“It’s a magical missing persons case in a Renaissance memory palace,” I’ve told one friend. And another, “It’s like Prospero and Ariel, only instead of an enchanted isle, the fantasy world is the cave from Plato’s allegory.” Or to my husband, “It’s dark academia, kind of, since an academic gets so lost in his quest for knowledge he loses his sense of self in an inadvertent Faustian bargain, but it’s also about statues and augury?”
None of these descriptions is quite right, but none of these attempts to explain Susanna Clarke’s new novel Piranesi are quite wrong either.
It is difficult to pin down a narrative that so purposefully and so patiently explores a maze of literary genres, mirroring how its narrator explores the rooms of the magnificent House in which he dwells, alone except for the sea creatures and birds that live in the seas on the bottom level of his House, and the bones of those who have come before. Like Ariadne giving Theseus a ball of string to help him get to the heart of the labyrinth, Clarke provides us with a Barthesian thread to help us find our way out of this maze of fantastical meaning: Piranesi is, at its heart, a careful exploration of the many different ways of passing on, storing, or communicating knowledge. Take, for example, the shape of the House itself. There are three levels, the top full of clouds that “move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists,” (Clarke 5) the bottom full of “Dark Waters… carpeted with white water lilies,” (5) and each level, in all directions, consists of halls, vestibules, staircases, and passages full of statues. No two statues are the same, and the narrator observes that there is “considerable variation between halls.” (6) The House came to be, as the Prophet (or outrageous academic Laurence Arne-Sayle) tells the narrator, because:
…the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It’s not actually possible […] this is what I call a Distributary World— it was created by ideas flowing out of another world. This world could not have existed unless that other world had existed first. (89)
Once he knows this, the narrator, who has spent years exploring the House, realizes that “the Statues exist because they embody the Ideas and Knowledge that flowed out of the other World into this one” (90). For Renaissance scholars, this description sounds incredibly familiar. A house full of thousands of rooms, each with completely different statues associated with different ideas and knowledge? That’s a memory palace.
A Renaissance memory palace is a mnemonic device where you construct a multi-roomed house in your mind. Then you put an image linked to a specific idea into each room. So if you want to recall a battle that took place over Christmas, for example, you could put a sword (representing battle) in a hall decorated with evergreens and holly (representing Christmas). When you wish to retrieve that idea, you simply walk through your memory palace to the appropriate room and retrieve it. Memory palaces are not strictly a Renaissance invention, though as Aysegul Savas writes in “The Celestial Memory Palace,” “[d]uring the Renaissance, the technique took on mystical dimensions, and the memory palaces of the mind became systems for accessing a celestial consciousness.”
Like many Renaissance ideas, it came out of ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises. Scholars believe that the anonymously penned Rhetorica ad Herennium contains the first mention of the memory palace method of knowledge storage, though many scholars writing about this refer to the memory palace method as “the method of loci,” and the classical authors themselves refer to it as developing “artificial memory” (Rhetorica 16). This artificial memory must be strengthened by “a kind of training and system of discipline,” such as mnemonic devices—so if you want to recall that your friend the physician bought a brown horse named King, you ought to “place its image in a definite background,” i.e. envisioning a brown horse wearing a crown in a hospital (17). The author likens this to any system of writing, where you must put down a letter on a wax tablet or piece of papyrus (17). The thing you wish to recall is a letter of the alphabet, and the background room the paper on which it is written.
Cicero, in his De Oratore, attributes the method of loci to the Greek poet Simonides, who managed to help identify a number of mangled corpses in a collapsed banqueting hall by referring back to his visual memory of all the guests sitting around the hall listening to him recite a poem, before said hall collapsed. Simonides (or Cicero’s version of him) therefore concludes that people hoping to improve their memory
must select palaces and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it. (Cicero lxxxvi).
It’s a bit like the alethiometer in Pullman’s His Dark Materials—a single object containing multiple images that evoke memories, that in turn lead to the knowledge you seek—if you decided to use the alethiometer as your backup hard drive instead of magical Google.
However, the House differs from one of these classical memory palaces in one crucial way: it was not deliberately created by a single individual, with images meaningful to said individual, and does not exist within that individual’s mind.
“Imagine water flowing underground,” suggests Arne-Sayles (Clarke 90). “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.” (90). The House is a work of collective, unconscious creation, whose images have been shaped by escaped ideas and knowledge that came through haphazardly, without order or intention. There was no Renaissance scholar to carefully order the rooms in the method best suited for idiosyncratic retrieval. All the narrator has about him are accidentally created memory aides. In Saussurean analysis, one might say he has signifiers without the signified— merely images, and not the thing they stand for.
These signifiers have no context and therefore no real meaning, as they seem to exist outside of language and certainly outside of the societies that created them. Those who enter the house in search of knowledge cannot find it; Arne-Sayles reports that lingering in the House results in amnesia and total mental collapse. It certainly results in a sense of destabilized linguistic confusion in the narrator—though in the opposite manner Arne-Sayles describes. When The Other asks the narrator if he, the narrator, recalls Battersea, the last place on earth the narrator had been, the narrator is deeply confused: “Batter-Sea is not a word… [i]t has no referent. There is nothing in the World corresponding to that combination of sounds.” (23). Battersea is then the signifier without signification, without connection or definition to the context in which the narrator now lives, a meaningless conglomerate of things (sounds) which ought to stand in for a variety of meanings and associations and yet have none. Later on, the narrator looks through his old journals, from the time before he lived in the House, and believes he must have gone mad and written nonsense because “the words on the page—(in my own writing!)—looked like words, but at the same time I knew they were meaningless. It was nonsense, gibberish! What meaning could words such as ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Perugia’ possibly have?” (108). The narrator then mourns for his lost sanity and flings himself away from his journals to cling to “the Faun, the Statue that [he] love[s] above all others,” (108) literally rejecting the signifiers of his old live and wholeheartedly embracing the new, and seeking meaning from them.
Though the narrator has forgotten who he was before he became the Beloved Child of the House, he is, as Arne-Sayles points out, “surprisingly coherent” (91). And why? Because the narrator has not just literally embraced the House as the whole world, and the container of all that can or could exist, he has assigned meaning to all the arbitrarily embodied ideas. He has created a context in which all his conversations of the House take place, and which therefore saves him from meaningless noise and complete solitude, and therefore madness.
In the “journal” that serves as the text itself, the narrator capitalizes different aspects of the house— the Second Southwestern Hall (96), a Wall, “the Gap between two Statues” (101)— the same way he capitalizes the archetypical names he gives the living people he encounters such as “the Other” (100); “the Prophet” (100) and the remains of living people he finds in the House, like “the Biscuit-Box Man, the Fish-Leather Man, the Concealed Person, the People of the Alcove, and the Folded-Up Child” (86). This endows parts of the House with an almost animistic, individualistic sense of sentience, as if the Statue of a Man and Boy mapping Stars (101) were individuals as much as the narrator (who refers to himself simply as Myself (101)). He also mentions that this is the third of his journals, presumably begun after he has created a table of the tides and begun on his catalogue of statues. In cataloguing and observation, a purposefully created relationship, the contextless symbols that make up the House gain significance and new meaning and new life. It becomes the relationship between man and nature that Arne-Sayles characterizes as Ancient: “When they observed the world, the world observed them back… the constellations were not simply patterns enabling them to organise what they saw, they were vehicles of meaning.” (147-8) The narrator, reading this, is actually puzzled by the use of past tense, thinking, “The World still speaks to me every day.” (154)
This is most clearly seen when the narrator starts trying to discern meaning through augury—quite an ancient form of knowledge seeking, and an ancient idea of knowledge being stored in groups of other living creatures. Once, before an unexpected storm, the narrator greets a flock of birds who flew to “the Statue of a Gardener…and then, still together, they ascended to a higher Statue on the Western Wall: the Woman carrying a Beehive” (40). The narrator concludes that the statues of two people hard at work were a warning he ought to be industrious since the statues both represent work— and particularly, work that involves gathering food out of nature— and he fishes more than usual. This turns out to be a prescient piece of advice from the birds as, “for the next two days there were no fish at all, and if I [the narrator] had not attended to the birds’ warning I would have had hardly anything to eat” (41). The narrator thus concludes that “the wisdom of birds resides, not in the individual, but in the flock” (41)—which supports both the idea that knowledge is stored collectively (as it is accidentally, but still collectively stored in the statues of the house), and the idea that meaning comes from an individual’s ability to assign meaning to the world around him. The birds could just have been agitated by the oncoming winds. But the narrator observed their behavior and drew conclusions from it. He consults the birds a second time to receive a much more oblique message. They fly to six different and seemingly unrelated statues, and the narrator patiently puzzles out that the birds landing statue of an angel with a trumpet, perhaps, suggests a message, and the combination of a statue of a man reading a book and a woman displaying a shield with a cloud on it suggests “writing that is somehow obscure” (43).
And he does quite literally receive an obscure written message from an angel. The aptly named Raphael (or 16) enters into the House and begins to leave chalk messages to herself on how to navigate this strange distributary world. The narrator had done the same upon his arrival, making almost literal the classical Roman metaphor of memory-image-memory palace of information-writing-wax tablet. Just as ancient writers would smooth over the wax to write something else, the seas wash off the narrator’s writing on the walls, making Raphael’s messages a fascinating palimpsest, i.e. a piece of writing material on which the original writing has been erased to make room for later writing, even though traces of the former remain. (The House itself is arguably a palimpsest, as the original meanings of the statues have been washed away by the seas of time, and the narrator has turned the statues into a sort of writing for himself—a set of symbols that signify other meanings.) The chalk writing also becomes the method by which the narrator first communicates with Raphael. He chalks a warning to Raphael, on a bit of wall under her notes. When she responds, he guiltily wipes away half her message, creating a message more lacuna than text—possibly as an allusion to ancient writings, like the poetry of Sappho, where readers must guess at the blanks, and consult notes from other scholarly texts (as the narrator consults his older notebooks) to find the true meaning of the whole. Raphael then hits upon a way to speak to the narrator through his World: by rearranging it. She takes a number of white marble pebbles from a bank, combining information through architecture and written language, to pose the novel’s central question of identity: “Are you Matthew Rose Sorensen?” (161).
The form in which the question is posed evokes what Victor Hugo in Notre Dame de Paris characterized as the mark of change between medieval and modern: the move away from architecture conveying meaning (i.e. cathedrals imparting a message to the masses) to the written word (i.e. the printed word imparting a message to the masses). As Hugo writes in the famous, “This Will Kill That” digression,
Architecture began like all writing. It was first an alphabet. Men planted a stone upright, it was a letter, and each letter was a hieroglyph, and upon each hieroglyph rested a group of ideas, like the capital on the column.
An apt description of the House itself, and how the narrator learns to read it. Hugo goes on to explain, stone placed upon stone became syllables and symbols of meaning, until “down to the time of Gutenberg, architecture is the principle writing, the universal writing,” an idea echoed, I believe, in the form of a memory palace itself, until the invention of the printing press becomes
the mode of expression of humanity which is totally renewed; it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete and definitive change of skin of that symbolical serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence.
The transition towards the printed word has certainly begun already—the narrator has consulted his notebooks by now and read extracts of printed texts, and notes about them, his manuscripts echoing a necessary development in the history of the book, in the grand arc of the written word replacing the carved symbol as primary storehouse of meaning— but this transitional question, in its transitional form, completely transforms the narrator. Not only do we, the readers, now know he has a name, a past, and a context which revolutionizes our perception of him, but the narrator himself has a complete and definitive change in his thinking and his sense of identity. An image rises up before him of his past self, and he experiences when he calls either a vision or a memory of the embodied experience of being Matthew Rose Sorensen.
Though other modern methods of information sharing and storage appear in the narrator’s notebooks—public lectures, films, academic analysis, self-aggrandizing memoirs, informational interviews, bibliographies, TV shows—I think it is very telling, and very fitting, that they are all encapsulated within the written word. They all spring from the shift to modern record keeping, with information stored within words instead of images. And crucially—echoing the narrator’s realization about the birds—they are all legitimate means of information storage because they are disparate and different things that, when grouped together, convey the whole truth of a situation. These things all have meaning because they are shared. They are forms of expression that multiple human beings understand and recognize. The signifiers make sense not only because of our relationships to them, but our relationships to each other.
Indeed, the most compelling argument to the narrator, as to why he should once again be Matthew Rose Sorenson, and return to the “real” world, is that he has family and friends who miss Matthew Rose Sorenson. At the end of the book, the narrator struggles to reconcile his two former two selves—Matthew Rose Sorensen and Beloved Child of the House— and his two former worlds— the past, “real” world of London, and that of the House—when he suddenly recognizes a sad, tired old man walking by in the snow. “He is depicted on the northern wall of the forty-eighth western hall,” the narrator realizes. “He is shown as a king with a little model of a walled city in one hand while the other hand he raises in blessing. I wanted to seize hold of him and say to him: In another world you are a king, noble and good! I have seen it!” (Clarke 244).
The narrator no longer capitalizes the halls, or the statues within them, suggesting that his Ancient mode of talking to the World and having it talk back has transformed somehow, become a thing of the past, or a thing of a different place. It also echoes both the allegory of Plato’s cave, and his theory of the world of forms. In this allegory, Plato-through-Socrates asks us to imagine people chained in a cave, who have seen only the shadows of images on a blank cave wall, with the philosopher as an escapee from the cave, who knows the shadows of things are not reality. Likewise, the world of Forms theory suggests that there is another world apart from ours (the physical world), full of the nonphysical, unchanging, perfect essences of all things.
(Interestingly, the word “Ideas” or “Forms” are often capitalized when discussing this Platonic theory, which offers another explanation for the narrator’s capitalization.) The narrator acts as a philosopher who has seen the world of forms and come back to the cave of the physical world. He knows this stranger is not merely an aging man with broken veins on his cheeks, but also an echo of that ideal, idealized marble self living in the House.
Suddenly, the signifiers/ statues gain new significance yet again. The entirely rational cataloguing of knowledge the narrator has spent most of the book doing only gains meaning when he empathetically applies it to the people he has met. It is a profoundly beautiful and humanist idea, that we can only be truly knowledgeable about the world when we extend empathy and understanding to all living creatures within it, and, further, that the best way to store knowledge is to share it.
The narrator concludes the book with a return to the capitalization of earlier passages, and an earlier sentiment, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” suggesting that our world, too, is one of knowledge encoded in beauty. To find that knowledge, we need only to acknowledge the marble truths of our hidden selves and those of others: our goodness, our nobility, and, above all, the kindness we are capable of showing to everything else in this world.
Elyse Martin is a Chinese-American Smith College graduate who lives in Washington DC with her husband and two cats. She writes reviews for Publisher’s Weekly, and her essays and humor pieces have appeared in The Toast, Electric Literature, Perspectives on History, The Bias, Entropy Magazine, and Smithsonian Magazine. She spends most of her time writing and making atrocious puns—sometimes simultaneously—and tweets @champs_elyse. She’s at work on several novels.