A Labyrinth for Our Time

What might the dynamic of mental life look like when its physiological counterpart is ill, bedridden, and housebound?

There is a House with 7,678 halls; in the House lives the eponymous protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi. The amnesiac narrator knows nothing beyond this architecture, which inhabits and obsesses him—this mansion with great staircases, courtyards, and marble statuary, where, depending on the level reached, you could be in the domain of the clouds (Upper Halls), conversing with birds (Middle Halls), or plunged into an underwater ecosystem (Lower Halls). Piranesi cohabits this space with human remains, 13 skeletons whom he domesticates with names and attributes: the Biscuit-Box Man, whose small bones Piranesi finds stored in a red biscuit tin; the Fish-Leather Man, his relics articulated with fish skin; the Folded-Up Child, found arranged on an empty plinth with her chin on bent knees.

Clarke’s Piranesi evokes the protean genius of the 18th-century architect and printmaker Giambattista Piranesi, who was also an archaeologist and draughtsman. Clarke is best known for her Hugo Award–winning, best-selling first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). With Piranesi, she has returned to the literary marketplace after a prolonged illness. By the time the novel emerged, it was 2020, and we were all deranged Piranesis, “bound in one place,” as Clarke has said she was in her convalescence, and “cut off from the rest of humanity,” like her central character.

What might the dynamic of mental life look like when its physiological counterpart is ill, bedridden, and housebound? Are dreams—including the overwrought mechanisms of psychic exploration that are literary renditions of dreams—historically contingent, like selves? Piranesi’s is a dream world—a dream-like prison or prison-like dream infrastructure—where external and internal realities collide like planets. Reading Piranesi in 2020, mired in that year’s nosological glossaries of self-isolation, social distancing, quarantine, and lockdown, I wondered if we would ever be free to forget the occult reality activated by a global pandemic, a reality that lay—like a dream, like dark magic—undetected within the everyday.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi has become an emblem of artistic labor that strains to represent the dark empiricism of dreams and the unconscious.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi has long incited literature’s visionary imagination. Edgar Allan Poe knew of him, as did Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and the Surrealists. In Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)—a memoir of addiction—the narrator calls Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione etchings, which he has not seen first-hand, “Dreams,” instead of “Prisons,” the correct translation. In this series, Piranesi combined classical architectural features with Romantic and baroque details and experimental devices that played with scale, perspective, and vanishing points.

De Quincey notes that “Mr [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge” had described the set of plates to him and he recalls (and conflates) the images therein to conjure word pictures of Piranesi scrupulously negotiating his fantastical architecture. Here he is groping his way upward; there he is teetering on the brink of the abyss. The stairs keep proliferating, as do Piranesi’s “aspiring labours,” except this is not an image of self-mastery or artistic control; “poor Piranesi” is “lost” in the gloom of his making.

“With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams,” De Quincey writes, hinting that for his own voluble Confessions the terms of exegesis will also be displacement, deferral, loss. De Quincey’s evocation of Piranesi is strategic, as is the fungibility of dream and prison in this moment. Piranesi is made an emblem of artistic labor that strains to represent the dark empiricism of dreams and the unconscious, a reality which the author, De Quincey, will not readily codify in or as the emergent discourse of Romantic metapsychology.

Clarke’s novel evokes Piranesi in a similar way. The name “Piranesi” is “associated with labyrinths,” and in the novel, the narrator is given this name by the Other, a tall, slender man double his age, erudite and sophisticated. The Other is the only other living human in the mazelike mansion. The House is the World “for all practical purposes,” Piranesi says, with the implacable logic of deranged speakers in Victorian dramatic monologues. Despite his traumatic lack of self, he claims to be a scientist and explorer: his task, interminable like that of the Piranesi conjured up by De Quincey, is to witness and catalogue “the Splendours of [this] World.” He describes as “religious practices” his voluntary acts of bringing food, water, flowers, and conversation to the forsaken dead. If the historical Piranesi drafted the transphysical labyrinth of his etchings, Clarke’s Piranesi has been hijacked into a preexisting one. Or, and this interpretation is tempting to readers, he is in the prison cell of a “delusional illness,” the excitable capital letters in his writing symptomatic of the overload of affect.

By the time we know why or how Piranesi reached his current predicament, this factual information has ceased to matter too much. Despite its strains of the Gothic and the melodramatic, Piranesi does not rush to the exposure scene of those genres. It is stage-managed more like a trance, where we check our daytime logic and intellectual curiosity at the door. Piranesi exhibits classic Stockholm syndrome, caring for the living, dead, human, animal, and nonsentient guardians of the labyrinth-world from which no one gets out alive. His relationship to the memory systems and archives of the House is noncoercive and noninstrumental. He will not gut the House the way the Other does, treating it as “a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted.” As his bizarre tautology goes, the House “is valuable because it is the House.”


The House That Form Built

By Daniel Williams

For Piranesi, living in the House means living partly in a prison, partly in a dream. He wears a watch but tells time with a made-up almanac; he believes in scientific research yet works half-heartedly with the Other on the “Great and Secret Knowledge”; he carries out mundane tasks such as mending fishing nets for the surreal activity of fishing indoors from the Waters of the Lower Staircase; he is an obsessive chronicler but has more than a few pages missing from his diary and autobiography. The Other blames the labyrinth, which makes people lose days and dates, for Piranesi’s discombobulation: “If you’re not careful it can unpick your entire personality.”

There are grubby factual details that surface in the course of the novel, rudely interrupting the somnambulation, through watery labyrinths, of Piranesi and the reader alike. There are two realities in Piranesi, connected by the names Laurence Arne-Sayles and Valentine Ketterley, which appear in both worlds. There is the “Distributary World,” a vibrant sphere supposedly created by the inflow of the energy and ideas of the ancients that were superseded by modern rationality (at the onset of modernity). And then there is the other world, the fallen quotidian world we know as the world, marked by inequity, one-upmanship, materialism and greed, rivalry and sabotage, evil mind games. The actual quickly begrimes the theoretical, ideal, and utopian. As Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which begins with a 19th-century renaissance in English magic, demonstrates, there is no epistemological quest without the possibility of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls “epistemic violence.”1 Perhaps there is no enchantment without grubby sorcery. Magic itself can be short-spelled and specious, involving Faustian bargains that return to claim their due.

Clarke has said of the writing of her 2004 blockbuster that it sprang from “a kind of a waking dream,” a description that seems even more apt for the ontic flux of Piranesi, with its departures from reality. Dreaming is not self-transcendence here but the aberrancy of cognition and the imagination. Piranesi has a name for this aberrant cognition. Matthew Rose Sorensen, the former, real-world identity of the man who now knows himself as Piranesi, had “originally studied mathematics, but his interest soon migrated (via the philosophy of mathematics and the history of ideas) to his current field … transgressive thinking.”

Transgressive thinking is posited at first as thinking against the grain of traditions of thought, as these are discursively formed and shaped by reason, law, and science. For the Other, however, transgressive thinking is more akin to alchemy or the pseudosciences cultivated by imperialists and Nazis. He wants to vanquish death and become immortal. Piranesi is made uneasy by the promise of a “Knowledge” that bestows “the power to control lesser minds.” He asks, “Supposing for a moment that a lesser mind existed, why would I want to control it?”

Piranesi’s diligent journaling and indexing, instead of buttressing his integrity as subject, lead him to a psychic terra incognita. “I have discovered that I am mad already! Or, if not mad now, then certainly I have been mad in the past.” Writing is neither a testimonial nor historiographic. Instead, it is a debilitating mechanism of repetition, not unlike Piranesi’s nervous markings on doorways to learn the way through the labyrinth. Clarke’s atmospheric narration makes Piranesi’s dream a psychosomatic reverie of death. In the House, he curates the bones of the dead and talks to dust. When he finally learns the truth about the Other, Piranesi realizes the fallout of lingering in the labyrinth: not Romantic autobiography or autophilosophy, but “amnesia, total mental collapse, etcetera, etcetera.”

Susanna Clarke has proven herself to be a virtuoso of lack as well as linguistic and literary excess.

Piranesi finally gets professional help to leave a place at which he does not recall arriving. His is not a forensic, authorial intelligence, and Piranesi is not a detective novel—but a detective leads him out of the labyrinth, just as she orients the plot to an expedient solution. “Show me the labyrinth,” Piranesi hears her say, but she has opted into the labyrinth only after mapping out the exit route.

The dissimilarities between the ebullient Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the deflationary Piranesi are worth examining in the context of the main character’s dream interlude and eventual return to worldliness. The first novel is set in the first decade of the 19th century, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Piranesi, on the other hand, is difficult to date, given that tangible referents are scant, and one such, “Battersea,” a word with Anglo-Saxon etymology, could locate the action in the 18th or 19th century with equal plausibility. It is also difficult to reconcile dates such as “December 2011” with the temporal markers that head Piranesi’s journal entries, such as: “THE FIFTH MONTH IN THE YEAR THE ALBATROSS CAME TO THE SOUTH-WESTERN HALLS.” Multivitamin bottles or plastic, when mentioned, seem anachronistic and out of place.

In Jonathan Strange, magic is a mode of animation and vivification, whether its objects are dead girls, gargoyles in York Minster, or the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign. It is neither wholly inventive nor entirely programmable—spirits and mystics inhabit this chimeric realm, as do nerds and charlatans. Magic, reborn and insouciant in Regency England, has many guises in the novel: aristocratic, plebian, maverick, supernatural. The “Great and Secret Knowledge” of Piranesi lacks such youthful vim and appetite, its arcana associated with tyrannical forces from the start.

 Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a novel masquerading as cultural history, deceptively crammed with scholarly digressions, gobbets, footnotes. Piranesi, less than a third the size of its precursor, is bleak and enervated, the protagonist estranged from the very journal and index he painstakingly and routinely inscribes to stave off oblivion. If the first novel amasses its intellectual hoard in (Mr Norrell’s) well-appointed libraries, this one throws it away in scraps of paper, chalk markings, words formed by arrangements of pebbles. Susanna Clarke proves herself to be a virtuoso of lack as well as linguistic and literary excess. As in De Quincey’s description of Piranesi’s dream, fantasy matters: its nothingness is commuted through the “endless procession” of halls and “intricate pathways.”

Reading Piranesi in the blind alleyways of an indefinite COVID-19 lockdown, one is taken aback by the book’s timeliness. The House, with its waterlogged basement, could well be the Anthropocene world, redeemable by Piranesi’s brand of environmental and multispecies justice. Will we be saved? And will we ever go back, like Piranesi, to the “new (old) world”? The novel offers a premonition, albeit a case-specific one.

When Piranesi reenters his past life, he sees in passersby uncanny resemblances of the statues in the “Eternal House.” Chimeras of the imagination have become actualities, and the fictional relics help him decode “a person or situation I do not understand” in real life. He has a greater appreciation of silent presences in the unapparent and vegetal world, recognizing the comfort and enlightenment these might bring. There is also a marked attrition of worldly desire or ambition after that condition of absolute, though not abject, dereliction in the labyrinth, and the acts of bare survivalism it necessitated. “Piranesi cannot bear to have so many possessions. I do not need this! Is his constant refrain.”

In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke shows us what a literary laying down of arms might look like, or what it might be like for the authorial imagination to voluntarily forsake its synthesizing influence between shadow and substance, sense impressions and senseless, inert memory.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

  1. Spivak uses this term in several works. See “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, edited by Laura Chrisman and Patrick Williams (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p. 66.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Le Carceri d'Invenzione, plate X: Prisoners on a Projecting Platform (detail) (circa 1750). Etching, 41 x 53 cm. Leiden University / Wikimedia Commons