a long tradition among fiction lovers by imagining a magical England. Set in the nineteenth century, her first book explores an alternative history of England in which two men, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, manage to revive the long-dead use of magic. Critics have compared her prose to that of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, and acclaimed author Neil Gaiman described her debut as “without a doubt the best English novel in fantastic history written in the last seventy years”.
But after that applause, Clarke was unable to write a short story, let alone a much-anticipated sequel. Shortly after the release of her debut, she fell ill with what was later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that plagues her to this day.
Oscillating back and forth between constant exhaustion and depression, the sequel by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – itself well over 700 pages – provoked a mental paralysis that it could not overcome. It was only when she visited the set of the television adaptation of her novel over a decade later that a creative spark began to burn within her. And to fuel it, she went for a more manageable idea, constrained by a limited number of characters and requiring little to no research. After all, how can one study an otherworldly house that contains the sea?
For Clarke, Piranesi was, at least in part, an attempt to describe joy. During her illness and intermittent hospital stays, she found relaxation in novels and wanted to create her own fictional environment that was safe enough to ponder on such a subject. Where do you find meaning when you are bedridden? How does a person feel connected to the outside world when he is locked inside, burdened by a constant mental fog?
Piranesi’s joy is time consuming, localized and without external praise, but it is real while the other finds no comfort in the present and is constantly working to achieve a goal that remains at a distance.
Piranesi takes pleasure in his connection to the house. He says repeatedly: “The beauty of the house is immeasurable; his goodness infinite. ”Much like the child storyteller in Emma Donoghue’s room, Piranesi describes inanimate objects with a kind of awe typically reserved for human subjects, emphasizing terms like“ pavement ”and“ door ”as if they might be part of a conversation at any moment come. “The house is valuable because it is the house,” he says. “It is enough in and of itself.” Every step of the way, his world is bursting with life and vitality. It’s beautiful – functional – simply because it exists.
While Clarke has attributed reading The Lord of the Rings as the inspiration for her fantasy career and peppered Piranesi with references to Narnia, her narrator’s connection to his world is another Inklings influence, thanks to the brilliant mind of Owen Barfield. Known for what he termed the “evolution of consciousness,” Barfield developed the concept of “primordial participation,” which he used to argue that ancient peoples related to the world in very different ways than their modern counterparts. They viewed their lives as participating in an enchanted universe where they connected with reality (or God) through expressions such as dance, art, myth, and nature, while modern humans viewed themselves as protagonists and shed any notion of enchantment.
Piranesi is the fictional form of original participation that the world around him takes as important because it is different to him. There is no distance between him and his surroundings. While the other approaches the house like an outside observer, Piranesi sees himself as a member, connected to him like an appendage to a body. A foot and its functions are different from those of a nose, but they belong to the same body and contribute to its overall well-being. Piranesi therefore loves to take care of the house and explore it, as each new discovery affects his understanding of his home as well as its purpose in it. At one point in the novel, a snow-white albatross and his companion nests in one of the halls of the house and their arrival is so significant for Piranesi that he calls them the beginning of a new calendar year.
This concept of original participation contradicts the more modern concept of benefit. Instead of seeing us as part of a larger whole, people today tend to view the world as a resource that can be used for personal gain, much like Piranesi’s counterpart, The Other. To him the house is hollow and meaningless, apart from the power it thinks it offers him. It is nothing more than a means to an end. He does not belong to it, but to him. Instead of admiring the virtue of the statues or learning to respect the majestic power of the tides of the sea, the other only cares about how the house can serve his ambitions.
If Piranesi is innocent, the other is selfishness at best, corruption at worst. However, few readers will recognize themselves in Piranesi. His joy is attractive, but impractical – even naive. Why reset our calendar when we sight a bird when we can measure the rotation of the earth around the sun with consistent precision? Who has the time to catalog the world around them amid their daily responsibilities? And why bother, especially when there is no guarantee that such records will ever be published or praised by readers? What’s the point
Joy is part of it
Everyone wants to belong to something bigger, but to do that you have to step out of the spotlight. For many, this is a threatening thought because it could mean living in the background. Like Piranesi, it could mean the responsibility to bear witness rather than witness. But what is the alternative?
If the other is an example, the alternative is endless effort, competition, and fear. It is a constant comparison with the performance of others to confirm your personal status. It’s exhausting and alienating. No wonder joy is so difficult to pin down. Still, it’s the world we live in – and there’s no going back. But we are not hopeless.
Without betraying the novel’s well-deserved twist, suffice it to say that no reader will find the way in which Piranesi came to his view of the world worth emulating. But its appeal lies in its resistance to the air we breathe. There is no escaping the modern obsession with yourself, but it is powerful to realize that joy cannot be sustained by the latest time-saving app, exercise program, or get-rich-quick program.
Piranesi’s joy is time consuming, localized and without external praise, but it is real while the other finds no comfort in the present and is constantly working to achieve a goal that remains at a distance. There will always be washing dishes, preparing meals, folding laundry, attending meetings, giving presentations, taking children to school – and all of that, even the most mundane task, becomes a source of joy when we realize that we are not be at the center of the life story. Like Piranesi, it is our responsibility to bear witness to the glory of this world in which we have been placed.
Joy is not something we create; it is something we get through belonging. We find it when we look up from our screens to see our neighbors, when we treat our homes as places worth preserving, when we admire a work of art for its beauty rather than its usefulness. But it can only start with refusing to get carried away by the flow of self-centered busyness that keeps us from seeing the world around us so beautifully just because it is.