"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


  1. Kitti, I remember being in elementary school and loving the whatnots that came my way, putting them up on a shelf and carressing them with my eyes everyday. They meant something, something I still can't describe, but you come close to it in this essay. Interiority. I look at my shelves and see odds and ends, all valuable to me and no one else, even if a few are rare or valuable in dollars and cents. Thanks for the gingerbread house essay. I have never made one, but I can understand the art in it, and now the mystery as well, a little bit anyway. Love your essays.

  2. Kathie O'Gorman writes: "Thanks! I have to hasten to add that the house (bookshop) was created by Cheryl Springwood, April Schultz, and me. The collaboration is key!"

  3. Background info from Kathie O'Gorman: Finally, I posted the photos of the gingerbread houses (see link in post above)! Enjoy! And thanks again to the other "architects," Laura Jayne Hall, April Schultz, Jack and Pamela Buchanan Muirhead, Jennifer Hancock, Cheryl Springwood, Melendra Sutliff Sanders.)

    While the structures themselves are fun to look at, and while making them all these years to support a children’s charity has been gratifying (to say nothing of the grading-avoidance potential fulfilled!), more than anything, what a testament they are to friendships sustained over the years. How many weeks haunting candy stores and cereal aisles looking for “roofing materials”? How many hours over how many months spent puzzling and laughing over design impediments and failed strategies to overcome them, as we awarded ourselves and one another degrees in architecture? (“Hmm. . . think maybe cutting the dough and baking on a soup can might get the rounded windows for the front of the toy shop?” “Last year did we paint on the food coloring before or after baking?” “Sugar and corn syrup boiled to 295 degrees, poured over the outside of a bowl to form a transparent dome. . .nope. Lucky I had no emotional attachment to that bowl.” “Hmm. . .maybe put the bell next to the school instead of on the roof, since the roof might not hold the weight?” “If we embed silver dragees under the theatre marquee, will the light reflect better?” “Dragees? What are dragees?” “Gelatin sheets for the windows in the ticket booth?” “Gelatin comes in sheets?” “Braided al dente spaghetti cooling while resting on a bowl to get that dome shape. . .nope.” “Once again I am an argument for gun control.” “Good thing we made two of everything. We need to double the walls to support the weight of the roof.” “Let’s put the roof on the botanical garden at the festival so it doesn’t collapse en route.” “I can’t do much this year, but I can make a lot of the tiny crap that goes inside the market.” “Yeah, well, the person who wrote this cookbook never made this. The chemical reaction between the icing and the fat will make the icing disintegrate, so the walls and the roof will collapse.” “How the hell are we going to move this thing to get it there?!” “Damn. It’s raining.” “The family that bought the bakery dropped it on the way home, and their daughter is all upset. Are we available to make repairs?”)

    And how many of life’s problems did we solve—or not!—while holding walls in place or mixing up yet another batch of mortar/royal icing? Our kids grew up, with the benign neglect of mid-October through mid-November to sustain them; a few of us moved out of town or took a year or two off, as needed. But once the leaves start turning and some of us have papers to be graded piling up, the energy shifts as we all start circling ‘round the possibilities, whether they’re played out that year or held at bay until some future, more obvious moment.

    This album has a lot more than just shots of the structures we built, since the process of building them was itself the fun/challenge for us.

    We like to put stuff inside, too (all of it made by us and all of it edible): almost all of the structures have light fixtures to light them up from the inside; most have lighted Christmas trees (the botanical garden has three trees with lights and several others); the bookshop has a lighted tree, rugs, book shelves, books, a gingerbread house of its own, and other details inside; the flour mill has a tree with lights and sacks of flour; the bakery has a lighted tree, baked goods, and its own gingerbread houses. . .you get the idea! Good times with good friends.