A Space Without a Use

This is the last time that I will write about Georges Perec.  I promise.  Well, it is the last time that I will write about Species of Spaces anyway, unless, of course, something reminds me of it, or unless another writer mentions it, or unless it is really relevant to something else that I am writing.  Otherwise, this is it.  I swear it.

Perec includes a section in Species of Spaces that he entitles “A Space Without a Use”, in which he tries to conceive of a room that is not simply unused, but that is “absolutely and intentionally useless,” a “functionless space” that “would serve for nothing, relate to nothing.”  Of course, nothing can be useless in this sense, since even an empty room or a corner serves a structural or architectural function, and Perec concludes that is “impossible to follow this idea through to the end,” because language itself is “unsuited to describing this nothing, this void.”  The problem, he implies, is that a space cannot be useless once it has become the subject of language, and that it is impossible to conceive of a space that is beyond language, because conception requires language.  The only space that would truly be without a use, therefore, would be the one that I do not know and therefore do not subject to language.

I was fascinated by this passage because I have discovered such a room in my own house.  Let me tell the story.  It will only take a minute.  When my wife and I were looking to buy our house, almost two years ago now, we did what most prospective homebuyers do.  We toured the place during the open house.  We arranged a second private tour.  We had an inspector and a contractor go through with us on a third occasion, and we found little that we did not expect.  Six months later, we moved in, and we have since had electricians, plumbers, and contractors of all descriptions doing work in every nook of the house, and we still found nothing out of the ordinary.

This fall, however, as I was removing the old sheets and pillows and upholstery that the previous owners had been using as insulation in the downstairs windows and joist spaces, I discovered that there was a window in our cold cellar.  I knew from its location that it should look out under the front porch, but I thought it odd that anyone would want a view of a crawlspace, so I pulled out the remaining mouldy fabric, and I opened the window.  There, beneath the porch, was an entire room, perhaps 10 by 18 feet and the full height of our 9 foot basement.  It had only a dirt floor, and some of the soil had been mounded up near the window so that people could easily enter and exit the room.  Scraps of carpet and wood provided some evidence that it had been used as a children’s fort at some point.  It was otherwise empty.

Until that moment, until I discovered what was there, the room was useless to me in exactly the way that Perec describes.  It was not useless altogether of course.  It had served an architectural purpose for the house’s designers and builders.  It had also served an imaginative and recreational purpose for some children at one point or another.  For me, however, who had not known that it even existed, it was entirely without use, that is, until I happened upon it and began to consider what it might have been and what it might be yet.

There is a sort of loss in this for me, the loss of something that I did not know I had until it had gone, the loss of something that I think Perec is articulating in his search for a space without a use.  What I have lost is something that might best be called the unknown or the unnamed, at least as these things appear in the small scale of my house.  Before I had found the hidden room, I did not even know that such a thing existed.  Now that I have found it, I have lost the potential to find it again.  I have lost its waiting to be discovered, though I knew nothing of this until its discovery.  I discovered what was hidden only at the cost of losing its hiddenness, as is the case with the unknown and the unnamed in every case. I can never possess the hidden, the unnamed, the useless, the unknown.  I always discover them too soon and too late.

There may be other things to find, of course.  Perhaps there is a stairway to hidden catacombs beneath my garage, or perhaps their are secret tunnels beneath my eaves, but I do not want to find them.  I want there always to be the possibility that I have not found everything, that I have not uncovered every hiddenness or explored every mystery, even in such a small thing as my house.  I want there always to be spaces that escape the uses to which I would subject them.

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4 comments
  1. TC said:

    How wonderful!
    I have dreams like this.
    I will re- read this soon.

  2. TC said:

    I’m sorry, there was something now –
    de Certeau in ‘The possession at Loudun’
    writes that historians put the vocabulary
    of the past at our disposal.
    In a way the unknown room may relate
    to a vocabulary, rather than to language.

  3. TC,

    This idea appeals to me: The unknowns of the world like an undiscovered vocabulary.

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