I have become friends with a White Pine. Go up the Hill from my house, through the Neighborhood, and as you descend again toward the valley that holds the Highway you come to a triangle of undeveloped land. A path runs through this Little Woods, opening onto the underpass, and there, on the other side of the Highway, you can climb again into the Larger Woods that grow on the hills over the River and fill its bottomlands. I often go that way on my Treks around the Town and its hinterlands. There are several mighty white pines that I like to visit out that way, but in the Little Woods closer to home lives the White Pine I have come to think of as My Friend.
Perhaps that’s because recently this is as far as I can make it, having become sick with the Disease that has overspread the World. I treat this Tree like a Friend: Do you not visit your Friends? Do you not share your Thoughts and Feelings with your Friends? Perhaps I’m doing that now, as I sit on the bed of Pine Needles that My Friend has spread for me, and rest my back against some of his large Fallen Limbs I’ve stacked together. My Friend the White Pine shows me hospitality: surely that is something Friends do. Sitting here I have the sense that there is more Consciousness in the universe than that possessed by my Kind and those Others who are able to move around like my Kind.
This sense of Friendship and Familiarity with the White Pine is a little like that of a Beloved Child in the embrace of its parents. Now, the Child may have siblings, but in the embrace of its parents the Child feels uniquely loved. So although I have showed this spot under My Friend the White Pine to my Wife and my young Sons, I enjoy most coming here by myself. I never meet anyone else here. My Friend grows fifty or sixty feet over a little side path that loops out from the main path that cuts through the Little Woods to lead people from the Neighborhood under the Highway to the Larger Woods. I occasionally see people on that main path but never on this side path, in the shadow of My Friend.
I have the idea that few or none know of the side loop in the Little Woods. And while this pleases me because it means I’m not disturbed when I visit with My Friend, I also feel that My Friend is in some way neglected and that I do something good in paying these Visits. For it’s really a fine Place that My Friend has made here, well provided with a thick bed of Pine Needles on gently sloping ground and furniture of large shapely Dead Wood and sheltering Boughs—but not so as to keep the Sun from streaming welcome on my face as I write this. It would be remiss of my Kind if none of us came to appreciate this Place, and write and meditate or pray. Even the sound of the Highway behind me is white noise that fades into a kind of Silence.
I have been writing here in the Style of Susanna Clarke’s new novel Piranesi, including the unusual Capitalization. English was written in this way in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, with nouns capitalized that were thought to have special Significance. Such writing seems imprinted with a variegated Topography of Meaning. Even by naming common Things around me in my ordinary World, I seem to be describing the Architectonics of Creation, and ordinary Words glow with uncanny Light.
This is a fitting choice for Clarke, for the Fantasy she has written is, like all true Fantasy, at pains to render the experience of living in a Cosmos rather than a mere universe. By adopting a Style that emphasizes Things and Names, she defies materialistic reduction and what Philosophers call Univocalism and Monism to champion instead the ontologically multilayered and eerily conscious Mystery of Existence. Any given Thing is astounding—and indeed given, an occasion of Wonder and Gratitude.
But all this is not to say that Story is not also important in Piranesi, and the Story is, as in all true Fantasies, a Mystery. Clarke has aptly chosen the form of a diary, so that we learn about the fantastical Cosmos—in this case it is called the House—and its relation to its parent-reality (this world in which I am writing under My Friend the White Pine) at the same pace as the Narrator, or Diarist.
For much of the novel the Narrator does not know his own Name or Past. Forgetfulness is the price paid by dwelling in the fantastical Cosmos. He identifies himself as the Beloved Child of the House, and feels about his primitive existence in the House the way I feel about the World when I sit beneath My Friend the White Pine; but he also considers himself a Scientist whose purpose in Life is to learn as much as he can about the House. He calls the world the House because that is how it appears to him, a House of many Mansions: three levels of giant classical Temples filled with Statuary extending indefinitely in all Directions. At the bottom level an Ocean surges; in the middle level the Child lives; the top level is open to the Skies.
The Child is in fact a man at the Dantean Age of about thirty-five. He titles his diary entries similarly to how I have titled this Post. The only other Inhabitants of the House are the Skeletal Remains of thirteen people, including at least one child, and an occasional visitor at first called simply the Other. The Child expects a Sixteenth Person, and She does eventually arrive. The Child lives by means of a few pieces of Modern Gear given to him by the Other, and by coming to understand the Ways of the House: he lives off what he catches from the Ocean, and fashions himself various articles from the Seaweed and Shells that the Ocean provides. He calls himself the Beloved Child of the House because this stark life is to him Richness and Mercy and Beauty. He does not feel coddled, certainly, but regarded and embraced.
I’ll not say too much about the Mystery of this wonderful Fantasy. Suffice to say the Beloved Child does not remain forever in the House. And the House is a Ruin, a world left behind by the sense of Magic and Enchantment and Cosmos fleeing our Kind in this World. Piranesi poses a Question which ought to haunt the Reader, namely: Would you live in a World brimming with Meaning and Beauty if you discovered it was in fact Delusion or Prison? But the Novel does more than pose this Question, it dissolves it, I believe with the Aim of leading the Reader to see that He or She too is a Beloved Child of the House.
Jonathan Geltner lives in Ann Arbor MI with his wife and two sons. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press and a novel, Absolute Music, is forthcoming from Slant. He writes more about the meeting of fantasy and fiction with theology, philosophy, music and the sense of place at betweentwomaps.com