It’s been a long week, and it’s only Thursday! I’ve been a US citizen for exactly one year and two months, registered to vote in a reliably blue state but currently watching the Republicans pull ahead in my former home, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in England, the national lockdown begins even as the Minister of State for Universities insists in an insipidly worded email to all HE students that the government prioritises a conveniently unverified claim about our mental health needs over the completely verifiable threat of in-person education and Covid transmission. Add to that my brain-scrambling study of hierarchical regressions in R and jamovi and you find a version of me running on power save mode.
This week, my adventures in developmental psychology have led me to a study of memory span, and the debate over the nature of its rapid increase in childhood. As I consider the roles of the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad, I can’t help remembering poring over Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture while considering literary works which attached emotional signifiers to mysterious built landscapes. The architectural mnemonic, Carruthers explains, was a deliberate strategy for improving memory, but as the presidential race gathers speed I’ve been thinking of another visuospatial and emotional link.
During the week Trump was elected in 2016, I happened to be knitting a fair isle gansey from one of Alice Starmore’s patterns in the Book of Fair Isle Knitting. Quite by chance, I’m knitting another from the same pattern this time around. Whenever I knit something I’ve knitted before – especially if it has significant architectural scope – I’m transported vividly to the emotional state and physical situation of the last time I worked on the same project. If I’m making the second in a pair of selbuvotter I can taste the espresso and smell the air that accompanied the construction of the first mitten. Now, felting the steeks of this year’s gansey, I can see the faces of my Princeton undergraduates in the class I taught the day Trump was elected, and I can recall the feel of the wool and needles under my fingers as I took the SEPTA train out of Trenton Transit Center that same day while working the corrugated rib of the cuff.
I’ve been interested for many years in the mind’s handling of paradoxes and illusions, and as an antidote to the deliciously spooky but ultimately wearisome Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, I recently devoured its excellent source material, a short novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson. Hill House, remarks Dr Montague, is “a masterpiece of architectural misdirection” (p. 106): the experience of moving through it reflects the mind of its creator, Hugh Crain, and demands a violation of otherwise well-calibrated senses of balance and reason. Within its walls, protagonist Eleanor locates irrational extremes of revulsion and euphoria and learns “the silent pathways of the heart” (p. 164). In her own heart, these pathways become as distorted as those of Crain’s unstable invention, with chilling consequences.
When I wrote “The Orphanage of Chance Thoughts”, I was getting at something similar – the physical inscription of a distorted mental process across a landscape of paradoxical architecture. It’s a preoccupation of mine that’s found its way into my academic work, my creative writing, and now my psychological interests. Perhaps in these exceptional circumstances of global chaos, the visualisation of a strict and complex structure provides an even more vivid contrast with the emotional disarray outside it. The true horror in Hill House, I think, comes from the violation of a seeming promise of such a structure. In my current state of unsettling fatigue, I can only hope that a preferable political resolution is woven into the sleeve of the gansey I’m currently knitting.