Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison

John Soane House, London
I have picked at this book for years, finally deciding to read it straight through back in 2010. I keep my edition with my architecture books, but it is just as much a work of aesthetics and literary analysis. Harbison's themes are imagination and artifice in the human environment. He begins - as does man's mythic history - in the garden, where man seeks paradoxically to replicate and control the wildness of nature. He moves through various literary environments, such as Holmes' Baker Street sanctum (and what it says about the peculiar English concept of home, and the British comfort of living ensconced in a "pre-Freudian past"), the architectural oddities of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and the John Soane house, the Italian scene from ancient Rome down through Ruskin's Venice, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Corvo's grotesque Don Renato and Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho. There is a masterful extended summary of Colonna's bizarre Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Harbison looks at the deliberate alienness of Flaubert’s Salammbo and the strange inertia of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, which makes reference to one of Pater’s tweedy descendants:

It is a book of not doing and not being various things most people do and are, and is set in a remote time as a way of saying I cannot hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you. The book shows nothing as pronounced as renunciation, but makes a drama of abstention, the things one has not done are more memorable, life lies in deliberately unused possibility which is a preserved youth. Pater resembles in this his descendant C.S. Lewis, another cloistered child-scholar, who creates even more emphatically than Marius a life based on a dreamed recollection of generalized childhood.

The concluding essays address the world in miniature, our attempts to circumscribe, and, in a sense, immobilize the human landscape and artifacts through maps, museums, and catalogues.

Plan of William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey
Harbison’s book is, in part, a thoughtful commentary on semi-obscure literature such as Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, Huysman’s La Cathedrale (“Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it…”), and the aforementioned works of Colonna and Corvo. He also works in the obvious candidates, such as Kafka, Joyce and James. I have largely neglected to mention his no less impressive commentary on art and architecture, particularly that of Renaissance and 16th century Italy. Although Harbison’s arguments can induce some brow-wrinkling as one attempts to puzzle out his perspectives, as a whole, Eccentric Spaces is a remarkably engaging intellectual experience.