Sunday, 25 October 2009

A Room Returning From The Sum To Its Parts: Marguerite Yourcenar's Abyss

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Room in A Dutch House. The Hermitage Museum.

This is the point in the book “Zeno of Bruges” (or “The Abyss”) by Marguerite Yourcenar, where the main character, a physician, alchemist and philosopher in sixteenth century Flanders, begins a descent during the process of which all forms of meaning, use and abstraction, applied and overlaid onto the material and physical world by man, begin –for him- to fall away, eventually revealing a vast, certain, terrifying, meaningless, but ultimately liberating Nature, into which, at the end of the book, he calmly releases himself in an act that takes him back to a state like the one he is imagining of the room and its contents below. Spending his entire life in buildings and cities, discussing ideas, science and theology, he himself goes through several shifts in perception where the constructs of man, both logical and spatial at first seem tenuous, then infinitely ephemeral, dissolving into an unending and timeless process against which they stand as strange, illusory solidities, vainly encrusting tiny moments of space and time with systems and values which although meaning everything to their respective civilisation, count for nothing in the march of time and the teeth of nature.

For nearly half a century Zeno had used his mind, wedge-like, to enlarge, as best he could, the breaks in the wall which on all sides confines us. The cracks were widening, or rather, it seemed that the wall was slowly losing its solidity, though it still remained opaque, as if it were a wall of smoke and not of stone. Objects no longer played their part merely as useful accessories; like a mattress from which the hair stuffing protrudes, they were beginning to reveal their substance. A forest was filling the room: the stool, its height measured by the distance that separates a seated man’s rump from the ground, this table which serves for eating or writing, the door connecting one cube of air, surrounded by partitions, with another, neighbouring cube of air, all were losing those reasons for existing which an artisan had given them, to be again only trunks or branches stripped of their bark, like the Saint Bartholomews, stripped of their skin, in church paintings; here and there the carpenter’s plane had left lumps where the sap had bled. These corpses of trees were laden with ghostly leaves and invisible birds, and still creaked from tempests long since gone by. This blanket and those old clothes hanging on a nail smelled of animal fat, of milk, of blood. These shoes gaping open beside the bed had once moved in rhythm with the breathing of an ox at rest on the grass; and a pig, bled to death, was still squealing in that lard with which the cobbler had greased them.
On all sides there was violent death, as in a slaughterhouse, or in a field of execution. The terrified cackling of a goose could be heard in the quill pen scratching its way, over old rags, to record ideas deemed worthy of lasting forever. Everything was actually something else: this shirt that the Bernadine sisters laundered for him was, in reality, a field of flax, far more blue than the sky; but it was, at the same time, a mass of fibres put to soften in the bed of a canal. The florins in his pocket, stamped with the head of the late Emperor Charles, had been exchanged or given away, stolen, weighed, or shaved off a thousand times before he had thought them, for one brief moment, his own; but all such turnover and back and forth between hands avaricious or prodigal was of short span as compared with the inert duration of the metal itself, which had lain infused in the earth’s veins before Adam had ever lived. The brick walls around him were resolving into mud from which they came, and which they would again become one day.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Breaches, and Other Places

A storied proposal about architecture as a democracy of institutionalised reification, told from the perspective of one of its citizens.

I realised some-time after the adventure that it is something one simply has to do as a child, a sort of right-of-passage, a coming-of-age. You slip through the barriers set up by all the conventions which surround that beguiling taboo that is the Other places (that taboo which in turn girdles our cities as tightly as did our old ring of suburbs), and find something more wondrous than speculation. Those Other places which we always grew up being warned about, and yet could do nothing but endlessly speculate on, those places which were fashioned so alluringly in their inapproachability, their possible wonder, they became so big in our minds, so important for both our communally fabricated childish, ghostly and ghoulish mythologies, as well as for our developing sense of independence and accompanying intrepid curiosity, that their pull was entirely irresistible. The delicious tickle of fear induced by the tales we had all whipped out of thin air to further mystify whatever caverns lay beyond the dark entrances; the transgressive thrill which swamps any such experience with the power of having circumventing rules laid down by parents and society, together with the pre-eminence and respect amongst classmates that would be obtained, meant that sooner or later such an undertaking was inevitable for any group of kids with any inclination to adventure and imagination whatsoever.

More After The Break...

Monday, 5 October 2009

A Bedchamber and a Boudoir, Balzac's Architectures of Pleasure.

Here are two spaces described in two of the three novels that make up Honore De Balzac’s ‘History of The Thirteen’, books written at the inception of the Human Comedy. They capture the beginnings of his ability to mix architecture, art, ornament, design and decoration into an inseparable continuum with the passions, dreams, impressions and activities of the people who play out their lives within their walls, an ability which reaches its apogee in the pages of his novel “The Wild Ass’s Skin” where he manages to describe the entire state of a civilisation, its dreams and nightmares, through long scenes which flit effortlessly between objects, conversations, tastes, smells, lust, art and architecture. It is a tendency in his novels which is partially explained in his book “Seraphita”, a strange tale which explains his philosophy on art and life, heavily influenced by the eighteenth century Swedish mystic Swedenborg, and which emphasises the nature of all materiality as being something through the understanding of which an interconnectedness, and totality, can be touched or adumbrated through its apprehension:
“If matter terminates in man by intelligence, why are you not satisfied to believe that the end of human intelligence is the Light of the higher spheres.”And conversely, that divinity, or the unique and spiritual essence of ‘nature’ is present in any work of man, and by this renders all possible relationships between the parts of man’s creations to be something profound beyond the material of their parts and the consequence of their existences.
“Earth has divided the Word –of which I here reveal some syllables- into particles, she has reduced it to dust and has scattered it through her works, her dogmas, her poems. If some impalpable grain shines like a diamond in a human work, men cry: ‘how grand! How glorious!’ That fragment vibrates in their souls.”Hence Balzac, who called himself a Historian, wished to describe a complex continuum, not a sequence of facts, and his science, while always vivid and descriptive, never fell to cataloguing. He was looking for an urban ecology which made every furnishing and candelabra pulse with whatever pathetic fragment of divinity Balzac managed to divine.
These two novels were meant to be his History of love in the efflorescence of luxury that occurred at the time of the Bourbon restoration in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

From “Ferragus: Chief of the companions of duty”
Book 1 of “The History of The Thirteen”
Madam Jules’ bedchamber was a holy of holies. Only she, her husband and her chambermaid had right of entrance. Opulence has fine privileges, the most enviable of them being those which give the greatest scope to the expression of our feelings, bring them to fruition through the accomplishment of the innumerable whims they inspire, surround them with a radiancy which magnifies them, with the studied attentions which purify them and the delicate touches of courtesy which add yet more to their attractiveness. If you hate al fresco luncheons and badly served meals, if it gives you some pleasure to see a glisteningly white damask tablecloth, a silver-guilt cutlery service, exquisitely delicate china, a gilt-bordered, richly sculptured table, lit with diaphanous candles and then, under emblazoned silver globes, the miracles of the choicest cuisine; if you want to be consistent, you must then spurn attics and house-tops, streets and street-walkers; you must say goodbye to the garrets and grisettes, to umbrellas and galoshes, you must abandon them to people who pay for their dinner with vouchers. Also you must understand the basic principle of love: it can only be achieved in all its grace on carpets from the Savonnerie, under the opal glimmer of a marmoreal lamp, between dicreet, silk-lined walls in front of a gilded fireplace, in a room muffled from all noises by Venetian blinds, shutters and billowy curtains, whether these noises come from the streets or from neighbouring flats. You must have mirrors which make play with human shapes and reflect to infinity the woman you would wish to be multiple and whom love does indeed render multiple. You must have very low divans and a bed which, with a sort of secretiveness, allows its presence merely to be divined; and, in this dainty chamber, fur rugs for bare feet, candles with glass shades amid draped muslins, so that one may read at any time of the night; also flowers whose scent is not too heavy, and linens whose fineness of texture would have contented even Anne of Austria.
Madame Jules had carried out this delicious programme, but that was only a beginning. Any woman of taste could do as much, even though the planning of these things requires a stamp of personality which gives originality and character to this or that ornament, to this or that detail. Today, more than ever before, there reigns a fanatical craving for self-expression. The more our laws aim at an impossible equality, the more we shall swerve from it by our way of living. In consequence rich people in France are becoming more exclusive in their tastes and their attachment to their personal belongings than they were thirty years ago. Madame Jules knew what this programme entailed and put everything in her home into harmony with the luxury which went so well with their conjugal love. ‘Sixty pounds a year and my Sophie’ or ‘Love in a cottage’: only starvelings talk like this. Black bread is all right to start with, but having become gourmets if they really love each other, they come round to regretting the gastronomic pleasures they cannot afford. Love loathes poverty and toil. It prefers to die than to pinch and scrape.

From “The Duchesse de Langeais”
Book 3 of “The History of The Thirteen”
That half of the boudoir in which Henri now found himself described a softly graceful curve, contrasting with the other half, which was perfectly rectangular and resplendent with a chimney piece of white and gilded marble. He had entered through a side door hidden behind a rich portiere with a window standing opposite. The horseshoe section was adorned with a genuine Turkish divan, which is a mattress laid on the floor, wide as a bed, a divan fifty feet in circumference, of white cashmere offset by black and poppy-red silk rosettes forming a lozenge pattern. The back of this huge bed rose many inches higher than the numerous cushions, the tastefulness of whose matching gave it even further richness.
This boudoir was hung with a red fabric overlaid with Indian muslin, its in-and-out folds fluted like a Corinthian column, and bound at top and bottom with bands of poppy-red material on which arabesque designs in black were worked. Under this muslin the poppy-red showed up as pink, the colour of love, repeated in the window curtains, also of Indian muslin, lined with pink taffeta and bordered with poppy-red fringes alternating with black. Six silver-gilt sconces, each of them bearing two candles, stood out from the tapestried wall at equal distance to light up the divan. The ceiling, from the centre of which hung a chandelier of dull silver-gilt, was dazzlingly white, and the cornice was gilded. The carpet was reminiscent of an Oriental shawl, reproducing as it did the designs and recalling the poetry of Persia, where the hands of slaves had worked to make it. The furniture was covered in white cashmere, set off by black and poppy-red trimmings. The clock and candelabra were of white marble and gold. There were elegant flower-stands full of all sorts of roses and white or red flowers. To sum up, every detail of decoration seemed to have been thought out with loving care. Never had wealth of adornment been more daintily disguised in order to be translated into elegance, to be expressive of taste and incite voluptuousness. Everything there would have warmed the blood of the chilliest mortal. The iridescence if the hangings, whose colour changed as the eye looked at them from different angles, now white, now wholly pink, harmonized with the effects of light infused into the diaphanous folds of the muslin and produced an impression of mistiness. The human soul is strangely attracted to white, love has a delectation for red, and gold gives encouragement to the passions because it has the power to realize their dreams. Thus all that is vague and mysterious in man, all his unexplained affinities, found their involuntary sympathies gratified in this boudoir. There was in this perfect harmony a concerto of colour to which the soul responded with ideas which were at once voluptuous, imprecise and fluctuating.