3 January 2010


Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:11 pm

In The Poetics of Space (1958), Gaston Bachelard writes about the corner: as trap, as refuge, as lair, and then as the place in which forgotten things accumulate. Few admit to being “corner readers,” interpreting the patterns inscribed in the dust and cobwebs and detritus.

Yet in such daydreams as these the past is very old indeed. For they reach into the great domain of the undated past. By allowing the imagination to wander through the crypts of memory, without realizing it, we recapture the bemused life of the tiniest burrows of the house, in the almost animal shelter of dreams.”

While I respect the symbolism expressed by corners, I find little in them that either attracts or repels me. Memories accumulate in boxes and notebooks, in drawers and on shelves, in closets and in basements. Corners are for wastebaskets, plungers, ironing boards, and other useful but homely objects, ready to hand but unobtrusive to the eye. If my glance is drawn to the corner of a room usually it’s an upper corner where the walls join the ceiling. I tend to see upper corners not as enclosures but as vectors pushing outward and upward, extending the boundaries of the room.

Memories rarely comfort me; more often they feel like traps. Generally I ignore them, letting them gather dust on the shelves in the basement. Useful memories I keep in the corner, pulling them out when I need them but never really paying much direct attention to them.

I did a word search on “corner” in my two novels. Mostly I wrote about outside corners: going around the corner on the street, the four corners of the earth, the corner cafe. The outside corner defines the boundary of an enclosure, but it’s also a frontier, a limit to be surpassed.

Anne and I used to live in St. Louis Park Minnesota, which is also the home town of the Coen Brothers. A sizable Jewish population lives in St. Louis Park, including a fair number of kosher-keeping conservatives. While we were living there the town erected an eruv, a set of interconnected fences and utility poles and wires that define a perimeter surrounding the town. This perimeter marks the symbolic walls and doors of a “house.” Jewish law forbids people from carrying things outside their houses or between houses on the Sabbath; the eruv encloses a space that, for Sabbath-keeping purposes, counts as a house.

The eruv appeals to me a great deal. To the Jews of a modern American suburb it may symbolize a house, perhaps a village, perhaps even a ghetto, drawing on the deepest cultural memories. To me it’s a strange abstraction totally disconnected from memory, its corners demarkating the boundaries of an alternate reality hidden in plain sight. The eruv is the daydream of an undated past, but it is someone else’s dream of a past to which I am not an heir. It’s as if memory were an impersonal force in the world, erupting in things like medieval ruins and text fragments written in forgotten languages and old snapshots of people I don’t know. These things have mysterious iconic value, portending meanings that are themselves lost to all understanding.

For awhile I was hoping that Anne would become an iconist, demarkating eruvim, creating talismans, carving niches, randomly culling sentences from books — abstract icons that betoken mysteries known only in part and only to herself and her clients. Upper inner corners and outer corners would be particularly important loci for iconic interventions. I think I am going to write an iconist.



  1. It’s as if memory were an impersonal force in the world, erupting in things like medieval ruins and text fragments written in forgotten languages and old snapshots of people I don’t know. These things have mysterious iconic value, portending meanings that are themselves lost to all understanding.

    The eruv seems to me to be some kind of an icon that points to the law. The law is also a boundary, a set of markings that constructs a contained space and provides the definition of a people. The boundaries set the people apart, sanctifying them as God’s chosen ones. And in this sense, the law itself seems to be bursting with this mysterious iconic value, “portending meanings that are themselves lost to all understanding.” What I like about Jewish exegesis (as opposed to modern, Protestant exegesis) is that the Jewish interpreter doesn’t care if the law gets lost to all understanding….all the better, in fact….the law gets recontextualized as time goes on. Midrash is a good example of this.

    So, the law sets the boundaries and defines the people as chosen…but the people also define what “law” is at any given time. The whole process seems circular to the modern exegete, and yet I see it as something that is dynamic–it keeps things moving. This reminds me of Gadamer’s approach to hermenetuics, and even Derrida’s, actually.


    Comment by Erdman — 4 January 2010 @ 10:29 am

  2. Nicely observed, Erdman. I like the idea of Law itself as enclosure. Doesn’t it just seem to draw you to the edges and corners? An electrified fence probably gives the herd the impression that it’s dangerous out there on the frontier. But it’s only the fence that’s dangerous, and the fence is part of the inside.

    Individual laws often seem so random that it’s hard to see why following them would result in God’s favor being bestowed. The whole body of the Law becomes a single, complex, systemic icon, a structured set of signifiers that, incongruously, purports to signify the all-enfolding pleasured presence of God. The rabbis and scholars who in Midrash interpret the legal nuances and pass judgment on cases: isn’t it their attention and sincerity and authority that betoken the Law’s iconic power at least as much as the letter? Even Jesus’s stripped-down Law doesn’t do away with the iconic magic attached to following the commandments.


    Comment by john doyle — 4 January 2010 @ 12:20 pm

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