Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a novel open to myriad interpretations. One reading of the story is as a parable helping us rediscover the integrative power of the Christian story in the search for knowledge and meaning. After a brief description of the novel (with no spoilers, I promise!) I’ll provide some reflections specifically aimed at Christians within public universities.
Unlike her previous 900-page Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, Piranesi is a short novel with just a few primary characters. The story is told through the journal entries of a man who lives in a mysterious labyrinthine House that goes on seemingly without end. The House has three levels and there are hundreds of rooms filled with statues of mythical characters. An ocean, complete with tides, fills parts of the House. Much has been made of how Clarke drew her inspiration for the House from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and the dying city of Charn and the Wood between the Worlds. While there are some differences between this world and the Narnian universe, it seems Clarke wants her readers to find similar lessons to those taught by Lewis.
This man believes himself to be one of only two living humans—himself and “The Other.” The Other has given the man the name Piranesi (after this 18th century artist of fictitious labyrinthine prisons), and Piranesi’s primary job is to help The Other in his efforts to discover some lost ancient knowledge contained in the House. The novel is both a fantasy and a puzzle—and one eventually does discover the real story of Piranesi and the Other.
Alienation & Participation
Piranesi and the Other represent two very different ways of engaging with the House, and they can be seen as representing two short-sighted approaches to learning for Christians within the public university.
Piranesi spends his days fishing, cooking, mending his nets, and attending religiously to the bones of thirteen other humans who have come before him (weird, I know). He also has learned deeply about the House itself, and chronicles all the details of the House, the statues, and the tides in his journal.
The Other, by contrast, is suspicious of the House. His relationship to the House is one of frustration and alienation. For the Other, The House is a means to an end, a resource to be mined for its hidden knowledge. For Piranesi, the House is a home, a mystery to participate in—he is, in his own words, the “Beloved Child of the House.”
As we read, we are drawn to prefer reality through Piranesi’s eyes and his experience of participation in the House, rather than the alienation of the Other. In a moving section, Piranesi compares the Other to one of the statues, which serves as a vivid metaphor of the limitations of an instrumental approach to knowledge:
It is a statue of a man kneeling on his plinth: a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope that they will eventually bring him new knowledge.
If you are a student or researcher, you might experience this kind of fragmentation as you pursue your work. In classrooms and labs, we take things apart and break our subjects down into ever smaller and smaller pieces. We critique and dissect. While there is certainly real knowledge gained in this pursuit, an instrumental approach to knowledge can often make it difficult (sometimes even impossible) to ask what holds things together, or what it all means. An instrumental approach to knowledge also risks devaluing the thing being studied itself, seeing value only in its usefulness for our own well-being.
While the Other’s approach to knowledge is clearly presented as problematic, we slowly begin to discover that Piranesi’s approach to knowledge in the House is not all that it seems. While Piranesi grows in his understanding of the House, we learn that the House is sapping him of his memories—and appears to have done the same with all previous inhabitants. Even while Piranesi remains enamored of the House, he is equally drawn to search for fragments of his memories in his older journals as he tries to make sense of his existence—to understand what story he finds himself in.
The obvious lesson to draw from the Other is the danger of pursuing knowledge instrumentally as a means to an end. The less obvious, but equally chilling, lesson we see in Piranesi’s relationship to the House, though, is the danger of the pursuit of knowledge without community.
Some students and professors within the university can become so enamored by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the pursuit of achievement in their field, that they become detached from the responsibilities and blessings of family, friendship, and community. In the constant pursuit of research, scholarship and more prestigious appointments, there is a temptation to forget who you are, and whose you are. This is, of course, not true only of university life, but is a feature of modern Western meritocracy. Indeed, the House’s effect on Piranesi reminded me of an oft quoted quip from theologian Stanley Hauerwas that Western modernity is often “the attempt to create societies and people without memory.”
In such a culture of achievement and forgetting, retaining a distinctively Christian identity within the public university will involve rituals of ongoing identity-retrieval and remembering. Christians not only can, but must practice ancient ways of knowing and learning in community, even if the ethos of the public university often finds these strange. The liturgies of the Christian tradition — gathered worship, sabbath rest, and prayer, in particular — help us rehearse and remember the overarching story we find ourselves in, and remind us that our identity is ultimately received from God and not achieved by us.
In the final chapter of Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, Polly asks Aslan if humanity on Earth has yet grown as corrupt as Charn, to which he replies:
Not yet. But you are growing more like it… And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware. That is the warning.
For Christian students and faculty, reading Clarke’s Piranesi can be taken as a similar warning. Her book shines a light on both the limits and dangers of pursuing knowledge instrumentally (as seen in the Other) and pursuing knowledge outside of community (as seen in Piranesi).
Uniting Memory and Vision
And yet Clarke’s tale also hints at a more hopeful Way—that a distinctively Christian love can break in to redeem even those trapped in a world of forgetting.
A central moment in Piranesi’s life in the House is the coming of a white Albatross that appears out of a symbol Piranesi recognizes, but not from the House. He records the moment in his journal:
I saw a vision! In the dim Air above the grey Waves hung a white shining cross. Its whiteness was a blazing whiteness; it far outshone the Wall of Statues behind it. It was beautiful but I did not understand it. The next moment brought enlightenment of a sort: it was not a cross at all but something vast and white, which glided rapidly towards me on the Wind.
Piranesi begins to mark time by the appearance of the albatross in the House (not unlike our own dating of history from the birth of Christ). Without spoiling the mystery of the story, I can say that much of Piranesi’s subsequent journey after this point becomes a struggle to recover relationships, culture, family, and tradition. It is for Piranesi as it is for us: memory and vision must work in unison to tie together the fragments of our lives.
Remembering another Way
While self-proclaimed Christians today may comprise a small fraction of the people within public universities, it is important to remember that the university as an institution was (largely) an invention of Christians seeking to discover truth, goodness, and beauty (I am reminded of Johann Kepler’s 17th century definition of a scholar’s purpose: “To think God’s thoughts after Him”). Clarke’s story shines a light on our own world by taking us to a strange cosmos where Christian ethics and symbols are (mostly) concealed. She then immerses us in what I take to be two limited (and sub-Christian) approaches to knowledge and meaning—and how both are a kind of imprisonment. The Other remains alienated from the knowledge within the House, while Piranesi’s ultimate liberation comes through reforged connections beyond his isolated existence.
Reading Piranesi may help you—as it did me—see, in C. S. Lewis’s terms, the ‘deep magic’ at work in our broader social disintegration, as well as a ‘deeper magic’ capable of repair—the integrative power of the Christian story. This Christian Way of knowing is pursued in community and it is marked by humility, grace, faith, hope, love, patience, diligence, and kindness. As many students and scholars know firsthand, it is a Way that enriches and integrates the pursuit of knowledge as understanding with wisdom for living. For those who seek the flourishing of the public university, it is a Way we ought never forget.
originally published at Anselm House’s website, re-published with permission