Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Boundaries


This is a picture of a small shopping mall off Dublin's Moore Street. Even in my own childhood, Dublin's Moore Street was famous for its collection of traditional Dublin hawkers, and their street cries: "Get yezzer apples and oranges!". Now it's full of "ethnic" shops. Nevertheless, the traditional Dublin hawkers are still there, and the "ethnic" aspect is quite pleasant.

Anyway, I'm not writing about ethnicity today. I felt moved to write about the scene pictured above. Every time I pass this doorway, I feel a powerful frisson of pleasure.

You can't really see it, but the doorway opens onto a tiny shopping mall. And shopping malls like this have always delighted me. To some extent, all indoor shopping malls delight me. It's the strange paradox that they are both indoors and outdoors; a shop within in the shopping mall is doubly indoors.

And this rather perplexes me, because (like Chesterton) I'm a big fan of boundaries and distinctions. Readers of this blog will know that. I like the boundaries between nation and nation, between man and woman, between the seasons, and so forth. And one of the many reasons I like Catholicism is because of its dogma. (So there are psychological as well as logical reasons why I react with horror to the casuistry of Cardinal Kasper and his cronies.)

Furthermore, ambiguity really bothers me in social interaction. For the longest part of my life, I didn't give tips (i.e., gratiuities) because the ambiguity over how much you should tip embarrassed me too much. (Eventually, I got over that, but I still feel awkward about it.) Also, I absolutely hate any social occasion, like a coffee morning or a reception, where people will be "circulating" and drifting here and there. As far as I'm able, I'll only go to a social occasion where there's some kind of stability, where people are sitting down.

So why should ambiguity delight me sometimes? Why do I feel a wild, entirely disproportionate joy in indoor shopping centres and shopping malls-- in the ambiguity between what is "inside" and what is "outside"? Why do I love movies (such as Inception or Last Action Hero) where the boundaries between what is real and what is a dream, what is real and what is fiction, is permeable?

And why does much of my love of poetry stem from its complete lack of a thematic discipline-- since, in poetry, all the boundaries and barriers have fallen? For the poet, everything is in play; past, present, and future; dream and reality; legend and history; self and other; and every other category you can think of. Indeed, one reason I am such a relatively severe formalist when it comes to poetry, is because I believe the discipline of form is necessary to complement and liberate the freedom of theme, the freedom of content.

My own answer to these questions is quite straightforward. I  think there is a place for boundaries and a place for the disregard of boundaries. Catholic theology and doctrine should be a place for boundaries. So should maps. Poetry and fiction is where we can let it all hang. Also, life is all about balance and we live in a time when universality has run riot and particularism is under threat, so very often the principle of boundaries needs to be defended, while the principle of boundlessness needs to be pushed back.

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