"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The House You're Standing In . . .
or Holding in the Palm of Your Hand

"Shop Around the Corner"
Gingerbread bookstore created a few years ago
by my friend Professor Kathleen O'Gorman

Look closely and you'll see that this Gingerbread House has its own Gingerbread House! When I praised Kathie for the charm of this particular design feature, she said, "Ah, the meta-gingerbread house! The measure of how desperately I didn't want to grade papers that year!"

In practice, that is.

In theory, it's the measure of "interiorty":

"A house within a house, the dollhouse not only presents the house's articulation of the tension between inner and outer spheres of exteriority and interiority -- it also represents the tension between two modes of interiority. Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse's aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: center within center, within within within. The dollhouse is a materialized secret: what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority."

from On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic,
the Souvenir, the Collection
(p 61)
by Susan Stewart ~ poet, professor, academic folklorist

This subject has long been of interest to me, as I explained a couple of weeks ago, when writing about Katherine Mansfield's story "The Doll's House. While admiring Kathie's photographs, it occurred to me that Susan Stewart's theory of the small house within the big house is just as applicable to the gingerbread house as it is to the dollhouse. Both display the impulse to miniaturize and the process of reducing utility to ornament. And both allow the creator to control a manageable universe: "Worlds of inversion, of contamination and crudeness, are controlled within the dollhouse by an absolution manipulation and control of the boundaries of time and space" (Stewart, 63).


[See comments below, especially #4, for Kathie's
detailed history of the gingerbread project]

Seeing the photo of Kathie's gingerbread masterpiece, our mutual friend Leonard Orr said, "Good to see this festive mise-en-abyme! I hope it includes a miniature version of Kitti's book on the shelves inside."

We entertained ourselves for awhile, imagining all that was inside. I suggested all of Len's books, plus the Complete Works of Shakespeare & an OED. Len suggested Beckett, Kafka, Woolf, and copies of all the avant-garde novels that Kathie teaches. Len observed that "To have room for all of the essential works, this would have to be the gingerbread Powell's." Kathie said, "To fit them all, it would have to be the gingerbread House of Leaves!"

Len: "Next challenge: #7 Eccles St. (with Bloom's library and Sweets of Sin)."

Kathie: "#7 Eccles Street! How can you do this to me? I can tell I'm going to have to do it one of these years! Now let's see . . . shall I move the piano?!"

Len: "Did William Morris create gingerbread houses? If so, they might still survive, the interiors covered with tapestries and carpets depicting noble labor or scenes from Icelandic sagas. I look forward to seeing your replicas."

Kathie: "I believe the research for that work will be adequate justification for a return visit to London."

Len: "As well as a large grant from British research associations."

Me: "And a morgage exemption!"

Len: "I didn't know mortgages were available for gingerbread houses."

We also enjoyed some comments from Kathie's daughter: "Awww Mom, I miss you making Gingerbread Houses, having the kitchen counter covered with frosting flowers or ice cream cone trees, smelling you baking on a cold winter morning, and coming down from my warm bed to see what new masterpiece you were working on."

Kathie recalled, "All of the desperate attempts at architectural challenges, like the dome for the arboretum, for which I / we ought to have received our degree in architectural engineering! I continue to seek out roofing materials here, of course! Good to have them on hand just in case there's an unexpectedly urgent need for a gingerbread house somewhere!"

Len, a literary theorist of the first order, added that, until our discussion of Kathie's edible creation, he "hadn't thought about the necessity for gingerbread house theory."

Conveniently, there is Susan Stewart's aesthetic of the miniature: " . . . even the most basic use of the toy object -- to be 'played with' -- is not often found in the world of the dollhouse. The dollhouse is consumed by the eye." Likewise, the most basic use of gingerbread -- to be eaten -- is not the case with a gingerbread house, which is to be consumed by the eye, not the taste buds, edible though it may be. The transcendent vision offered by the gingerbread house or the dollhouse, "the most consummate of miniatures," can be known through visual apprehension alone (Stewart, 62, 61)

Then there's this great passage from Bill Bryson: "Houses are really quite odd things. They have almost no universally defining qualities: they can be of practically any shape, incorporate virtually any material, be of almost any size. Yet wherever we go in the world we recognize domesticity the moment we see it" (28, from At Home: A Short History of Private Life). You can always count on the miniature to signify domesticity!

Carole Maso contributes this existential insight on the realm of miniaturization and the meaning of life: "It is the week before Christmas. In the apartment across the way, a man works on a dollhouse. So what if we are doomed? He will die rubbing a small chair smooth" (199, from her novel AVA).

And, interestingly enough, even Martha Stewart weighs in on the topic: "What is more tantalizing -- at a child's eye level -- than a gingerbread replica of the house you're standing in?" Reading Martha's insight gave me goosebumps! Why? Because she is talking about the secrets of interiority! Within within within. [Emphasis added.]

She goes on the describe "The whimsy and . . . the thrill of . . . playing with scale and expectations: What's big is rendered small (the house) but with such an eye to detail that it uses three shades and flavors of cookie, and the roof and chimney have the realistic look of shingles and bricks. Meanwhile, what's small (the teddy bear) is presented as life - size . . ." (Martha Stewart Living, December 2012, p 130 - 31).


Gingerbread Close - up
See also my previous posts: Making Gingerbread for Christmas
and Gingerbread: A Short, Happy Photo History

In closing, I can't resist turning once again to the journal of my friend Jan Donley. You might recall that my last fortnightly post featured her drawing "Dad's Lamp" and her story "The rain fell on yellow leaves." This time she writes of a miniature house, even smaller than a dollhouse -- a house you can hold in your hand. Reading it shortly after Christmas a year ago, I thought it was the perfect reverie for all those faraway post – Christmas snow day feelings, and I had to add it immediately to my list of all - time favorites.

House / 13 January 2012

You received it as a gift—a ceramic house to set on your mantle or on a shelf or on a table. You hold the house in the palm of your hand—a triangle roof and a square base. No windows. No doors. Just the shape. Simple. The house a child would draw if you said, “Draw a house.” Or the house in a dream with no entrance and no exit. You’re just suddenly there. In the box of it, or you’re looking at it from a distance. Or there it is in a coloring book. You color it blue or brown. Maybe you add windows and doors. Even a dormer. And then the house starts getting complicated, and you can no longer hold it in your hand or remember your childhood or even dream it. Suddenly the house becomes a cape or a colonial or a bungalow. And there are too many words to remember, and too many memories to hold onto, and too much loss. The world is no longer the world you knew, and houses stretch for miles: triangles atop boxes. And you want to hold one in your hand. More than anything, you want to hold a house in your hand. And you reach out for one, but it stays just beyond your grasp. Never simple anymore. It is not the house in the coloring book. It is instead a structure full of rooms and doorways and hallways. The hallways are the hardest. They are narrow and long. You walk down one and push open a door. You hear the creak of its hinges and swear that one day you will oil them. You look inside the room, and maybe there’s a bed and a desk. A lamp sits on a table beside the bed. Maybe it is lit. Maybe a book waits by the lamp. Maybe a person, someone you love, holds the book. And that is familiar. And you leave the hallway and walk toward the familiar. Or you close that door and continue down the hallway and open another door. Its hinges do not creak, and the room behind the door looks like no room you’ve ever seen. All the windows on all the walls are wide open. Wind blows curtains up like wings. The wind takes you, and suddenly you are out the window and flying. You have wings. And nothing is familiar save for the houses below you—so far away you can only see their shapes—triangles and boxes. You want to hold one in your hand. [Emphasis added.]

My house is filled with houses like this:

Especially around Halloween:

and Christmas:

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, December 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"I Seen the Little Lamp"

artwork by Jan Donley

A year ago today, my fortnightly post was a series of connections drawn from the autumnal writing and photography of my friend Jan Donley.* At the same time that I was posting "There on the Edge of Autumn," Jan was writing another leaf story in her journal. How timely!

The rain fell on yellow leaves / 14 November 12

She remembered a place. It might have been a place in a dream. There were there no trees, and there was no sky. She had looked out of eyes that did not belong to her. And then she remembered, there was no ground either. No dirt. No grass. No branches or trunks or leaves. Just air. There may have been light. Yes. She remembered light coming from some distance—maybe a star or a moon or a lamp. She wanted it to be a lamp. And she heard a voice—a voice that whispered and whistled. That was the language of this place: whispers and whistles. [emphasis added]

When she awoke from the dream or what may have been a dream, she looked across her room to the window. The window was open, and a breeze blew in. She saw leaves on the ground. Through the window, she saw the yellow leaves. And the rain fell on them.

It should have been a familiar sight. But ever since the dream, her eyes were not her own. And ever since the dream, she knew the sky and the trees and the ground could disappear. She knew that familiar languages could suddenly become unfamiliar.

It unsettled her, the way a dream can do.

And it must have been a dream; otherwise, why would she wake to look out a window and see rain falling on yellow leaves?

She could not be sure.

The yellow leaves whistled in the wind. The rain that fell on them whispered.

~ photo by Jan Donley ~

Jan's entry provided an immediate connection to one of my favorite stories by Katherine Mansfield (1888 - 1923), "The Doll's House," in which the two little poor sisters, Lil and Else Kelvey, are lucky enough to get a quick look at the elaborate dollhouse of the wealthy Burnell sisters, Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia. But their viewing lasts only for a few seconds, before the prejudiced cranky aunt shoos them away. Instead of being embarrassed by their poverty or disappointed in not getting to admire the dollhouse, the younger sister internalizes the reward of her adventure: "I seen the little lamp!" That was enough for her! A sign of comfort, hope, stability -- the same reasons that Jan's dream girl in "yellow leaves" hopes that the distant light is coming from a lamp!

If you're interested in reading more about Mansfield's story, I have written about it in my book -- Created in Our Image: The Miniature Body of the Doll). I was inspired by On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, a fascinating theoretical study by poet and professor of folklore Susan Stewart, who calls the dollhouse "a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority" (61).

The Burnell sisters are certainly anxious to share the secret of their new possession, the "perfect, perfect little house!" (318). They are instructed that they may bring their friends from school, two at a time, to view the splendid toy. These visits are to be allowed, however, with the specific condition that the visitors are "not to stay to tea, of course, or to come traipsing through the house" (320). That is, the girls may share with outsiders the secrets of the miniature house but not those of the life - size house. The privacy and the sanctity (and the secrets) of the home are to be protected from intrusion and idle curiosity. Nor are the guests invited to actually play with the dollhouse; they are asked merely to admire it, "to stand quietly in the courtyard while Isabel pointed out the beauties and Lottie and Kezia looked pleased" (320).

"The whole house - front swung back, and -- there you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing - room and dining - room, the kitchen and two bedrooms" (319; see comment below). The girls are enchanted by the small furniture, the stove complete with oven door, the table set with tiny plates, the wallpaper, the carpeting, and the miniature gold - framed pictures. Of all the charming details, for Kezia, it is the little lamp that represents the "promise of an infinitely profound interiority":

"But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining - room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe. It was even filled all ready for lighting, though, of course, you couldn't light it. But there was something inside that looked like oil, and that moved when you shook it. . . . [T]he lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say 'I live here.' The lamp was real" (319).

Choosing which playmates may or may not see the remarkable exhibition, the children are in a position to impose the same social class barriers observed by their elders. The two girls who are excluded from the joy of viewing the dollhouse are "the two who were always outside, the little Kelveys. They knew better than to come anywhere near the Burnells" (320). Lil and Else Kelvey are shunned because their mother is a "washerwoman" who works in other people's homes, their father is rumored to be in prison, their wardrobe is made up of hand - me - downs from their mother's various employers, and their lunches consist of messy jam sandwiches wrapped in old newspaper. They are thin, quiet, shy, and strange - looking to the other children, who taunt them mercilessly. Their one strength seems to be that they "never failed to understand each other" (320 - 21). Lil and Else know, of course, about the magical dollhouse, and they accept without question the fact that, though all the other girls have been to see it, they will not be invited.

Kezia, however, decides to question the unwritten and sometimes unspoken social code by which the Kelveys are ostracized. Any class snobbery that she harbors is vanquished when the opportunity arises to treat the Kelveys to a view of the dollhouse. They, on the other hand, long accustomed to perceiving themselves in the despised position, are doubtful -- astounded even-- when Kezia extends to them the privilege of an invitation: "'You can come see our doll's house if you want to.'" Lil, the older of the two sisters, is hardly bold enough to defy convention; she flushes, gasps, and murmurs her refusal: "'Your ma told our ma you wasn't to speak to us."" Kezia is initially at a loss for words at this abrupt rejoinder but soon decides to brush the warning aside: "'It doesn't matter. You can come and see our doll's house all the same. Come on. Nobody's looking'" (324).

Finally, to placate little Else, Lil is persuaded to give in. When Kezia opens the hinge and the interior of the house swings into view, Lil and Else are overwhelmed by the marvelous despair that first swept over the Burnell children. Kezia points out "'the drawing - room and the dining - room, and that's the -- '" (325). The unfinished thought was undoubtedly to be "and that's the little lamp." But before Kezia can finish the tour of the house or even her sentence, the cold furious voice of reprimand is heard in the doorway.

It is not Kezia's mother but her stern Aunt Beryl who issues the demand that Lil and Else leave at once: "'How dare you ask the little Kelveys into the courtyard? . . . You know as well as I do, you're not allowed to talk to them. Run away, children, run away at once. And don't come back again. . . . Off you go immediately!'" As the doors slam shut, Lil and Else are not surprised that their glimpse inside of Kezia's dollhouse has been so brief. They shrink away from the courtyard, not stopping to rest alongside the road until they are well away from the scene of their humiliation. Lil, who is described as "like her mother," still feels the shame burning in her cheeks, but Else soon forgets "the cross lady," remembering only the privilege of the moment. The narrator attempts to read their thoughts as they look "dreamily" into the distance, bur Lil's remain private. Beryl's unkindness has struck her as a much deeper rejection than Else can perceive. Not only are theymu denied a view of the dollhouse, they are also barred from the vision that it represents -- the comfort and security of a middle - class home. No four walls protect them from the instability, the randomness, and the vulgarity of life.

Else, on the other hand, smiles "her rare smile." Even if only for a moment, she has been illuminated by that infinite promise of profound interiority that resides within the dollhouse. Kezia's admonitions on the playground that everyone pay attention to the lamp were not wasted on Else, who remembered every word and, in the few seconds give her, witnessed the symbolic object. Now, softly, she says to her sister Lil, "'I seen the little lamp'" (325 - 26).
I seen the little lamp!
To see many more miniature lamps, go to Ruby Lane,
where they also have a stunning collection of big lamps
and a vast collection of dolls!

Another Darling Dollhouse
Illustration by Beatrix Potter, 1866 - 1943
for her story The Tale of Two Bad Mice, 1904
"Once upon a time there was a very beautiful doll's-house;
it was red brick with white windows, and it had
real muslin curtains and a front door and a chimney."

* Previous Jan Donley
Posts on My Blogs

Lucky Rock
Lost & Found
9 / 11 Retrospective [also on Quotidian Kit]
Dagmar's Birthday [also on Quotidian Kit]
Everyone Loves Stories
There On the Edge of Autumn

Sleight of Hand
The Little Door
Savor September!
Happy Birthday Coyote!

Another Lovely Little Lamp by Jan ~ January 2014

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, November 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading