Suzanne Leblanc - Setting the chapters in the various rooms of the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister in Vienna, Leblanc’s novel builds an architectural foundation for the main character’s intensely emotional and intellectually acute way of seeing the world and her place in it

Suzanne Leblanc, The Thought House of Philippa. Trans. by Oana Avasilichioaei and Ingrid Pam Dick. BookThug , 2015.

Suzanne Leblanc's THE THOUGHT HOUSE OF PHILIPPA transposes a theory of individuality into a stunningly reflective, sensuous, and frank philosophical novel. Setting the chapters in the various rooms of the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister in Vienna, Leblanc's novel builds an architectural foundation for the main character's intensely emotional and intellectually acute way of seeing the world and her place in it. Prompted by an experience of isolation early in her life, "P." (Philippa) moves towards the great world of others and nature—alienated from the everyday and yet devoted to a deeper connection—in an exploration that is profound and moving. Ideas crucial to Wittgenstein's work limit, freedom, interior and exterior, self and world—echo and shift in Leblanc's precise, incantatory prose, propelled through the house's architecture. The distinct voices of the novel's four sections act as musical movements, constructed from repetition, variation and development of language, in alternating keys of austerity and splendour. The effect—a pure expression of the passion of clear thought, the adventure of solitude, and the beauty of uncompromising encounter—is utterly riveting. A sui generis experimental novel not to be missed.

The best Quebecois novel I read this year... The book's beauty rests in offering a series of reflections built on philosophical concepts, which, as the narrative progresses, take an aesthetic form that is both sculpted and boundles. - François Cloutier

“A unique and brilliant approach to the self, and to the intimate, as it creates and balances its own architecture of knowledge and emotion.” Nicole Brossard

“Attempts to make art with philosophical concepts continue to be treated with suspicion amongst those who insist that art be born in a burst, not composed stone by stone from ideas. What allows LeBlanc’s Thought House of Philippa to succeed on its own terms lies in the elucidation of the propositions of its most prominent referent (Wittgenstein), while at the same time scraping against them. The result, oddly enough, is a firm yet soothing music. This is no mean feat. Same too for Dick and Avasilichioaei, the poet/translators of this edition, who deliver to English minds a text where (to enter squarely into Wittgenstein—if one dares to!) ‘What can be said at all can be [and is] said clearly.'” —Michael Turner

Multidisciplinary artist Suzanne Leblanc’s work occupies the space where philosophy and contemporary art converge. For several decades, her research, writings and visual art exhibitions have focused on the interconnectedness between philosophical forms and the artistic disciplines: how the architecture of human understanding informs creative endeavour.
In her acclaimed novel, The Thought House of Philippa (originally published as Le maison à penser de P. by La Peuplade in 2010, and now available from BookThug in a new English translation by Oana Avasilichioaei and Ingrid Pam Dick), Leblanc transposes a theory of individuality into a stunningly reflective, sensuous, and honest philosophical narrative.
The titular “thought house” in the book is the famous Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna: the impressive modernist townhouse designed in part by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) for his sister Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein and her family. In 1925, Margaret invited her brother Ludwig to take part in the building project, in part to serve as a much-needed distraction after the rather disastrous end to his fascinating stint as a rural schoolteacher in Trattenbach, a small farming and factory village in the mountains south of Vienna.

Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna
Famously, Wittgenstein insisted that the luxurious townhouse meet his own rigorous specifications, spending years perfecting details like doorknobs and radiators, often quarrelling with the professional architects, and his family. When the house was nearly finished, according to one account, Wittgenstein insisted that a ceiling be raised 30 mm so the room would have the exact proportions he wanted. Of the resulting house, Ludwig’s eldest sister Hermine wrote: “Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me.” The house was completed in 1928.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Each section of The Thought House of Philippa (divided into chorales, foundations, phrases, and logics) corresponds with a specific room of the Haus Wittgenstein (although the philosopher-architect remains unnamed in the text). As the narrator Philippa (“P.”) ambulates through the house, the motion of her thoughts parallels her movement through the physical space — itself meticulously modelled after Wittgenstein’s floor plan. As her story unfolds, she moves from entrance hall to servants quarters to nursery, to the garden, and so on.
By spatializing Philippa’s internal ruminations, Leblanc harkens back to the famous ars memoriae: the broad canon of ancient and early modern texts interested in the spatial representation of ideas, and its relation to memory and comprehension. A standard trope in many of these treatises is the notion that human memory operates not unlike a physical space — a sort of storehouse — and that assigning things to their proper quarters inside an imagined physical space improves retention and recollection.

The Memory Palace of Robert Fludd
The Thought House of Philippa builds an architectural foundation for the main character’s intensely emotional and intellectually acute way of seeing the world and her place in it. Ideas crucial to Wittgenstein’s work — limit, freedom, interior and exterior, self and world – echo and shift in Leblanc’s precise, incantatory prose, propelled through the house’s architecture. The distinct voices of the novel’s four sections act as musical movements, constructed from repetition, variation and development of language, in alternating keys of austerity and splendour.

Where most novels tell stories through specifics (specific characters, specific plots, specific voices—a selective accumulation of specificities), Leblanc has created a novel of principles: a philosophical outlook couched in the form of a fictional biography/autobiography of a woman named P., or Philippa (“she who loves horses”).
Each self-contained section of the book is a stepping stone on P.’s journey toward self understanding. Each of these chapters are “set” in a particular room of the famous Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna, the impressive modernist townhouse designed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for his sister Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein and her family. As P. ambulates through the house, the motion of her thoughts parallels her movement through the physical space of the Haus Wittgenstein, through entrance halls to servants quarters to nurseries, to the garden and the terrace, and so on.
Leblanc sets P.’s philosophical biography inside the physical space designed by her hero and intellectual predecessor, Wittgenstein, who, though never explicitly named, serves as P.’s silent interlocutor throughout. “The house was a method,” writes P., “it issued from a life consecrated to the life of the mind ... It was a house of the mind in which my method lives.”
Leblanc’s linking of recollection to the physical architecture of an actual or imagined space is evocative of the ars memoriae, or art of memory—ancient mnemonic methods of organizing thoughts and memories according to the floor plan of an imagined space, usually an architectural one. For Philippa, her palace of memory is the house designed by “the philosopher” (Wittgenstein), whose “work was convincing” and “life admirable.”
As the novel’s translators, Avasilichioaei and Dick have brought out the pregnant beauty in Leblanc’s unapologetically intellectual narrative. A novel of many ideas, Avasilichioaei and Dick’s translation keeps up with Leblanc’s ambitious emotional and didactic flourishes, while discovering in the abstraction of "discourse” the most lovely music, making The Thought House of Philippa a singular, immersive, self-meditative experience. -

       The person, as well as the thought and writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein have inspired a great deal of fiction; in The Thought House of Philippa it is, along with these, the house he designed for his sister that serves as a blueprint.
       As suggested early on:
The house was a method. It was exact and simple. It was austere and obsessive. It issued from a life consecrated to the life of the mind. [...] I sought, in the hallways of this house, my method, my mind.
       The novel, carefully structured and austere like Wittgenstein's house, is made up of short grouped-together chapters -- an opening and closing set of 'Chorale'-chapters, as well 'Foundation' ones (in the third person), an interlude of two 'Phrase'-variations, as well as a section of 'Logic'-chapters, Philippa in the first person.
       Already in childhood, Philippa, or P., feels an estrangement from her family; her initial instinct is simply, childishly, to run away; a later escape -- a ten-day long separation "in an unknown, clinical environment" -- is more traumatic. P. seems to make her peace with family and her place in it, even as she remains keenly aware of the arbitrariness of her connections to it.
       The forming and holding of relationships continues to be something that P. struggles with, intellectually as much as emotionally:
The concept was born with the things. For P., every love came from a reciprocal decision to maintain it, as well as from real affection. [...] Love therefore became an artifact, a construction, a slow induction with fulgurant crossings, where a pleasure like that of knowledge was practised.
       Self is built up methodically and (would-be) rationally; even at a young age P.'s is an: "idea-formed world" rather than experience-based. The Wittgenstein house -- "an abstract house, a construction of the mind" -- and Wittgenstein's own writing and philosophy, are a foundation for her self-construction.
       The Thought House of Philippa does not go into great detail about details, more interested in process and arc. What we get is the blueprint, the shell, not the furnishings:
It took me years of constant application to create this centre and build de novo the frame of reference that ordinarily comes with an origin. I composed my world as a floating, mobile system whose relation to the Exterior was based first and foremost on knowledge
       P.'s is a quest of self-knowledge, deeply introspective; in its Wittgensteinian focus it can seem artificial -- a construct, rather than a natural state -- yet that's also a matter of perspective: P.'s approach is welcome because it addresses what is also the existential question from this very different angle. As she suggests:
I sought to know myself, not personally but in my individuality, which I took to be a fundamental condition of existence.
       Like much of Wittgenstein's own writing, The Thought House of Philippa is spare and, in many ways, open-ended, suggestive rather than absolute (even as the parts might seem definitive, fixed and permanent like the walls of Wittgenstein's house).
       It is an interesting work of fiction, the language and presentation seductive in the way Wittgenstein's own work can be -- and similarly frustrating, too. - M.A.Orthofer

In a world where stimulation from one's outer environment exponentiates over time, it should only be expected that one's reactions and perceptions to this external stimuli dramatically increases as well. From casual encounters to in-depth conversations, the heightened awareness that is cultivated by society's complexities easily has the ability to not only allow one to become incredibly mindful of these happenings, but also to deeply experience each and every one of them individually and as a whole. In a way, it becomes some sort of a skewed balancing act—the more you face on a daily basis, the more you are able, or unable, to take in. The mind acts as a filter, delicately picking apart each extremity, delight, sorrow, and so on, choosing from the subconscious what the mind will become sensitive to—and sometimes the mind becomes hypersensitive to all. Even when the impetus has been drastically reduced, however, the mind can still remain in this overly observant state. This is the situation at hand for Philippa, the central voice of Suzanne Leblanc's book appropriately titled The Thought House of Philippa.  
Philippa lives in complete isolation, alone with her thoughts and reflections, left alone to contemplate past events and feelings. The openness and honesty found in these words allow the reader to become fully one with the speaker. Instead of the reader and speaker existing on two separate planes, the reader almost becomes a confidant, friend, and student of Philippa and her extensive thought process, even though Philippa is only sometimes speaking directly to the reader. However, it still feels as if one is walking beside Philippa as a concerned friend, guardian angel, and curious ghost aware of most.
The book is set up as the layout of a house itself, with each room becoming the home of a certain thought process of Philippa's, giving the reader a guided tour through the real estate of her mind. In "Chorale II East Servant's Bedroom, Third Floor," it is explained how Philippa has linked an intellectual image to an emotive one, with the connection being arbitrary. Meanwhile, in "Foundation III South Nursery, Third Floor," Philippa speaks of despair and lost hope, and explains what is birthed from the isolation bestowed upon her:
"The old world has foundered. From an isolation, farther away, the new continent emerges, where Things and Nature are allied while Humanity is spurned. It will no longer be possible to belong to Humanity willingly. It shall become essential to distinguish oneself from it, to settle Reality elsewhere." (22)
Each excerpt accompanying each room is fitting—the servant's room insinuates feelings of disconnect and separation, and the nursery shares the idea of a figurative new birth. Each section of the house has both a literal and figurative interpretation.
It is not until nearly halfway through the story, during "Foundation XV," that the reader realizes that Philippa is not completely isolated, but has instead found some solace in a mystery character referred to as Professor S. Their friendship introduces conversations into her universe— spending countless hours talking, enjoying many meals together, and walking through the city. For the first time, one sees Philippa not only as an observer but a participant in life—an active member of society, a public contributor. It is here that one finally sees Philippa in a different, lighter sense—visions of a smiling face and an individual with feelings and emotions for someone external to herself. The reader soon sees that Professor S. greatly fills her physical life with activity and companionship, but also has the ability to permeate Philippa's being in a way that profoundly affects her. 
Throughout this book, I could not help but wonder exactly why Philippa was so isolated, so much so that it caused her to live mostly within her own mind. Do those closest to her view her acute awareness as a flaw simply because they themselves cannot relate? Why are Philippa's thought processes and emotional and mental states stigmatized and seemingly misunderstood? Philippa's observations about even the most infinitesimal of life's aspects are quite heavy and nuanced and could be overwhelming to a non-thinker, but they all come across as revelatory and incredibly honest reflections. Her habitual deep thought and analysis of life have allowed her to become aware of even the smallest and generally overlooked details. Because of this, her appreciation and connection with the world, although emotionally burdening at times, allows her to exist fully on physical, emotional, and mental levels, though her physical being is sometimes tried by the latter. Throughout the book, I found myself wishing that I could sit beside Philippa and delve further into her psyche so that I could learn more about who she is and what her life-long intentions are.
Philippa is enigmatic, relevant, honest, and intuitive. Read her story. - Brittany Natale

The Wittgenstein HouseArticle in The Guardian

Suzanne Leblanc holds two PhD degrees, in philosophy (1983) and in visual arts (2004), and has been teaching since 2003 at the School of Visual Arts at the University of Laval (Quebec). She has exhibited multimedia installations in Quebec and has published theoretical works in Germany, France, Switzerland and Canada. Her research and creative work deal with philosophical forms inherent in artistic disciplines. She is currently leading a research- creation group on artistic strategies for the spatialization of knowledge. La Maison À Penser De P., originally published in the French in 2010, is her first novel.


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