Friday, June 05, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Door in the Wall: Light

We continue with "The Door in the Wall," by H. G. Wells.

Wallace recollects his childhood experience of passing through a green door in a white wall, which he spots on an otherwise ordinary London street:

You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen's carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy--in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said 'Well?' to me, and lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked. There were broad steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and friendly white doves . . . . .
The description goes on at some length. The boy meets up with another, older female figure who seems to show Wallace the story of his real life--a life which will henceforth be tinged with sharp sadness over his loss of this place.

But let's focus on the quality of the light in the other world: "It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky." Both Nabokov and Olesha, whom I mentioned in the last post on this story, are fascinated by light. They use it to create what the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky calls "ostranenie," sometimes translated as "defamiliarization." In the garden, the light is at once more penetrating and softer; the edges of things are sharper and yet somehow fuzzy. Colors are brighter and but set off by "wisps." In sort, the light makes this world both more intense and less threatening than the real world. It is, as Wells, Nabokov, and Olesha would all agree, the light of childhood. Cast this light upon anything in the real world, and you will see it anew. At the same time, the fact that this light is remembered, not currently present, makes the image slightly sad.

Much of Wells's description of the garden comes across as sentimental and twee. Such language has to be resisted at all costs when speaking of childhood, or of anything, actually. I would, however, propose a writing exercise in which you experiment with enchanted lighting to make a scene strange. The strangeness comes from the intensely contradictory emotions of childhood memory--joy at finding it, sadness at having lost it forever.

For more on enchantment, see The Re-Enchantment of the World, edited by Josh Landy and Michael Saler.

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