The Shadow of Dorothea Politis | Maria Kassandrou

It is very disconcerting, the shadow of the woman on the wall. A common misconception upon entering the room is that it isn’t a shadow at all but a painting. On closer inspection though, it becomes clear that the flat figure on the wall is lacking materiality; the solidness and presence of dry paint; it is airy, insubstantial.

So it must be a shadow. But a shadow of whom? Of what? Looking around the room there is nothing that could cast this shadow, or any other shadow for that matter. Other than a simple desk lamp on the floor, the room is completely empty. This is what is so disconcerting.

As a ticket holder, you can also play with the lamp, move it around the room, lift it, rotate it, cover the opening of its shade with your hand; whatever you do, the figure responds as a shadow would. The intensity of the blackness shifts with the movement. The figure distorts and changes size according to the position of the lamp in relation to a particular spot on the floor, close to the far left corner of the room, where there should be a woman sitting. But there is nobody there.

It is disconcerting still, even if you’ve heard about it. And everyone has heard about it. It is now as famous as the Mona Lisa and as notorious as the Bermuda Triangle, as the shadow brings together the mysterious female figure and the paranormal. In order to witness it, you have to buy a ticket, with which you are also given a beautifully designed leaflet with everything known about the shadow so far. That is, not much.

It has been two years since its discovery, and no rational explanation for the phenomenon has so far been found; a phenomenon of such mundaneness normally—it’s only a shadow!—whose causes never before have been questioned.

Self-assured rationalists have been swarming the place, with the aim to expose what they call simply a trick. There must be a trick, material or psychological and they will find it and rub in the faces of the masses their own stupidity or collective delusion. But none of those types has succeeded so far in finding the trick. They go in the room with an air of deriding authority and leave it as disoriented as everyone else, if not more.

Some of the more flexible minds are looking into alternative models of causality or into questioning causality altogether. They are perusing a variety of writings, older and newer, from a fresh perspective—from David Hume to Nagarjuna and to Theatre of the Absurd—searching for deeper, neglected, or misunderstood ideas about the machinery of reality. One of the most daring papers on the topic is by philosopher Michel Meursault, titled “Effect without cause? A study of the ringing bell in The Bald Soprano.” Meursault claims that in the famous scene of his play, Ionesco is not just being “absurd”, but is very seriously questioning the dominant model of causality: does the ringing bell necessitate someone ringing it?

Does the shadow of a woman require a woman casting it?

Once the news about the shadow started spreading, the shock was so big that even religious leaders and scholars were slow to respond. Eventually they did, of course, as not only are religious worldviews more accommodating to bizarre phenomena, accepting miracles and the like, but also because this was a golden opportunity for a triumphant comeback in mainstream Western culture after several centuries of progressive decline. Here is God, finally.

On the other hand, scientific authorities cannot just leave the explanation of observable phenomena to philosophers and religious leaders. For lack of better leads, some adventurous scientists have started to examine the possibility that it may not be the solid mass of an object that is responsible for its shadow but some other unobservable part of it, of which we had no knowledge up to now, because never before were we aware of this hypothetical part becoming separate from the solid body of the object.

But whatever philosophers and scientists have to say about the nature of reality sounds rather complicated and weird and frankly not very interesting, as these ideas are pretty abstract and they don’t make for a good story, unlike the urban legend which has fascinated people the world over. This legend is based on an interesting fact. The room with the shadow was the bedroom of the famous crime fiction writer, Dorothea Politis. According to the legend, in the final months of her life, Politis would sit on the floor in the far left corner of her room while she wrote, and, crucially, that is where she was when she was writing her last, unfinished novel. At some point she had two different ideas about how to end the story, but she couldn’t choose because both seemed equally good to her. At the same time she was so absorbed by the fictional world she was creating that her indecisiveness froze time not only for her characters but also for her. Having lost contact with the real world, she stopped feeling hunger, thirst, or tiredness. Unable to attend to her bodily needs, she inevitably died after a few days. Her body was removed and buried, but according to the legend an immaterial part of her still remains frozen in the corner, still struggling to decide how to end the story. It is this part of her, trapped between fiction and reality, that creates the shadow.

Needless to say that Politis’s novels have gone through a literary rebirth since the legend started to spread, with sales going through the roof and critics revisiting her work with fresh perspectives. Recently her last unfinished novel was also published along with her notes on the two possible endings that so tormented her. And there is this new kind of crowd now visiting the room: fans who believe that the way out of a dilemma is a third path. Well-intentioned but a little fatuous, they’ve taken it upon themselves to provide this path. Pilgrims one could call them. They take their manuscripts to her, offerings they place carefully by the shadow, and then they wait. They hope their favorite author may take a look, and if contented with what she reads, she may let go, fly off the wall and disappear—and the spirit of Dorothea Politis may finally rest in peace.

Maria Kassandrou is a writer and musician born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has also lived in England and France and currently resides in Berlin, Germany with her husband and son. She writes stories in English and Greek and is an alumna of the Berlin Writers’ Workshop.