I wish there weren’t a wall

Shania O’Brien explores the significance of walls.

Mural in Pompeii with tourist graffiti

In a letter to a friend, I wrote about a wall I encountered in Darlington. It wasn’t anything particularly special; just the back of a terrace house I found while wandering in the suburb one evening. There was a bit of graffiti carved into it, the words growing fainter with every letter as if inscribed in desperation by the nib of a pen whose ink had run dry long ago. 

I can’t get through the wall.

It was the first time that I’d thought about walls as more than pillars that hold ceilings up. It’s strange, because the more thought I give it, the more I see how significant they are, both physically and symbolically. Now, I am reminded of the Wailing Wall, the Walls of Jericho, Zechariah’s wall of fire. In Letters from the Underworld (1864) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the narrator’s adversaries attempt to convince him of nature’s unyieldingness by explaining: “A wall, you see, is a wall . . .  and so on, and so on.” There are common phrases and sayings: talking to walls, hitting a wall, building too many walls and not enough bridges, getting stuck with your back to a wall, and going over a wall. In all these situations, walls are portrayed as strong and tangible. Iron-willed. But there are also wallflowers, stonewalling, walls of silence and separation. American academic and author Michael Moore believed that walls possess an immense measure of signification, and can often act as a nexus point between the concrete and the symbolic.

Since their creation, walls have longed to be adorned by the world around them. They have given form to many materialisations of artistic expression: from cave drawings, frescoes, murals, and graffiti, to picture frames, tapestries, wall hangings, and posters. Over the ages, people have had different motivations to imprint themselves on walls. There are descriptions of homoeopathic magic in the Spanish Altamira caves, religious murals in Anatolia, and decorative tapestries of the Gothic era. Walls have been essential for visual arts, from the ones in prehistoric caves acting as the very first canvases upon which people could create, to modern-day manifestations of graffiti tunnels.

Since then, walls have been employed in literature as metaphors and symbols in a myriad of ways. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Gilman condemns male control of the 19th-century medical profession, using the wallpaper as a metaphor to explore the narrator’s oppression and descent into insanity. H. P. Lovecraft uses the walls of an ancestral home to obscure horrors in The Rats in the Walls (1924). The House of Asterion (1947) by Jorge Luis Borges describes a giant house with endless corridors. There are no exits, only endless walled passages with open doors and countless rooms for Asterion to wander through. As writer Tom Mitchell noted, his world is walls. 

Asterion’s story, which was later revealed to be that of the Cretan Minotaur, shows that a wall is also a dividing force separating space both physically and psychologically, an attempt to categorise the chaos of our world and universe into affectable pockets of existence. Commonly, a wall is defensive. I think about Hadrian’s Wall, imposed on the Roman Empire not only to protect but because of divine instruction; the walls of Jericho that protected the neolithic people against invasion; the impenetrable walls of Troy built by the gods themselves. And, as the story of Asterion tells us, walls imprison; I think also of Antigone walled up in a tomb and condemned to die for rebelling against Creon, her numbered days spent in agony. In Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853), the protagonist spends countless hours staring at the “dead brick wall” outside his window, foreshadowing his later incarceration; Melville uses walls as symbols of urban separation in capitalistic society’s forced individualism.

Weeks after that overcast afternoon in Darlington, I encountered the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, and have since found myself going back to it time and again. Their story is a myth from Ovid’s Latin narrative poem, Metamorphoses, telling the story of two neighbours whose houses shared a wall. They were in love but their union was forbidden because of an old family rivalry, so they would whisper their love through a crack in the wall, a physical barrier as well as a symbol for the circumstance that kept them apart. In some translations, Pyramus writes Thisbe a letter:

Dear Thisbe,

I wish there weren’t a wall.

Love,

Pyramus

Throughout the ages, walls have bore witness to the lives of many queer people, who desperately inscribed their feelings and identities into history. Many walls still stand vigil over ancient romances and love letters that are addressed not always to a corporeal person, but sometimes to someone in the future who would understand, who would be free. Often, queer folk have been torn between their religion and their identity, who have written on the walls of churches and temples for eternity, their yearning immortalised in stone. There exist records of graffiti from Pompeii, where people wrote on city walls: “Often as I have been awake, love, at midnight, I think of you,” and “Sabinus, my beauty, Hermeros loves you,” and “Hecticus, my pet, Mercator says hello to you.” 

Some days, I think about that wall in Darlington. I wish I had taken a picture, but it felt wrong to document a stranger’s desperate wish. There is something very personal about writing on walls, and I am reminded of a scene from the movie All The Bright Places (2020); in it, Theodore Finch goes up to a public wall and writes, “Before I die, I want to feel awake.” This wall, in the book, is called the ‘before I die wall,’ because it is filled with people’s hopes and last wishes. Their dreams have echoed across time. Finch had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began to distinguish his manic and depressive days by documenting the time he has spent ‘awake.’ His bedroom walls are also covered in Post-It notes, iterating quotes, memories, and lyrics he wants to keep at the front of his mind. That wall, like many other walls in real life, acted as a public declaration of his joy, misery, desire, grief, and yearning. Walls become a site of possibility, for the expression of one’s innermost feelings; vulnerable and exposed, yet anonymous and safe, like a diary that has invited the world into it.

To many of us, walls are understood as a force of division or imprisonment. But they are also a protection. They tell a story of survival through the millenia. We document history on them, willing our impossible yearning into being. A billion desperate wishes have been written into walls; and undoubtedly, a billion more will be after we are nothing but dust and shadows. Yet, sometimes I think about Pyramus and Thisbe, about the barriers that divided them, about the barriers that still divide people today. And I too wish there weren’t a wall.

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