Piranesi as represented by DeQuincey

The image of the abyss, the labyrinth, the serpentine lamia, and the mists and phantom-like hauntings of the Romantic imagination converge in what some critics call "the Piranesi effect."cf Althea Hayter (94-95), Arden Reed (209-18), and W. T. Mitchell ("Hogarth, Turner, and Blake" Images 133-34). The upward spiral which M. H. Abrams indicates is central to the Romantic quest is here inverted into downward configuration. Thomas DeQuincy relates the following occurance in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Other Writings:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls: on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c.&c. expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overccome. Creeping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose, at least, that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours: and so on, until the unnfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.–With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds. (Climates 65-66).

Arden Reed quotes the above passage as a phenomenon called the "abysmal influence", i.e., winding his way through a Piranesian labyrinth, prisoner in his own artful construct, caught up in a process of interminable mirage. "To be inside a labyrinth is rather like being caught in a fog or a cloud-enveloped landscape . . . Like a labyrinth, finally, the mist of imagination or language can form a self-constructed prison. The figure of the Brocken Specter reveals this Daedalean characteristic, since on the Brocken, mist turns into a mirror and so becomes a construction of the self (66). "What the Carceri. (While Coleridge called the painting Dreams, the actual name was Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)(211) represent to Coleridge is the artist imprisoned in his own labyrinth–Piranesi as Daedalus. And De Quincey’s text constitutes a critique of Romantic imagination from within. This labyrinthian structure thus comes to resemble an abyss. In deed, it contains an abyss (if anything can be said to "contain" that figure) for Piranesi stands on the very brink of the abyss.(r)FN1úBachelard has noted that fear of falling is a primitive fear; it constitutes our elemental fear of our unconscious, of darkness. Poets imagine heights to counteract this fear; we imagine an impulse toward heights and we understand (know) the fall toward the bottom. Poets who are use images of depth such as abysses and chasms have a tremendous fear of falling, of losing control and consequently look for images of clouds, mountain tops–images of great power and height–to counteract this fear. Though one never sees an abyss, one knows of an abyss because one can image an abyss, a chasm, a gulf, from having a sensation of falling without end and the reverse is true. And here even that "brink" poses no limit, for there is not just one abyss in this text but an incalculable number, one at the end of every step" (211-12). This labyrinthian abyss, the self-imprisonment of endless questing, marks the Romantic. The horror of solitude, unending expansion and contraction of space, moving up while simultaneously condemned to always be on the brink of an abyss typifies the tragic sense of the Romantic quest.

Thomas McFarland, well-known critic of Shakespeare who in recent years has turned his attention to the Romantics, contends that "tragedy is the mirror of human existence" (Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare 3). Neither Merleau-Ponty nor Sartre believes in a definitive form of philosophical thought; both place the origins of our existence in darkness. "Whatever is in our consciousness, whatever comes to light, becomes lucid, originates also in this darkness" (Sartre 390). La racine est le mort vivant" 290). "Part of the truth of our existence is that nothingness bounds us on all sides we came crying hither, and we all go into the dark. . . . The tragic mirror is a shield of Perseus by whose artifice we look on what would otherwise freeze and congeal our sight" (4).The "mirror is a reversed truth" (4); it provides a wholeness to let us look at our otherwise fragmented life, and it enables us to look at it still knowing of the constant possibility of non-being.¯ McFarland continues, "Nietzsche has counseled us not to look too long into the abyss, for fear the abyss begins to look back into us. For most of us the eye of the abyss early begins to exert an hypnotic power, and our every existences are compromised by its gaze. Man is compounded of being and non-being, and non-being is ever encroaching upon his being" (115). For the Romantics the abyss, the relationship between the labyrinthian qualities of their mind and the serpentine nature of poetic imagination, all offered poetic images by which they could confront the vacancy, the nothingness of being.