Simply put, I loved this book. It is atmospheric and lovely in ways I have never before experienced. But why? What makes it uniquely beautiful?
This is a book that values the ancient ways of being in the world. It points out the cracks in modernism’s push for the rational and measurable, but not by denying the value of rationality or measurability. No. Instead, Susanna Clarke narrates a proof that the modern agenda is too limited.
Piranesi, though that isn’t truly his name, is supremely rational. He measures the world around him: studying the tides and charting them so that he alone is aware of their comings and goings, risings and fallings. He is meticulous. Yet he lives in a state of childlike wonder (a narrated portrait of what Jesus meant by receiving the kingdom like a child and being born again–Piranesi receives like a child because he has been born anew in his world). The world is enchanted to his eyes, because it is sacramental in his experience. The world speaks, and he hears it because he fits so neatly within it. He knows his place, and lives along the grain, rather than living against it as the Other does. The Other seeks to manipulate the world and mine it for power and “true knowledge,” but Piranesi receives the world as a gift, as infused with meaning that he can receive and understand because he fits so perfectly into its warp and weft.
And this is where the beauty of this work shines through. Whether we’re talking about the Other or the Prophet, both are wrong about this world. The Other because he thinks the true knowledge is something to be taken, contained, and used to dominate; the Prophet because he no longer believes the true knowledge even exists. But Piranesi, simpy by being himself and filling his unique place within the world, proves that the true knowledge does exist and that it cannot be found by seeking it. Instead, it is to be experienced and absorbed by those who truly see the world and fully live within. To find it, transformation is required, and that is something neither the Other nor the Prophet are willing to endure, because the required transformation is permanent. There is no going back. There is real loss involved, but the loss is worth it.
What Piranesi knows is that the world is not a tool to be used. It exists for its own sake.
This flies in the face of what I was once taught. I was told that the world exists to glorify God. What Piranesi knows, in a sense, is that the world glorifies God, but that is not its purpose. It exists because God is the Creator, and all God’s making is gratuitous. God makes because that is what God does and who God is: the Maker, the Creator. And because of that, all things have dignity. All things deserve respect. Because God saw fit to make them.
I believe that Piranesi’s way of being in the world is a model for how I might be in my world. It’s a mystic’s way of being. Living as a creature among other creatures in a sacramental world charged with the grandeur of God. It’s the vision of St. Francis, who saw all things as kin to himself. It’s the vision of St. John of the Cross, who saw that God is especially present in the deepest spiritual darkness. It’s Pseudo-Dionysius’s vision of indivisible multiplicity within the Godhead.
Piranesi proves that the modern agenda has lost its footing, not by insisting on measuring the world and studying it, but by forgetting that the world being studied and measured is a gift. We are not outside of this gifted world looking in. No. We are part of it, and we best understand it when we simply fit within it, kin to the world around us. All of Piranesi’s measured data equipped him to discover something beyond the data: the indivisible unity and harmony of his world, and his place within that harmony even in the face of darkness and mystery.
If I could walk through life in this way, I too would hear the world speak. And in its speech, I would hear the voice of God calling me to union.