Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi (2020) is an award-winning fantasy novel, whose central theme is that a true understanding of Self can only be acquired once we remove ourselves from the artificial engagements of society and re-engage with the natural systems that define our world. In Clarke’s novel, the central character Piranesi –– by being completely isolated from society and the outside world –– has over time arrived at a serene and true understanding of Self.
He is imprisoned in a labyrinthian world, and to prevent himself from becoming lost (both physically and emotionally), he references and remembers the patterns of the environmental systems.
Clarke bases her fictional realm on the writings of selected philosophers and theorists, such as Rudolf Steiner and Colin Wilson, who share her views.
She openly informs the reader about these sources by listing them in the index of the main character’s journals (Clarke, 104). The world Clarke describes is based on Rudolf Steiner’s early twentieth-century vision of anthroposophy, a spiritual realm that is nevertheless accessible to human experience, where truth can be discovered with the same degree of clarity as scientists who make discoveries in the physical world. The principal character, Piranesi, represents ‘The Outsider’ from literary theorist Colin Wilson’s 1956 book The Outsider, which proposes that greater insight into the Self can only be acquired when we dislocate ourselves from society.
The second principal character in Clarke’s novel, whom she refers to as ‘the Other’, resides within society in the outside world, entering the labyrinth only for brief and infrequent visits. The Other represents a corrupt view of the search for understanding of Self. He does not understand how to move through the labyrinth, and he believes that it contains a hidden treasure, a commodity to be exploited. The Other is portrayed as engaging in a hopeless quest, while Piranesi has succeeded in finding serenity within himself. In this way, Clarke places the two principal characters into a didactic and dialectic narrative about the search for Self.
Clarke’s allegorical novel’s architectural setting is represented as a labyrinth, referencing Italian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s 1750 edition of Carceri d’Invenzione etching’s of prisons. The labyrinthine world consists of three domains sited above and below one another: the domain of the clouds (above), the domain of man and the birds, and the domain of the tides (below). Between and within these domains exist thresholds – liminal zones – spaces that are in a constant state of flux, belonging to neither one domain nor the other. Throughout the labyrinth are mnemonic devices, such as carved statues, nesting birds and architectural fragments, that Piranesi uses to remember his pathway through the labyrinth and back again. In this way, Clarke represents the ideal outcome of the search for Self as a reconnection with the natural systems, using the literary devices of allegory, the labyrinth, liminality, and mnemonics to convey her central theme.