The Unlikely Strength of Corners

“Build a corner.”
Dani Shapiro

Imagine the sturdy security of a wall doubled and joined to form a corner. Every human knows a corner, is near a corner.

But what do we know of them? What do we think of them?

When Henry David Thoreau hand-built his shack on Walden Pond, it was not much more than four corners and a roof. “With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me.”

Thoreau’s four corners is the introduction of shelter. His spirit, feeling safe and secure, lurched into life.

Similarly, in her book on her writing life and creative fragility, memoirist Dani Shapiro advises it is from a corner that we approach massive, daunting tasks.

Build a corner, that is what people who are good at puzzles do, They ignore the heap of colors and shapes and simply look for straight edges. They focus on piecing together one tiny corner. Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph.

I have never begun a puzzle at a corner, but I do position my writing desk in a corner, sometimes facing in, sometimes out, depending on my mood. I know what Shapiro means: A corner brings requisite security for that first step.

And what about the beautifully, rich depiction from essayist Durga Chew-Bose:

I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close. Because of this, my friend and I have started calling ourselves nook people. Those of us who seek corners and bays in order to redeploy our hearts and not break the mood. Those of who retreat in order to cubicle our flame. Who collect sea glass. Who value a deep pants pocket. Who are our own understudies and may as well have shadowboxes for brains.

What these remarkable individuals have in common is a view of a corner as a space for protection, repose—a cuddling and warming of the spirit, one might say.

“The corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly—immobility,” argues Gaston Bachelard, guardian of our psycho-physical spaces and guide to what these spaces mean to our psyches and our lives.

Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room or of a house.

[…]

Consciousness of being at peace in one’s corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. An imaginary room rises up around our bodies, and we think we are well hidden when we take refuge in a corner.

Praesidium (Walls that Protect) ceramic sculpture by Isobel Egan. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Praesidium” Walls that Protect, 2016 by Isobel Egan. Egan’s work consistently studies the space divided and contained by strong yet translucent porcelain. Here the porcelain forms protective walls and corners.Photograph by Philip Lauterbach.

Bachelard reiterates the “safety” of a corner and even goes so far as to call it a “chamber of being.” But by admitting it “negates the universe,” he also alludes to a darker, even sinister aspect of corners.

To be in a corner, we must withdraw from externalities like other people, humanity, and the “doing/having” parts of life.

From this originates the concept of shrinking into the corners. I imagine naughty school children on stools or those round houses of early Puritan settlers: no place for the Devil.

“Death reigned in every corner,” observed Daniel Defoe, an English journalist and novelist who wrote the finest journalistic account of the plague of Europe in 1665.

"Ennui" 1914, by Walter Richard Sickert featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on The Examined Life.
“Ennui” 1917-18, by Walter Richard Sickert, the last of five paintings, each the same vignette, different colors and tone but always of a couple in a corner. Learn more. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Physically and even intellectually, corners hide and obscure. More than 2,000 years ago, Roman senator and philosopher Seneca noted, “Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them.”

Corners are ends. Bachelard touches on this when he writes, “from the depths of his corner, the dreamer remembers all the objects identified with solitude, objects that are memories of solitude and which are betrayed by the mere fact of having been forgotten.”

Have you ever been forgotten in a corner?

"Slabworks" 2019, Anthony Gormley. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Slabworks” 2019 by Anthony Gormley. One of fourteen figures all positioned in somewhat collapsed “whole-body” poses, this figure was crouched and cornered. It immediately drew my empathy. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at the Royal Academy of Arts.

I recall the most tender and sympathetic thing my mother has ever said. My husband and I had just moved to London, the tea and crumpet fancy had faded, and I felt quite alone. A chronic depression stirred, well, in the corners of my spirit. “Oh Ellen,” she said during a particularly weepy phone call, “promise me you’ll stay out of dark corners. Stay in the center of the room where you are loved. Can you do that?”

Her embrace, that utterly meaningful metaphor spoken by one not prone to metaphor. A corner’s embrace can firm up against your shoulders and back, but it is no substitute for human arms.

Illustration by Rupi Kaur. Featured in Kaur's "Milk and Honey" in the Examined Life Library.
“The idea of shrinking is hereditary.” writes Rupi Kaur in Milk and Honey, poetry on pain and love. Illustration by Rupi Kaur, courtesy of the book.

As in most of my writing, my point of departure on corners is from the self. A tendency of introverts, I believe. I am in a corner or out of one, I am the agent. I think, what do corners mean to me and, thus, you?

Imagine my surprise, then, when I mentioned this post to my aunt, who is one of the most extroverted individuals I know, and her response was: “Well, it’s the intersection of two things, isn’t it? Things coming together, intersecting at that point.” She interlaced her fingers to form little corners.

This remarkable woman, a professor and leader of cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University, who taps into the fluid currents of humanity—and the culture that arises from that humanity—to form passage through the waters that divide us: this woman doesn’t go into corners, she is the corner.

She brings things together. What a generous expansion of self.

A corner is where things come together in all their complexity. A shelter, a gathering place, an embrace, a hide. If you go into one, don’t forget to set the alarm, to tie a tether around your waist.

Don’t forget to return to the center of the room, where you are loved.