In the corridor outside my office, there’s a staircase that leads nowhere. In fact, there are two. One I think of as going up. It has ten steps before it meets a wall. The other, which I think of as descending, has only five steps before it too is blocked. I know that stairs go both ways. Thinking in terms of up and down depends on the level from which you view them. If I stood with my back pressed close against the walls that cut them off, my up stair would lead down, my down stair up.
These blocked stairs draw my eye with compelling magnetism.
I’m loathe to credit such poor, amputated forms with the significance given to stairs by those who write about them. John Templer (in The Staircase: History and Theories) says that stairs have “always been used to represent human spiritual aspirations and cosmography.” Oscar Tusquets (in The Staircase: The Architecture of Ascent) argues that stairs are “charged with symbolic force, representing power, hierarchy, mysticism.” He notes that the idea of a staircase leading up to heaven or down to hell “exists in virtually every culture.” In similar terms, Markus Hattstein (in Stairs: Architectural Details) points to the way in which stairs possess a range of meanings “which far exceed their practical usefulness.” In “Stairways of the Mind,” a perceptive essay in the International Forum of Psychoanalysis (Vol.9, 2000, 7-18), Juhani Pallasmaa summarizes the significance stairs are granted by a range of authorities when he says they possess “a wealth of metaphoric and symbolic connotations.”
But the stairs outside my office are no grand sets of steps such as you’d find in a pyramid or ziggurat; they have nothing of the cathedral or temple about them, still less the palace. They look uninspiring, entirely ordinary. Is it possible they carry any of Pallasmaa’s wealth of connotation?
Despite their lowliness, they certainly have an impact on me. Perhaps in part it’s because of their unsettling juxtaposition of what’s familiar with what’s unexpected – being ambushed by the blank walls that fall like portcullises across the path the stairs seem to be inviting me to take. And in part, for all their modest stature, I think they somehow succeed in tapping into the wider associations of stairs, and so echo with an array of notes that have nothing to do with the utilitarian function they once served.
There’s an entirely prosaic reason for these two aborted stairways. It’s not as if they were deliberately made this way in order to convey a message, or represent some truth. They’re quotidian in character not symbolic. My office is in one of the older parts of the university campus, occupying a stone building that was originally a generously proportioned townhouse. Long ago, it was some wealthy family’s home. As the building’s purpose changed over the years, shifting from domestic to institutional use, various structural changes were made to the interior: corridors blocked off; new doorways opened; large rooms divided into smaller ones; ceilings lowered; the house sectioned off to provide separate territories for different departments. Fire doors and reception areas were added, and bathrooms and larders were converted into stationery stores and photocopying rooms. Fireplaces have been covered over and replaced with radiators, windows double glazed, paintwork and furnishings styled to conform to the bland functionality of teaching and administration rather than the unpredictability of a family’s taste.
Originally, the stairs that lead nowhere were just ordinary thoroughfares linking different levels of the house. The walls that cut them off were built to create the division into separate units that’s now in place. Leaving these truncated remnants where they are was clearly the easiest and cheapest option. But from the perspective of architectural aesthetics they’re an affront to the appearance of the place, and practical good sense would dismiss them as unnecessary glitches in day-to-day utility, inefficient use of space. Despite such no-doubt justified condemnations, I’m glad they weren’t removed. They lend the distinction of eccentricity to the bland corridor outside my office – as if a folly or a gargoyle had been added. I know they’re just awkward remainders that it was less trouble to leave in situ than take out, but they have about them a pleasing air of whim and flourish, as if someone had decided to carve their own illicit embellishment, rich with paradox, into the prevailing ordinariness.
Sometimes, though thankfully this is rare, these stairs that lead to nowhere cause real confusion if visitors attempt to use them. Occasionally you can hear laughter prompted by a first encounter. But almost everyone who works in the building is so used to them that they’re scarcely noticed. On the rare occasions when someone mentions them, it’s almost always in the context of exasperated resignation at how the university is run. Though I sympathize with a reading of these awkward remnants that presents them as evidence of the institution’s scrooge-like attitude to its real estate, I’ve come to see them as possessing far more significance than that.
When I pause to consider them – as I often do – the blocked stairs spark a cluster of related ideas. Advancement to a higher level thwarted, a path leading downwards – with the promise of getting closer to the root, the heart, the nub – abruptly stopped. Our steady step-by-step progression peremptorily halted in its tracks. The stairs that lead to nowhere seem tuned to the same key as our mortality; they resonate with that unpalatable truth we all must face – the fact that at some unknown point death’s wall will cut across our timeline and we’ll be stopped for good.
More positively than these terminal tropes, the stairs that lead to nowhere also make me think of a hidden realm just beyond them, the prospect of continuance, a secret place, somewhere out of sight that demands a different itinerary to reach. It’s off the beaten track and needs to be approached obliquely, according to some arcane map. Entry is granted only to those with the proper esoteric knowledge. It may be tantalizingly close, but we can’t break through unless we follow the right directions; access is guarded by password, code and ritual known only to initiates.
I like the way they nudge the mind with gentle reminders of its mortality and pose the paradox of a route that leads nowhere while at the same time hinting at the possibility of hidden realms beyond the cul-de-sac of obvious cessation. But the main reason the blocked-off stairs appeal to me so much isn’t because they provide a memento mori or hope of some beyond, but because they’re such visible touchstones for something we repeatedly encounter. The truth is, we’re surrounded by such stairs; they litter our experience.
When I say there are numerous blocked stairways all around me, I don’t mean this literally of course. What I have in mind are not plain cut-off stairs that you could reach out and touch, not actual physical structures like the stairs outside my office that anyone could walk up or down for a few steps before encountering a wall. I mean rather the repeated instances of what seems like parallels – where routes are started and then stopped; where we find our progress forward blocked; where we’re locked into a single level although other strata beckon; where we’re halted in our tracks and kept within the bounds of familiar confinement. The actual stairs to nowhere outside my office have come to act like mascots – tangible symbols – for these thematic blood brothers that invisibly crowd our days.
An example will help bring these multiple invisible stairways into sight. Consider the view out of my office window – or, rather, the single feature that dominates it. To describe this, I might say: “There’s a tree outside my office window.” The seven words of this straightforward statement offer the beginning of a description, a first building block in attempting to communicate the view to others, an initial step on the stairway to understanding what I see. But clearly, on its own, this statement is too general to give more than the vaguest picture. I need to add more detail, give specifics, before anyone can start to really share my outlook, get a sense of the particular textures it lays upon my mind.
Let’s take another step or two: “There’s a beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) just outside my office window. It’s so close the branches almost brush the glass. Over sixty feet high, the tree dominates a rough patch of grass bordering a path behind the building. As well as flagging the changing seasons with the semaphore of its foliage – greens in spring and summer, yellows, browns and gold in autumn, bare branches in winter – it also provides a kind of daily weathervane. I’ve come to recognize the tunes played out on it by wind and rain. If the window is open even a fraction, I can tell a lot about what kind of day it is, without looking out, just by the sounds of the tree’s natural percussion.”
Starting to flesh out “There’s a tree outside my office window” in this way gives a sense of progression, of transferring from my mind to readers’ minds the nature of the view that meets my eye. Adding words is like constructing the risers and treads of a staircase, each addition taking us incrementally further, letting us progress in our grasp of what is there. But far stronger than any sense of progression is a feeling of curtailment and confinement – the words seem as much like stones in a wall that’s built across our path as component parts of a stairway that, incrementally, increases understanding.
My frequent sense of being on stairs to nowhere is engendered by the jarring mismatch between the actual nature of the things that we encounter and the way we talk about them. Ordinary parlance scarcely scratches the surface of the world. We use language to name and describe things, but those names and descriptions hide more than they reveal. Yes, “There’s a beech tree just outside my office window” provides a measure of what’s there. But it gives almost no idea of the nature of what I’m seeing. It only skims the surface, omitting so many hidden depths it seems closer to deception than description. Just a few steps and then a wall – behind which lies what happens in photosynthesis and pollination, the invisible processes and structures occurring at molecular and atomic levels, the blueprint of the tree’s form, the history of this species’ existence, what led to this one individual tree being planted in this particular spot outside my office.
Mostly, of course, I rest content with the truncated steps of everyday discourse. Like everyone else, I rely on the portcullis power of words more than their stair-building potential, the way they corral within familiar names, offer a palette of customary colours that lets us draw the simplifications we recognize, caricatures that facilitate all the commerce of our commonsense interactions. But sometimes I prefer to take a few steps more, remind myself of the realms just behind our word-walls. As with so many things that we encounter, the beech tree outside my office window contains stairways that lead on and on, far beyond the blocking of our routine locations. “There’s a beech tree outside my office window” ignores eons of history, hides the intricate insights of biology and chemistry, and operates at a level of superficiality that masks astonishing strata of intricately balanced processes.
A few of the steps that might be taken beyond the shorthand portcullis wall of “beech tree” can be glimpsed in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. His book reveals some of the staircases that lie behind our usual labels. Wohlleben reveals that beech trees can live for four or five hundred years; that a mature beech “exhales hundreds of gallons of water a day;” that in the course of its lifespan it may produce1.8 million beechnuts; that the trees share resources with each other, forming a community of cognate lifeforms which provide succour for those trees that are struggling; that periodic “mast years” of massive fruit production – with single trees producing 30,000 or more beechnuts – are part of a coordinated strategy to outmaneuver predators. And this is just the start of one ascent beyond the ordinary. It doesn’t touch on the role beech trees have played in human history. One aspect of this can be gleaned from the fact that our words for “beech” and “book” are related; they share an etymological bloodline that points back to this smooth-barked tree’s ancient use as a writing surface. Beech bark and beech wood tablets used to provide the equivalent of paper. In addition, as Jonathan Drori points out in Around the World in 80 Trees, medieval European writing desks “were often made of beech,” and before Gutenberg “letters were often carved from its bark for early experiments in printing.”
Perhaps, under their dusty lino covering, the stairs to nowhere in the corridor outside my office are made of beech wood, so weaving a variation around the themes embodied in the living tree that grows just a stone’s throw from them. Maybe it would be symbolically appropriate to print a copy of this essay – or inscribe it on beech bark – and leave it on them as a votive offering; a tribute to those aspects of beech we almost never acknowledge.
The seemingly ordinary seethes with what’s extraordinary. Every moment feeds on the umbilical of time and space, so connecting it to perspectives that rupture our everyday containments. Convenience urges one way of calibrating things; the metrics of wonder suggest quite another. Just behind our customary word-walls there are seemingly endless steps leading into immensities of scale and complexity the mind has difficulty grasping. “The beech tree outside my office window” can be dismissed in those seven words.
Or it can reveal stairways leading back in time for all the eons it has taken Fagus sylvatica to form, develop and spread its presence across so many parts of the world. Etched into the substance of its trunk and branches, the fabric of its foliage, the network of its roots, the rhythms of its flowering and fruiting, there are intricacies of form and function it would take lifetimes to unravel, chart and follow. And this one specific beech tree that I look out at every working day not only holds the potential to tell the story of its own intrinsic identity, its nature and history. In its rootedness to this particular place, over this particular span of years, it also forges a web of relationships with what passes here, thus interlinking with numerous threads of richly embroidered narrative that together weave the fabric of existence – the people who walk under it, immersed in their own lifelines, the birds that perch on its branches, the insects that land on its leaves and bask there briefly in the sun, the patterns of shadows it casts on the ground, the way the city’s sounds lay their invisible fingerprints upon it.
I could add thousands – millions – of words to my initial “there’s a tree outside my office window,” but the thing that’s there would still elude complete elucidation. How can we describe the wonders that are daily before us? So much is present in so little that it can appear fantastical when we stop to think about it, as if we’re dealing with fairy artefacts, something charmed and magical, imbued with unsuspected powers. A leaf unfurls, green and fresh, it grows to full size. It reaps its harvest from the sun, it’s there in sunshine, moonlight, rain and wind. It takes on its autumnal color, falls from the tree, is blown away, lands on a patch of rough grass outside an office and rots back into the earth. In that single isobar of small events, the little timeline of a single leaf, there are echoes of such haunting resonance that they allow us to glimpse massive vistas of time, heavy with the cargoes of meaning that they carry. Behind the paper-thinness of every leaf stands something astounding – the raw fact of existence sprawling its presence across the amplitude of time and space.
How can we convey how astonishing are the things we daily encounter? Though I’d be pleased to find a vocabulary that could pick the lock of the mundane, loosen the blindfold of routine so that we could give a fuller sense of the scale and nature of what lies behind our conventional labels, it’s hard to envisage what sort of vocabulary this would be. It’s easy enough to reach for a handful of terms that promise to break through any stair-blocking confinement – “infinite,” “eternal,” “ultimate,” “timeless,” “unbounded,” “incredible,” “extraordinary,” “miraculous.” But although they promise to take us into more expansive territories, such terms can bestow a kind of vacuous mystical or metaphysical tone whose bland generality undersells the fact that the world – as Louis Macneice puts it – is “incorrigibly plural.” How can we effectively celebrate what Macneice, in the same poem (“Snow”) calls “the drunkenness of things being various”? Rather than resting content with the limited range of convention’s blocked off stairs, or reaching too soon for an overblown vocabulary, I prefer to concentrate my efforts on making sure that I remember the presence of stairs to nowhere (or to very limited vantage points) all around us. They’re there in the way we talk about trees, or birds, or each other, or virtually anything.
Sometimes it feels as if the stairs to nowhere that litter the mundane are not so much blocked as designed to be like Penrose stairs – those impossible staircases created by mathematician Roger Penrose and his father. Their work influenced the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, whose famous lithograph “Ascending and Descending” offers a pictorial depiction of the Penroses’ paradox. It shows a staircase at the top of a building. On it are 26 figures all clad in the same, monk-like garb. Half seem headed up, half are headed down – but no matter which way they’re facing the figures make no progress – the stairs in this brilliantly crafted optical illusion are continuous, never-ending. The figures get nowhere. I particularly like the fact that Escher chose to have 26 of these monk-like figures caught in the treadmill of their endless loop. To me that symbolizes the way in which we so often use the letters of the alphabet to craft words that keep us trapped within the orbit of routine simplifications. Caught in the confinement of the conventional, we skirt or ignore the wonders that surround us. Trying to use words differently, making the walls they build transparent, constructing a few more stairs so that we can step up and see things from different perspectives, is surely one of the enticements of essay writing.
Chris Arthur is an Irish writer currently based in Scotland. He’s author of several essay collections, most recently Hummingbirds Between the Pages (2018), and has published in a range of journals. Further information about his writing can be found here: www.chrisarthur.org.