‘This house is making me walk funny’: bodily hexis, the House of Usher and the haunts of the ghosts of place
August 2, 2012 3 Comments
“On the stairs the furtive shadows pass of all those who were there one day.” (Perec, 1978: 81)
I think I’m turning into my mother – not in a Norman Bates way – but I’ve been here at her house in Torquay for nearly a week and I can feel her house remodelling my ways of sitting and moving.
Her house is small, and all of the passageways are short. I’m lanky (so is my mother). The ceilings are low too. And all passages here are narrow. Thick carpet, a sea of occasional tables, foot stools and mats also retard movement. No rash sudden bounds can be accommodated here. My mother walks in short bursts, never getting to full stride, decelerating almost instantaneously, having already reached the end of her journey. In her house movement becomes an understated shuffle. There is nowhere here to stride to; no indoor open-road upon which to let rip the body-motor.
So, my movements through this space have become progressively subdued. Each day I leave the house for a walk just to check that I haven’t lost my ability to move at full stride; that my legs haven’t become shuffle-webbed.
It’s a weird sensation, being aware of the effect of a house and its arrangement on my deportment – my ‘hexis’ as Bourdieu defined embodied habitus. As Acciaioli puts it:
“Habitus is in part a matter of ‘hexis’, of the body itself serving as a locus of cultural content in abbreviated and practical form…In Bourdieu’s view, the objectified schemes of a culture are incorporated as a mode of interaction learned with the body, not inculcated as a cognitive code. Enacted practices, such as the differences in gait mentioned here, are structured according to a scheme of spatial disposition.” (1981: 37).
In this house I’m currently aware of my hexis being in transition. If I stayed long enough this adjustment would be complete. I would forget that it was ever possible to walk with full strides. I might even start to think of wooden or tile floors as slippery and lacking the ‘natural’ comfort of carpet (but – as I’m still in transition – I haven’t yet fully shrugged off the feeling that carpet – textile on the floor – is just odd).
In trying to think through this effect I’ve been reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. In his famous story, Poe presents the parallel (and intertwined) physical decline of the Usher’s manor house and that of its final inhabitant, the last of the Usher clan.
Upon arrival at this place, the narrator is struck by “a sense of insufferable gloom” which he attributes to the physical scene facing him as he gazes upon the semi-derelict mansion and its “excessive antiquity”. He then proceeds to give us a survey of that scene, with almost sufficient structural detail to get my building surveying colleagues excited, before steeling himself and stepping inside, having concluded from his gazing upon those “bleak walls”, “decayed trees” and “vacant eye-like windows” that:
“…there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us [and that]…a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.”
Upon stepping inside the mansion, the narrator is taken to see his host, his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, the last survivor of the Usher family line who the narrator then proceeds to survey in equivalent structural tone, scrupulously detailing his “cadaverousness of complexion”, thin pallid lips, “inordinate expansions above the regions of the temple” and a finely moulded chin “of a want of moral energy” (whatever that means).
The narrator is thereafter persuaded to help the remaining Usher to entomb his recently deceased sister’s body within the family vaults set deep within the main walls of this mansion (presented here by Poe as a symbolic unity of Usher as clan and as mansion). Once that is accomplished, the story moves into its final phase – Roderick Usher loses his sunken, subdued demeanour, steps out of his hexis and adopts instead an “unceasingly agitated mind” roaming “from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step” – as the mansion crumbles towards its eventual fatalistic collapse, taking the last of Usher with it.
Poe’s story presents a striking depiction of a building as a starring character in his horror story. Perhaps one of the reasons why it is so famous is its unusual juxtaposition of the human and the built environment. It is also quintessentially gothic in its horror, and the reader is haunted at each turn by the anticipation of death of a building (its collapse), the anticipated death of the last living Usher and also the anticipation that the ghost of Roderick Usher’s sister (or some other deceased clansman) will apparate to help explain the pervading terror permeating this building and its remaining denizens.
But no ghost ever appears in the conventional sense. Instead it is the building – the place – that haunts. And this is what will link Poe and the Usher mansion back to my mother’s house and my restricted gait.
When academics write about haunting and ghosts they do so at peril of their professional reputation. What follows is in the spirit (no pun intended) of Bell (1997), Edensor (2005) and Schofield (2009) consideration of ‘ghosts of place’. To write about ‘ghosts of place’ is (just about) acceptable in (post-structural quarters) because it keeps actual ghosts (and ruling one way or the other upon their existence) at bay. Instead the focus is a phenomenological one about how places can haunt those who pass through or dwell in them – how memory and materiality can have residual effects on humans and their perception of places.
Schofield bravely offers up an account of seeing an actual ghost – but then quickly orientates this recollection to a consideration of how a sense of memory and materiality informs his combat archaeology. Edensor writes evocatively about the ghost-like effects of emptiness and material traces within industrial ruins, whilst Bell gives a framework for theorising ghosts of place generally.
I saw a ghost once. But the ghost I saw was an apparition of someone who was still alive. So, for me the ‘ghosts of place’ idea seems more plausible (and less supernatural) than perhaps to some. I think I saw my great grandfather sat in a chair in our front room (when he was actually up the garden) because my familiarity with my home, seating arrangements and conventional use of our rooms at that time of day combined (with a few tricks of the light etc) to make me see something that I expected to be there. This was an effect of the house – a ghost of place if you like. It was an effect of the physical arrangement of the house and of my expectations for it.
As with my recent walking style, the narrator’s unease upon arrival at the Usher mansion and my mis-location of my great grandfather that day, they are all effects of (returning to Poe):
“…combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us…a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.”
Acciaioli, G. (1981) ‘Knowing what you’re doing – a review of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice’, Canberra Anthropology IV, 1, 23-51.
Bell, M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’ Theory & Society 26, 813-836
Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics & Materiality, Berg: Oxford
Perec, G. (1978) Life: A User’s Manual, Vintage: London.
Poe, E.A. (1910) ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Harper & Bros: New York
Schofield, J. (2009) ‘Afterword: Ghosts’ in Aftermath: readings in the archaeology of recent conflict, Springer: London