THE WONERFUL WINDOW: SOFT DUALITY vs HARSH DUALISM

THE WONDERFUL WINDOW is a short story by Lord Dunsany from THE BOOK OF WONDER a collection of his stories published in 1912. You can read the text of the story here, and listen to a reading and discussion of the story on the SFFAUDIO PODCAST.

Plot: Mr Sladden, a young man,  frequent day-dreamer, and lover of “romance”, who works in an emporium and lives alone in a single barely furnished room, buys a “magic window” in the street from a strange “Oriental” old man, who installs it in a wall in his room for him. Through the window Sladden can see, looking down from a very high vantage point, a beautiful medieval city. Although he can here nothing of what is taking place he becomes fascinated by the City of the Golden Dragons, as he calls it, until one day when he sees it under attack he tries to break the window open to come to the aid of the city and is left with a bare wall, and no way to see the city ever again.

This is a quite short and  very evocative story, that remains quite enigmatic. Sladden does not neglect his work and stay at home to watch the city, he doesn’t lose his job, or his friends, or have anything negative happen to him. He has a tendency to day-dream, finds a focus and confirmation of his daydreams in the magical window, and then loses all contact with the other world it revealed. He does not become insane or depressed but becomes older and more knowledgeable (and one can presume wiser), has a “Business” of his own, and hears no rumour of such a land ever again. If anything then he has even come out improved by the experience, as he moves from working for Messrs Mergin and Chater to setting out on his own Business adventure. Indeed in his relation to the spectacle of the window he moves from passive gazing in his “dingy room” to a desire, an “ambition”, to “be a man-at-arms or an archer in order to fight for the little golden dragons that flew on a white flag for an unknown king in an inaccessible city”. It is only after the birth of this ambition that the city is besieged and that Sladden moves to fight back, only to lose all access to the other world. One can think that his active energies have been mobilised enough to help him fight for his desires in the world of Business.

The story is constructed out of the oppositios between Business and dreaming, but they are never exclusive polar opposites. Sladden daydreams at work, hears London noises while he watches “his” city, becomes even more dreamy at work yet remains “wise and wakeful” enough not to talk about his magic window. Despite being timid and dreamy he is already a bit of a rebel at the beginning of the story as what attracts him to the old man is his strange and marginal appearance, and that the police are making him move on. The first lines of the story are:

The old man in the Oriental-looking robe was being moved on by the police, and it was this that attracted to him and the parcel under his arm the attention of Mr. Sladden, whose livelihood was earned in the emporium of Messrs. Mergin and Chater, that is to say in their establishment.

There seems to be a symbolic or allegorical atmosphere, coming from Sladden himself, to the story, as the emporium is next called Business, no article, always capitalised, like an allegorical figure. “Emporium” is a word with a poetical aura to it, and one of its senses, at least up to the 18th Century, was the brain, more specifically the “common sensory of the brain, becuase it is in the brain that our mental transactions are conducted. One can see a quotation exemplifying this on the marvelous site THE MIND IS A METAPHOR, talking of the “Business” of Sensation, Memory, Reflection, Imagination, etc. Mergin and Chater suggest merging and chatter, the superficial world of fusional relatioships (merging) and idle talk (chatter). The old man is constantly referred to as “strange” and a “stranger” and the intial opposition is set up between the strange man and the forces of order, and between the young dreamer and the “establishment”. I say “opposition”, but in the semiotic sense of paired contrasting items. As explained above the opposition is incomplete or “soft”, not so much conflictual as contrastive and complicitous.

I cannot help associating “emporium” with “empirical”, which goes in the same direction as the definition of emporium as common sensory brain. Sladden daydreams and sees through the walls of the emporium, and London itself becomes myth. Yet the “magical” window gives him empirical confirmation of these imaginative impressions. Once again, we do not have a hard and sharp dualism, or binary opposition, but a softer more equivocal duality. There exists today a method for learning maths, and perhaps other subjects, that is not based on lectures but on interactivity, personal progression, and problem-solving, called the “emporium model”. The old man is almost like an exotic extension of Sladden’s emporium, as the imagination is one of the extensions of the sensory brain. Sladden is a both a daydreaming businessman and an empirical visionary, having found at least visual (and olfactory at the end) confirmation of the reality of the imagination.

What I like about this story is precisely the absence of “Romantic” pathos. Sladden is no man transformed into a beetle who loses everything and then dies, as in Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS (published only a little later, in 1912). He finds confirmation of the values of the imagination and relativises even further the familiar reality of his daily life. He does not “escape” into passive spectatorhood but finds that his imagination reinforces his active forces: seeking information by active inquiry, being careful what one says and to who, taking action to intervene. Nothing suggests that he gave up daydreaming, he succeeds in business yet he has no contempt for his success, there is nothing harsh about this story except the conquest of his little city – which shows him that the world of imagination is not a passive idyll but that a fighting spirit is necessary. I find the end happy and peaceful rather than tortured or cynical. Sladden has become that happy synthesis, the imaginative businessman.

 

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