Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Ambiguity and Architecture: Why Something Being So Wrong is So Right in the Fantastic

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer commented that “architecture, more than any of the arts, is the most susceptible to the hazards of nature, time and man,” and that “for all its apparent sturdiness and supposed permanence” is actually, “relatively frail” (6). In relating this reality of the second law of thermodynamics to what Jack Morgan refers to as sinister loci (189), where “deteriorating place speaks emphatically of organic deterioration in general” (184), there emerges an essential application of the dwelling as a device for the fantastic. In this paper I will demonstrate how both Freud and Todorov’s definitions of the fantastic are enabled through the use of architecture in fantastic literature.

Dale Bailey notes that “in few other genres does setting play such a significant and defining role” (4). An implicit connection in Alok Bhalla’s The Cartographers of Hell, provides an interesting impetus for why setting is accorded such importance in the fantastic. He states that “Gothic novels are often constructed out of a series of fragmentary tales of agony and decay told by a variety of narrators” on the same page where the Talmud is quoted as saying, “Demons are fond of assembling in ruins” (39). By means of an illustration, take the challenge to imagine substitutions for classic gothic settings, such as “Jonathan Harker imprisoned in Count Dracula’s suburban Cape Cod” concluding that “the pendulum just isn’t the same without the pit” (Bailey, 4). It is more than just the obviously disturbing quality of the Gothic castle’s “awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs and galaxy of ghosts” which serve to make it “a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright” (Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror, 25). It should also be noted that while I have only referenced the Gothic castle, our discussion includes all manner of ‘bad places’ such as “adamentine cathedrals, ruined monasteries, sepulchral vaults of the Inquisition, feudal mansions, and gloomy convents” (Bhalla, 84). While these familiar elements of sinister loci have an immediate aspect of menace, there is a deeper underlying cause for their recurrence, adaptation and modification in the history of fantastic literature.

Christopher Bollas notes that “the world of architecture…and the world of psychoanalysis…intersect” (28). Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space proposed “a new field of investigation…that would be attuned to the way architecture and space affect…inner psychological states” (Kaufman, 59). Even as I write this paper, surrounded by the noise of busy building contractors, I am acutely aware of how psychologically unsettling it is to have one’s home in a state of renovation or disrepair, where things are not as they ought to be. Referencing Freud’s essay on The Uncanny, Maria Tartar shows how the German word heimlich, which can be taken to mean “belonging to the home”, and unheimlich, which is commonly translated in Freud as “uncanny” relate the literature of the fantastic to the concept of home as a place of “domestic comfort” (170). Morgan notes that “in this etymology, the house is the defining symbol of what is right and normal, the violation of which situates primitive anxieties” (183). The settings of fantastic literature, be they the Castle of Otranto, Poe’s house of Usher, Dicken’s collection of bleak houses, Lovecraft’s Witch-House, or King’s Overlook Hotel are all domestic abodes where things are definitely not right and normal, but are rather desecrated spaces “of moral and spiritual desolation…tainted with sin and corruption” (Bhalla, 79).
At the outset of the Gothic, this relationship between architecture and the state of unheimlich manifested in more overtly imposing and ruined structures. As Bhalla demonstrates, “For the Romantic imagination, then, Gothic architecture came to be associated with the sacred, as a place where every gesture was an hierophany” (74), in contrast to the ruin, which would have been “an image charged with religious and ethical valuations which are the inverse of those radiated by the cathedral” (79). The Gothic castle would be interpreted into the Victorian framework of the “architectural canvas of Dickens’ Bleak House, which included a collection of structures representing “the system that contains and connects them all…encompassing the breadth of Victorian society…pervaded by images of darkness at noon and of the vast labyrinth that underpins and connects everyone” (Tropp, 72-73). In more recent treatments such as Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, the nature of domestic unheimlich is even more subtle, since the houses themselves are not physically in ruins until the close of the story, when the buildings tears themselves to pieces. Dale Bailey conjectures a possible reason for this; to send a mixed message to the middle class consumers of both the Amityville novel and film:
"On the one hand, it reassured them that their dream, their American Dream, was safe. Such things only happen in the realm of fiction. On the other hand, it confirmed their very worst fears the American economy was crumbling, and if the demons didn’t get you, the IRS surely would.” (66)
One is reminded of Jesus’ word picture of the spiritual state of the scribes and Pharisees being “like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (King James Bible, Matt. 23:29) It also demonstrates that the sense of unheimlich comes from more than physical deconstructions. It is also manifest in the ambiguity of the outer façade of a dwelling, “insofar as it demarcates and isolates the malefic region in a particularly adequate way” (Lévy, 38). Or to put it in more banal terms, “what takes place within the four walls of a house remains a mystery to those shut out from it” (Tartar, 169).

This ambiguity brings us to Todorov’s definition of the fantastic, where “the possibility of a hesitation” between natural and supernatural causes “creates the fantastic effect” (26). A dwelling is a constructed barrier between those within and those without. To those on the outside, there is an ambiguity about what goes on within. Even to those within, there are barriers between rooms and in the spaces between walls, like the room Walter Gilman rents in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House”: “The darkness always teemed with unexplained sound—and yet he sometimes shook with fear lest the noises he heard should subside and allow him to hear certain other fainter noises which he suspected were lurking behind them” (324).

Though both the ambiguity of structural barriers and the unheimlichkeit of sinister loci in their various manifestations, we can see how architecture readily serves the aspect of the fantastic in literature. As Christopher Bollas notes, “The work of the architect, then, involves important symbolic issues of life and death. Demolishing the existent structure to make way for a new one plays upon our own senses of limited existence and foretells our own ending” (29). Through the anthropomorphized space of the sentient or haunted house, we are provided with tales that speak to our own ruin, our own psychological cellars, and our own too familiar obeisance to the law of entropy.


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Bhalla, Alok. The cartographers of hell : essays on the Gothic novel and the social history of England. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1991.

Bollas, Christopher. “Architecture and the Unconscious.” International Forum of Psychoanalysis. 9 (2000): 28-42.

Kaufman, Eleanor. “Living Virtually in a Cluttered House.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. 7 (2002): 159-169.

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Lovecraft, H. P. “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” The dream cycle of H.P. Lovecraft : dreams of terror and death. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995, 324-355.

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Pfeifer, Bruce Brooks. Introduction. Frank Lloyd Wright: Master Builder. Ed. David Larkin and Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. New York: Universe Publishing, 1997, 6-9.

Tatar, Maria M. “The Houses of Fiction: Toward a Definition of the Uncanny.” Comparative Literature. 33, (1981) 167-182.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1990.