Spring 2019–Winter 2020

A Brief Geography of the House

The architecture of dream-space

Catherine Hansen

René Daumal was one of the young leaders of a group that called itself “Le Grand Jeu,” devoted to a scrupulous “experimental metaphysics” and to a pursuit of all that hides in plain sight at the edges of the ordinary. Around 1930, he was troubled, and ecstatic, to find that someone else had dreamed his dream. As evidence, he presented a number of phrases and passages from Gérard de Nerval’s Aurélia which, found in manuscript at the scene of Nerval’s suicide in 1855, begins, “Our dreams are a second life.” The features of Nerval’s account that so startled Daumal were stairs, rooms, and dark corridors—on the face of it, features just as common in dreaming life as in waking, and not terribly specific. But it is with a “mad certitude” that Daumal recognized, in these obscure lines, “the blood of my blood.”

It is not precisely, one realizes, that the two have dreamed the same dream, but rather that they have visited the same place—as if dreams were composed not of archetypes but of “archeplaces,” or as if every individual dream were a discrete point of experience within a common locale, a penlight moving minutely over a dark, endless, but unchanging landscape. Thus, in his essay “Nerval the Nyctalope,” Daumal marvels that this dreamer and madman of a century before “knew the Castle with its countless hallways, cut by endless stairways.” He hears Nerval’s words as if hearing his own heartbeat:

“I was” (he says, but it is just as much I who speak) “in a tower, deep into the ground [profonde du côté de la terre] and so high into the sky [si haute du côté du ciel] that all my existence seemed destined to be spent climbing and descending.”

He has seen, as Nerval has seen:

The Palace full of stairways and corridors in which the Same awaits us, in which I have not finished wandering, lost, and for how many centuries to come? The Tower, the Castle and the Mysterious City of the dead.[1]

Daumal further avers there are others, beyond himself and Nerval, who know “the Castle of corridors, the maze of the City of the dead, and especially what light—light without sun, of course—reigns there.”[2]

The larger entity in which these sub-entities all duplicitously dwell has been given several names. Daumal calls it a “country,” while other visitors have called it a “cavern,” or a kind of bardo. I prefer “house,” a word that lends itself to usages like “house of heaven” or “house of the dead.” Unlike the Palace, Castle, Tower, and Catacombs that it contains, the House, in its indefinite and potentially infinite volume, does not imply any specific interior or exterior architectural vocabulary beyond the simplest: walls and thresholds, and perhaps doors, a roof, windows.

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