Literary Landscapes: Characterizing Space Through Dreams and Reality | Margaryta Golovchenko

It is easy – if not natural – to think of space as a material based, geographically rooted term. At the same time, there is sense of intimacy associated with the term which registers on a subconscious level, entailing a system of accepting and refusing entry, whether to people or objects, which is based on predetermined criteria. The mind, meanwhile, is capable of correlating the physical shell of space with the bodily presence waiting to inhabit it; the presence serves as the creator who curates a tableau through movement and manipulation. As a result, the idea that space is empty becomes problematic, for objects never simply end up where they are and instead are always undergoing some form of conscious or subconscious accumulation and arrangement. While in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four the idea of emptiness is dispelled by material excess as a form of “filling”, the poems of Louise Glück’s A Village Life present the individual in the dual role of object-creator; occupying and embodying the space as well as manipulating it. It is in the movie Inception that the final aspect of the problem is seen through the close coexistence between object and subject, in which the dichotomy of creation and recreation is mediated through personal meaning. The result is a redefinition of space as a concept that is conceived within the mind before it obtains a physical form, the goal of which is to subvert the strange until the foreign becomes the familiar. In the process space is dominated by emotions, which shape space based on an internal sense of rules and eliminate any possibility of neutrality.

The physical entity of space is the first link in understanding the effect human presence has on their surroundings through personal intervention. This is often manifested in the form of arrangement and the ordering of objects which, in the case of Thaddeus Sholto’s room in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, manifests itself in the form of overabundance. Watson’s amazement at his surroundings is evident from his catalogue-like account of the details in the room which, “[i]n that sorry house […] looked as out of place as a diamond of the first water in a setting of brass[i]. These objects are meant to engage all of the senses, as he points out the “lamp in the fashion of a silver dove […which,] [a]s it burned[,] filled the air with a subtle and aromatic odour[ii], suggesting that it is not enough simply to fill the space. Rather, the goal is to create an atmosphere, an experience that would assail the visitor in an almost transcendental manner, inadvertently transforming the room into a microcosm which appears as if ripped out of the Orient through its desire to imitate, yet simultaneously shows no real attempt to integrate into the London cityscape beyond. This appeal to the senses is, according to Jan Švankmajer, the very difference between curation of a formal space of the museum and the informal space of the bedroom, where museums are the objective and rational form of organization whereas a bedroom is a subjective cabinet of wonders, driven by the emotions[iii]. The objects reconstruct the narrative Sholto has transposed from himself, as a patron of artists and lover of elegance, onto them, making them difficult to admire due to the presence of an almost overbearing context, preventing the viewer from “reading” them in isolation. Furthermore, Doyle uses the room as a physical, albeit distanced, presence of the imperial mindset, which saw “[t]he Orient […] not [as] Europe’s interlocutor, but [as] its silent Other[iv], the objects selected not so much due to their aesthetic values as much as what they are capable of representing. The physical space is akin to “a shell [that] is not merely a being that once lived, but one that is still alive[v]; stagnation prevented not only by the fact that items can be moved individually, but also due to the fact that rearrangement also changes context and, as a result, a purpose.

There is an immediacy to objects as a result of their maneuverability, made more significant when occurring on a larger scale of an entire room. However, they simultaneously evoke a sense of distance and anticipation by indirectly referring to a human presence, whether past or future, which engages with them by deciding what goes together and what is taken out. This gives space the status of a threshold, like in the case of Bartholomew Sholto’s chemical laboratory, with its “double line of glass-stoppered bottles […and table] littered over with Bunsen burners, test-tubes, and retorts[vi]. In contrast to Thaddeus’ room, Bartholomew’s should instead be read as a form of characterization, as it gives the reader a first impression of the man before he can be “encountered” through the page, using visual language to indicate how the environment was manipulated and interpreted through the human body. While a room is not always occupied, the human presence within it is always felt either through the presence or absence of certain objects, the way a modern stove “without the red glow of the coals […eliminates] the whole mood of winter […] and with it the pleasure of family gatherings round the fire.”[vii] The individual is the catalyst in the life of physical space, determining the movements of the objects as well as their overall “lifespan”, resulting in “the house’s virtues of protection and resistance [being[ transported into human virtues […] acquir[ing] the physical and moral energy of a human body[viii] that is like the breath of life which makes space feel lived-in.

At the same time, space is also governed by a second force which is, for the most part beyond the influence of the human hand; specifically, this is the relationship that exists between objects and the natural elements. In this case, human presence is essential as a means of acknowledging the presence of nature as an important companion to the physical which, in the case of things like dust, can be further manipulated as extensions of it. Watson’s description of the neighbourhood in which Thaddeus Sholto’s house is located, with its surrounding “[l]ong lines of dull houses […] relieved by the course glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner[ix], while looked down on by Doyle, is exactly what Tanizaki argues for, believing that the process of deterioration as well as the presence of the elements are necessary to the existence of space. He sees them as forces that dictate how objects are appreciated, for “we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and sheen that call to mind the past that made them[x], although he later follows this by distinguishing between Oriental and Western taste, the latter constantly concerned with “bettering his lot[xi]. Human presence in space can be felt before the physical occupation takes place, instead felt through objects which serve as visual histories of movement.

Space comes to life not only through the interaction of various components of the object landscape, but also from the “metaphorical” layer of emotions that is inevitably added when people are present. In her collection A Village Life, Louise Glück captures the way human presence is not only an influence but is a landscape in its own right that is shaped instead by social rather than curatorial rules. The “clusters of metal tables [around the fountain] / […] where you sit when you’re old / beyond the intensities of the fountain […] / [which] is for the young, who still want to look at themselves. / Or for the mothers, who need to keep their children diverter[xii] are imbued with connotations of age, reflecting the lives of their users not through physical wear but through associations they are imbued with. It is this very “use value” that determines “what you can do in a place[,] / but after a while you exhaust that place, / so you long for a rescue.”[xiii] The captivity and freedom found within a space are difficult to imagine if it remains empty of human presence, in a state free of interpretation. The captivity that arises from transposing one space onto another, capturing both in an isolated bubble of time, results in a space “of organic habits […] recapture[ing] the reflexes of the ‘first stairway’ […] push[ing] the door that creaks with the same gesture[xiv] which cause one to see space not for what is there but for how it compares to the habitual, making the foreign into the familiar without giving credit to what is physically present before the individual at that very moment. It is this subconscious comparison that is the greatest “threat” experiences by the physical space from the individual, especially if they are like Baudelaire’s flaneur, for whom “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite[xv]. This difference in seeing space, “the seeing of things, which belongs / to the science of optics, versus / the seeing beyond things, which / results from deprivation[xvi], is characteristic of a space that has come fully under the control of the social space, which determines how it is to be read as well as who is privileged enough to do so, initiating the segregation and restriction that is to follow.

While the idea of private and public spaces has been hinted at so far in the essay, it is significant to consider this characterization of space separately, as it affects both the object- and people-scape as well as serves as yet another form of contextualization. The works of Doyle and Glück find themselves in a relative center between these two terms — neither present the reader with any clear rules regarding the movement of objects or people, yet both create some semblance of boundaries that can be found in any space one considers to be, in some way, personal. While Sherlock and Watson need the approval of McMurdo to enter Pondicherry Lodge, Glück’s poems focus on the personal bubble of daily life and the decision to interact with others or with one’s environment voluntarily. Just as Švankmajer distinguished between formal and informal collecting, there exists an equivalent pair of private and public space, which is similarly centered on the concept of collecting. The historical “transition from exclusively private or royal collections to public museums was slow, made possible only by a huge conceptual leap in the thinking about the relationship of the private and public sphere, and by the emergence of the modern state[xvii], demonstrating that the underlying feature of space is that it is, first and foremost, always owned by someone, an individual or a collective, who, like the curator mentioned earlier, is privileged with deciding what kind of “life” the space will lead and how it will evolve. The outsider is thus faced with the questions of whether or not is beneficial for them to change the space and, more importantly, whether such a change is possible and what measures need to be undertaken, as the owner of the house has the power to exert their will and arrange their haven as their please, until “think[ing] of the wall, [one doesn’t] think prison. / More the opposite — [one] think[s] of everything [they] escaped, being here[xviii]. Due to the nature of a collective space such as a museum however, it has the greater added responsibility of serving as a mediator and a representor of the social in the material and, particularly in modern society, this implies that the individual has a say in how this representation is to occur, as well as what context is appropriate or desired.

Context, as well as an overarching narrative, is significant for both forms of space presented so far, especially if one considers what is omitted in its creation. While the term exile is typically used to refer to people and their social space, it can arguably be applied to the material as well, to objects that have found themselves in a similarly out-of-place state and “compensate[e] for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule[xix]. In fact, the dependence mentioned earlier that objects have on human presence, which is necessary for creating and defining the relationship that exists between them, can be classified as a sort of kinship, a “nationalism” with a similar intention of integrating that arises from a condition of estrangement.[xx] Naturally, there is a question of severity and the extent of harm when it comes to this kind of dislocation and decontextualization, which varies from the individual to the object. It is instinctive also to ask which of the two suffers more, and while such a question is difficult to answer with a generalization, it draws attention to how such an issue can be overcome; through a reconstruction of space not by creating an exact replica, but through an amalgamation that results in a hybrid form.

Reconfiguration is the defining feature of the dreamscape, which presents the aforementioned shuffling of information but does so subconsciously rather than deliberately. More specifically, the spaces of dreams are subject to “the condensation of elements of different places in one dream location […and] the selection of a few elements of a totality or the representation of one part of the setting only[xxi], at times making it difficult to trace the original source, as was possible in the case with Doyle. They also heighten what Glück portrays as an emotionally, even personally, charged space that is the construct of the individual. This concern with originality and origin is found in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, for not only is “the subject’s mind […] always [able to] trace the genesis of the idea […but] [t]rue inspiration is impossible to fake”[xxii], the element of curation now given the more specific goal of replication. Saito’s assertion that his carpet, while “stained and frayed in such distinctive ways […was] very definitely made of wool […whereas now he was] lying on polyester[,] which means [he is] not lying on [his] carpet in [his] apartment[xxiii]. While space- and objects specifically- maintain an aspect of the personal which has been explored so far, it becomes highly individualized and almost secretive in Inception, to the point where Arthur’s explanation of Totems to Ariadne is followed by a refusal when she attempts to hold his own. This newfound element of danger, imbedded in the role of the Architect who should “never recreate places from [their] memories […as] building from […] memory is the easiest way of losing […] grasp on [reality]”[xxiv], implies that personal space is a form of the private, that it is eternally found at the crossroads between the real and the imitative, just like a dream is the disguised wishes and internally supressed conflicts of an individual.[xxv] The added distance that is created between the spectator and the actors in the medium of the film, which, as Benjamin argues, causes the camera “not [to] establish a realm apart from the physical world, but instead [to explode] the prevailing world into rubble, piercing the veil of dissimulation[xxvi], presents the dreamscape as a space that remains governed by the very same dichotomies of public and private, object and person, as the waking world, except there is a greater fear of failing to dissociate the signifier from the signified. The mind is a space that is not independent from society or its influences, and while Inception proves that there are aspects of it that remain untouchable and isolated even from a foreign presence, the emotional and private is dependent on the physical for its manifestation, which can then, with some reconnaissance, be decoded.

The essay has focused on defining space as location-based, with the different spaces of the three texts similar to stations on a subway map — the individual travels from one to the other, creating a feeling of definitiveness.This travelling is important to consider- albeit briefly -, at this point in the essay, as it raises the question of whether mobility, due to its function of going rather than arriving or being in, is capable of being a “neutral space” as a result of this in-betweenness. While walking lacks the set boundaries found in Doyle’s novel, confined space is dependent on the act of walking as a way of amassing, which one must then traverse in order to enjoy it, much like one does a garden, “designed to be experienced in motion as a series of compositions dissolving into each other rather than as a static picture.”[xxvii] It is more akin to the general landscape of Glück’s poetry, which exists as a backdrop for the social relations which establish themselves in its forefront, particularly if the act of walking is considered as a semiprivate space like it was in courtship.[xxviii] In fact, walking is hardly the neutral form of space that it appears to be, arguably even more gendered than an enclosed space due to the fact that “[i]t makes women’s sexuality a public rather than a private matter[xxix], while the act of following an existing path is a recombination of the past with the present, serving as “a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there[xxx]. By moving, especially walking, one is inevitably undergoing an act of cross-pollination, carrying over aspects of previous spaces which get broken down, some kept while others are discarded. Movement is the anticipation for the arrival to a structured space, for which the social structures of the road serve as a preparation.

Space, in whichever form it takes, is dependent on the process of planning and execution, but also requires an agreement on the part of the decision makers regarding what it will look like in the end. It is the efforts to structure the physical landscape and then fill it with association and the subconscious which points to the primary role of space as a container for the personal and emotional, which manifest themselves differently based on the person and thus eliminating any chance of a complete uniformity. Yet it is the element of anticipation, the feeling of incompleteness which arises from the possibilities of filling and replacing, which makes physical space definitive and the subconscious space endless, for the latter is constantly finding ways in which to mediate the physical.


[i] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (London: Spencer Blackett, 2000), 48.

[ii] Ibid., 49.

[iii] Jan Švankmajer, “Cabinets of Wonders: On Creating and Collecting,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 11, no. 2 (2011): 103.

[iv] Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002), 202.

[v] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 113.

[vi] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (London: Spencer Blackett, 2000), 85.

[vii] Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (London: Vintage, 2001), 8.

[viii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 46.

[ix] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (London: Spencer Blackett, 2000), 45.

[x] Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (London: Vintage, 2001), 20.

[xi] Ibid., 48.

[xii] Louise Glück, “Tributaries,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 6.

[xiii] Louise Glück, “In the Café,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 13.

[xiv] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 14-15.

[xv] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 2012), 9.

[xvi] Louise Glück, “Bats,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 34.

[xvii] Philipp Blom, To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (London: Penguin, 2003), 112.

[xviii] Louise Glück, “Olive Trees,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 55.

[xix] Edward W. Said, Reflection on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002), 181.

[xx] Ibid., 176.

[xxi] Christina Iosifescu Enescu, Christina M., Jacques Montagero, and Lorenz Hurni, “Toward Dream Cartography: Mapping Dream Space and Content,” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 50.4 (2015): 225-226.

[xxii] Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan (2010; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures).

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Christina Iosifescu Enescu, Christina M., Jacques Montagero, and Lorenz Hurni, “Toward Dream Cartography: Mapping Dream Space and Content,” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 50.4 (2015): 226.

[xxvi] Gertrud Koch and Nancy Nenno, “Cosmos in Film: On the Concept of Space in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ Essay,” Qui Parle 5, no. 2 (1992): 66.

[xxvii] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 2001), 90.

[xxviii] Ibid. 232.

[xxix] Ibid., 235.

[xxx] Ibid., 72.

Margaryta Golovchenko is a poet and reviewer based in Toronto, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as The Hart House Review, Acta Victoriana, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Contemporary Verse 2, while her reviews can be found or are forthcoming in Alternating Current, Adroit Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, and Empty Mirror. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks and is about to begin her MA in art history at York University.

You can find her on Twitter at  @Margaryta505