The door, simultaneously barrier and threshold, invites us to approach, awakens our desire to pass through, to enter (or to exit), but bears the power of refusal. The brute inertia of the door, its solidity of both material form and cultural decree, can give pause to even the most tenacious of trespassers.
A room without a door, the most horrific vision Poe could conjure up, appears again and again in his speculative architecture, from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to that improvisatory room in “A Cask of Amontillado.” The most diabolic deed is surely to wall someone in, when no provision is made for a door. Perhaps of his literary brethren, only Kafka would disagree. Worse by far, he might say, is to have too many doors, leading to too many corridors, an overdetermination of possible passages that ensures that you never reach your destination. One always dies between two doors.
Poe, haunted by those doorless rooms, died outside.
Most doors are meant to keep others out. As such they are signs (VERBOTEN), but they are also sorting devices (UNLESS…). Do you know the keeper of the house? Do you know the password? Do you know the combination? If so, the door will let you pass, and you will become sorted across that threshold. Rules and sorting. The nineteenth century made much of this mechanism: Maxwell’s demon, on one hand, was a thought experiment that posited a small creature who opened or closed a small door between two chambers whenever a molecule of a certain type approached. With only passive doorkeeping, claimed James Clerk Maxwell, the demon could build up potential energy in the form of difference. This was the opposite of entropy, of homogeneity. Was it therefore possible to cheat death, the universe’s heath death, the eventual state of maximum homogeneity that would leave no energy differential to do any useful work?
The second sorting machine of the nineteenth sentry, invented by Charles Babbage, went further: by representing numbers with mechanical cogs on wheels, those numbers could, through complex sorting—transfer from one mechanism to another—be manipulated in theoretically unlimited ways. The universal, programmable computer had come into being. The threshold it mediated was between the material and the symbolic. The latter could be manipulated in theoretically limitless ways; the challenge then became encoding, or the representation of the material within homologous data structures. Later computer engineers, and particularly Alan Turing, realized that the simpler the logical structure, the more universal the machine, in both representation and manipulation. The universal binary computer was born (with Konrad Zuse), using only two characters to represent any arbitrarily large structure. Best of all, it could be materially instantiated by something far simpler than Babbage’s complex machinery: the any electromagnetic switch, vacuum tube, or transistor. Each of these serves the function of a logic gate. One input, two possible outputs: 0 or 1, on or off, in or out. At the heart of the computer, and everything the computer generates, is a humble door.
Of course, not all doors are meant to be opened. Some are there to remind you that none shall pass, or that the pleasure, even necessity, of exit is but an illusion.
Other doors may be obliging, but serve to obscure the other side. Who will be brave enough to exit the known for the unknown? Contestants of Let’s Make a Deal had to ask this question of themselves. More lucratively, so do cat-burglars. I simply wonder who is behind each of those cold doors in the hotel hallway.
As I finish my Ph.D. and enter the academic job market, I’m thinking a lot about doors. That which they conceal, the thresholds they guard, and whether or not they lock behind you.
I discovered my favorite door by accident one day in Rome. Having thrown away my map, determined to wander aimlessly, I ended up on a narrow, unremarkable street with a solid wall lining one side. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, I noticed, with a start, that the wall had sprouted a head. It was made of the same red clay and jutted outward defiantly. A wall that refused to remain flat. I followed its gaze and discovered a second head, and then an ear, an eye, and a nose. I walked on, dumbfounded at the community of body parts embedded within this wall. Finally, I came to the door. And here, amidst this anthropomorphic wall, the door framed a question: what or who was behind this wall?
I considered ringing the off-kilter doorbell or intercom. I stood for nearly a half hour studying the clues provided by this threshhold. Finally, I turned and began to walk away.
A rusty creak rang out behind me. I spun just in time to witness the door opening by just a crack. A young Italian woman slipped out, carrying a handful of laundry. The door closed again, before I could make out any detail within. She walked in my direction.
“How is it,” I managed to ask in a blunt English that she might or might not understand, “that you came to live behind that door?”
She stopped, regarding me quizzically. “My father,” she finally said by way of explanation, “is an artist.” She smiled and continued away on her errand.
Why was it that this encounter affected me so sharply? Was it the incongruous presence of a human where there should only have been a silent door, waiting through the ages? Was it that the granting of my wish, to have experienced the inside behind this door, was accomplished only through a shift of modality, from the material to the symbolic? I had nothing but the word “artist,” a signifer, to show for my adventurous curiosity and humble patience. (This is, after all, within the purview of the door’s alchemical magic.) Or was it, quite simply, that in my phenomenological egocentrism I had forgotten that other great function of the door? To open, not to allow entry, but to facilitate an emergence?