Thursday, April 29, 2010

The strangeness that attends even the most mundane circumstances

I have embraced Chris Arthur’s mission statement, “the strangeness that attends even the most mundane circumstances," in his essay "(En)trance," The Literary Review, reprinted in The Best American Essays 2009, ed. Mary Oliver, (Boston and New York, 2009), pp. 2-16. Arthur develops both a unique craft of essay writing, but also a style of architectural writing. Here is how he describes this process.

“‘Only connect,’ said the great E. M. Forster. ‘Only write about what you know,’ says the old watchword of practical advice for would-be writers. I attempt to disconnect things from the dense mesh of their immediate camouflaging milieu and examine them with a gaze whose first allegiance, far from being given to the warm familiarity of the known, is rooted in a recognition of the strangeness that attends even the most mundane circumstances. While Foster and writers of their exalted ilk concentrate on the construction of fictions, weaving their delicate spun cacoons of imagined happenings and outcomes on the hard substratum of facts—about India, about manners, about sexuality—I focus on fragments of the substratum itself, trying to tease out the tendrils that are coiled tightly at the heart of every moment, their intricate abundance independent of invention.” (p. 2)

Last year, when I taught a seminar on domestic architecture, I began collecting house-narratives from students. I posted some of the best “House Stories” on this blog. At the same time, I started collecting published writings about houses, selecting pieces that clearly articulate the interface between the objective and subjective architectural experience. I think of this as a bulk-pack-in-the-making or my own Best-House-Essays.

Best American Essays 2009 includes two such house essays, Chris Arthur’s “(En)trance” (from The Literary Review) and Michael Lewis’ “The Mansion: A Subprime Parable” (from Condé Nast Portfolio). Arthur’s essay explores the entranceway of his mother’s house in Shandon, Ireland. Arthur’s philosophy of writing, quoted above, resonates with a hermeneutic tradition of architectural analysis exemplified by the work of David Leatherbarrow (see, Architecture Oriented Otherwise, 2008). Lewis’ essay describes his own real estate adventures with a New Orleans mansion through which he interprets the origins of the sub-mortgage crisis from the depths of the American psyche regarding domesticity and social status.

Here are some tidbits from Arthur’s “(En)trance” that I enjoyed.

1. Technical correctness, “pillar” versus “pilaster,” understanding the technical difference (the former attached the latter freestanding) but abandoning it in favor of common usage among the house occupants

2. The removal of the iron gates in World War II to be melted for armament, more important than practical reason, this signaled the opening up to outside influence and increasing the permeability between of boundaries set by A. family, B. nation, and C. faith.

3. The pillars attached to a curved wall, giant cupped hands placed at the roadside.

4. Laurel grotto behind left pillar, a secret observation post for children spying on the adult world. “It was here we found a discarded whiskey bottle not quite empty, a half-smoked cigarette, its butt inked with lipstick, crumpled pages from a pornographic magazine, once a pair of knickers. Sharp verbal flecks (‘fuck,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘cunt’) blew in from the conversations of strangers walking past, providing spoken parallels to these tawdry artifacts.”

5. The curvy tarmac, opening to the road that lead to the market town of Lisburn or to the airport. The children from the grotto create stories about all the cars that DID NOT turn up the tarmac but continued elsewhere.

6. New occupants inhabit the house now. Shandon is now a well pruned remnant of its previous self. The old “untidy margins” have been circumscribe, defined, made hard by new concrete driveways, patios, lawns and garages.

7. What do the birds think when they fly over the house?

8. Houses with servants offer confrontation with alien peoples. At Shandon, the maids were Catholic and very different from the Presbyterian owners. The candles, the incense, the Latin, realistic depictions of the cross contrasted with the austere simplicities of Presbyterianism. “Anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life,” writes Thomas Nagel (the analytic philosopher).

9. In effect, “Everyone who passed between the pillars might be used to snag a line of narrative and take it forward, pulling the attention of readers along behind them.”

10. Metaphor for fiction/architecture, “For me, invisible dogs stand at Shandon’s pillars, their shared respiration symbolizing the intimate and mysterious connection that exists between the known and the unknown, between the telegraphic attenuations of the names we give things, the descriptions we offer—superficially, partial—and the significance that’s coiled intricately within them.” These are the koma-inu, the stone dogs that guard the gates of shrines in Japan.

11. In Greek mythology, dreams enter through gates. True dreams enter through the Gate of Horn, false dreams enter through the Gate of Ivory. A third gate should be added between dream and walking, the Gate of Laurel.

12. For every “Un” there is an “A”

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States