Saturday, April 14, 2012

On Place and Space: The Vacuum

"As if the world were not what we make it, pulled by dogs down streets so dark, the sound of a river is almost a kind of light." I lifted this line from George Looney's Animals Housed in the Pleasures of the Flesh. And I wish I had written it before him. Let me be clear about two things: one, that's how I remember the line, and I'm pretty sure it's close, but it might be a paraphrase; two, I lifted this line eleven years ago, and I've been carrying it around with me ever since.

The sentiments in the line form currents, of course, in Scrap. Most notably: Nathan Daniels follows the rivers this way, at night, in his memory, the sound guiding him, such that he can see the world, see the trickle of water over pebbles, the splash of water against rock, the suck and silence of eddies, the gulp of a quick undertow.

He knows the river by smell, too, that spring-time shitty muck -- that new life that smells just this side of recent death -- which hangs in the thick night air. He could tell you in the darkest darkness how high French Creek is on a particular limestone boulder, how many paces of river rock are exposed between the tall grass and the water, by the smell and the sound of it all.

That is how we know the world, I'm certain of it, sensuously. That is why when Descartes tried to get at some kind of primary truth, he had to first deny access to his senses. He couldn't do it. We can't do it. We exist entirely in how we know the world, and, I'll say it again, we know the world in how we see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, and hear it.

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Nature abhors a vacuum -- what a fun thing to say! Say it in front of a class and your students will think your intelligence has no limits -- Wow!, they'll think, this guy's deep. Say it at just the right moment during a cocktail party, and your spouse will drag you home and smother you in enduring caresses. "Nature abhors a vacuum," truly, a notion that is both a pleasure to think and a joy to say. The coupling of the long a and the long u. The soft rs. The simple cadence -- here is the kind of sentence I wish could be the title of my autobiography.

But it's not true, right? Part of the pleasure in saying it is the same pleasure in telling a small, meaningless lie, like when we, for no apparent reason, blurt out that we're allergic to cheese. "Oh," someone will surely say with raised eyebrows, and then we shrug, "Yep, can't eat cheese, though as a child it was my favorite thing . . . just the smell of it brings me such joy and revulsion . . ." well, it goes on from there.

Nature, in truth, is indifferent to a vacuum. If nature has a consciousness it is in the knowledge of its own cellular make-up, its quantum entanglements, its utter relationship to all things. Nature, that is, at a cellular level exists just the same in a vacuum or in a Cuisanart. Society, on the other hand, culture, that is, abhors a vacuum. The collective consciousness of humanity fears, hates, and dreads the absolute lack of all things.

Nothing is more terrifying to a small child than the notion of a black hole. Can you remember learning of a black hole for the first time? I can. An awful place whose gravity is so great even light can't escape, the end of heaven and humanity, for sure -- this awful emptiness that will someday consume us all, the utter lack of detail where one's notions of the world and a relevant afterlife no longer apply. What would that be like? We have no words to describe it. The most terrifying notion of all, the absolute lack of description.

So, yes, while nature is indifferent to such things, humans abhor a vacuum.

Mies Van Der Rohe was right, the modernist architect, of course, that "God is in the details." Great writers, as well as great builder -- artists of any ilk -- know this. And we hear it again and again from Flannery O'Connor to Anne Lamott to Stephen King. Some of whom I'm sure to come back to, but first the two things at play: the details and the utter lack of details.

I'm thinking here of The Neverending Story, and why it resonates so powerfully with children: the resonance, of course, begins with the unique details -- the playful and tender giant flying poodle, the racing snail and its rider's elegant burgundy riding suit, the dripping nostrils of the mountainous allergic turtle -- these details are grand and precise, scaly, caked with mud and dead sticks, but their beauty, their truth, is in how they are set up against the void. The Nothing.

The worst thing imaginable is not to be dead, but to have never existed, to be sucked into the nothingness of a black hole. God is in the details. The black hole is the place where no details exist, where no god exists -- it is The necessary Nothing, which threatens the imagination. As a child, imagining the end of all things is far worse than imagining our own inevitable death. Consciousness, language, we abhor a vacuum.

Meanwhile, we've all heard it said that a story that seems to take place nowhere, seems not to take place at all -- the floating head story of our intro to creative writing classes. And, even as we point out that a porch is not a place until we feel the dry sharp paint chips digging into our palms, until we see in the light of a globeless bulb the fluttering of spring's first moth, until we toe the cigarette butts across the cracked gravelly concrete with our sticky bare feet -- even as we mention this, our students say, "No, I'm not going to change that; the story's not about the porch; it's about vampires." Such young writers, who resist the sensuous, do not know their own world. They don't know the world they're writing, because they don't know the world in which they live. They see at what they're looking, as Gertrude Stein said of every artist except Picasso.

I said I've been reading Yi-Fu Tuan, and here he is (though he gets quickly enveloped by Niels Bohr): "What is place? What gives a place its identity, its aura? These questions occurred to the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg when they visited Kronberg Castle in Denmark. Bohr said to Heisenberg:
Isn't it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a quite different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness in the human soul, we hear hamlet's "To be or not to be." Yet all we really know about Hamlet is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove that he really lived, let alone that he lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depth he was made to reveal, and so he, too, had to be found a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us. (Tuan)
Tuan's perspective of experience is rooted, entirely, in place -- this passage occurs early in his text (page 4), and the idea continues throughout the text.. So it is with Bohr. So it is with our writing. Flannery O'Connor said something like "There are no things from ideas, only ideas from things." And that's what this is all about. How many times have we heard or read or thought the line, "To be or not to be?" And in hearing, how many of those times have we seen "The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church"? Probably never, right, or we see the director's interpretation if we're watching the line performed. But go to the place, go to Kronberg, look into the dark corners, listen to the walls and ramparts, and try not to hear "To be or not to be?" Only ideas from things. It cannot be the other way around.

So the young writer wants to write a story about sorority girls who are actually vampires, she doesn't want to describe the porch, because it's just a porch. Meanwhile, those vampires seem to exist nowhere and therefor seem not to exist. Nobody built a castle in Transylvania, because something terrifying existed there. Dracula exists because of the castle, because of the landscape, because of the rocks and the woods and the rivers that make up that world, and so writers must go on, "pulled by dogs down streets so dark . . ."

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