Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A Sense of Place (I)

A Sense of Place is the title of a coffee table book for which I researched and wrote some potted contributor biographies, back at the dawn of the millennium. I didn't get mentioned on the acknowledgements page, much to my chagrin (although I'll admit my research was not outstanding). I've never read the book.

The title is a natural fit for this blog post, as well, since it's exactly what I'm going to write about. I've touched on this theme in a recent post, and I'm going to rehash some of what I've said there in this one. 

Place has both baffled and fascinated me all my life. Chesterton wrote in one poem that "the first surprises stay", and this is my experience. Time and space are universal features of human existence, but that doesn't make them any less mysterious.

In one poem, in my teens or twenties, I described time as "a foreign natural element". I feel the same way about place.

What is a place? China is a place. Baker Street is a place. A child's wigwam is a place. So is a room in a doll-house. The inside of a vein or artery is a place.

Indeed, this blog is a place. What else could it be? It's impossible to talk about the internet without using spatial metaphors. This usage predated the internet, of course: think of the phrase "Watch this space", which is not an injunction to remain staring at the same piece of paper for an indefinite time.

Place is something concrete and yet also something vague at the same time. Debates over what constitutes central Europe, the home counties, the Deep South, and similar regions are never-ending (and delightfully so).

Wherever you are, you are somewhere-- somewhere in particular, somewhere different from everywhere else in existence, even if it's completely nondescript.

I find it hard to comprehend the reality of place. This is a strange thing to write, because it's hard to imagine how things could be any different. But in spite of this, the sense of strangeness persists.

How to convey this? I'll do my best.

First off, I've always felt a sneaking incredulity that other places actually exist. Of course, I don't rationally doubt their existence, but they seem unreal to me. I can remember writing about this in a diary entry in my twenties, after a discussion about Indonesia during a class in college.

I put this idea to someone I know, as I was writing this passage, and he told me he recognized this mentality. He said that, when he was visiting Paris, he'd looked at the Seine and felt a sense of surprise that it was real. So perhaps it is not so uncommon.

It's hard-- for me at least-- to accept that Helsinki and the Orkney Islands and Greenland are actual physical realities, with people walking around in them right now as I type. The idea that I could just get on a plane and go to any of these places seems bizarre to me. Somehow they seem like places only accessible through the imagination or the television screen.

In a milder form, this sense of incredulity applies to even the most ordinary places, once I'm outside them. In a certain way, every place seems unreal to me except the place I happen to be occupying at the present moment.

I even wrote a poem about this:


When dawn was breaking I lay in the embrace
Of duvets and pillows. The whole world was a place
Of warmth and softness and the dregs of dreams.
That was today. How far away it seems!

When morning came I stood in the chilly street
And dreamed of softness and enveloping heat
And watched for a bus. The sky was all-aglow.
That was today. It seems so long ago.

When day was fully-grown, I knelt in prayer
As the priest’s familiar words brazened the air
At the lunch-time Mass. Only the house of God
Seemed real then. Already it seems odd.

Wherever I go, this thought hangs over me;
Nothing exists except what I hear and see
That very moment. Beyond yonder wall
Is nothing to be seen; nothing at all;

As though the world was simply scenery
Changed by invisible hands we cannot see
As act follows act. Oh, what mind can embrace
The weird plurality of time and space?

But perhaps this poem expresses my own way of thinking rather than anybody else's.

My sense of direction is catastrophically bad. It would be hard to explain just how bad it is. When I tell people I have a terrible sense of direction, they always underestimate just how bad it is and think I must be exaggerating for effect. But I'm not. For instance, I have walked through Dublin city centre innumerable times, but I consistently forget the exact sequence of even the most central streets. This can be very embarrassing.

My poor grasp of geography is theoretical as well as practical. I would be unable to place most countries on a map, even most European countries. Whether this lack of knowledge stems from a genuine inability to learn, or whether it stems from some kind of mental block or lack of curiosity, is something I don't know. But I've made quite a few efforts to overcome it, and always failed so far.

For many years, my lack of geographical knowledge made me resent the very concept of geography, to the extent that I was contemptuous of the subject and considered it the province of bores. I was particularly irked by travel bores, and resolved I would never travel. I pretended to despise travel, although my avoidance of it had at least as much to do with trepidation as it had to do with disdain.

It's been a very delayed reaction, but the fact that place seems such a strange concept to me has, after so many decades, finally gave me a fascination for it, rather than disdain.

Although I disdained geography, the concept of place has always fascinated me, and in very particular ways.

Here is one. I was sitting on a bus, one evening-- I forget how many years ago, but it was probably at least a decade ago-- and I heard someone say (on their phone): "We're just coming into Westmoreland Street now." (Or whatever street is happened to be.) And I was struck (though not for the first time) by a sense of wonder at the fact that the name of a street, or any other place, corresponds to an actual place, to a physical reality.

This is hard to convey. It's not quite the same idea I was describing earlier in the post, though of course it's related.

Here is the thing. When the person on the phone said the name "Westmoreland Street", a particular image (or set of associations) would have come into his mind, and into the mind of the person he was calling, and into the minds of anyone who was listening. For everybody, the images and associations would be different.

So Westmoreland Street is an idea, a set of associations-- but it's also a real place. And while you can "go" there by naming it or thinking about it, you can more literally go there by travelling there. It's the correspondence between the mental Westmoreland Street and the actual Westmoreland Street which fascinates and delights me. They are not the same but the connection between them is not arbitrary, either. We are often told that such-and-such a place is "not a place, more a state of mind". But every place is also a state of mind. There is something magical about this, something infinitely mysterious and elusive.

Well, that's enough for now. I will return to this topic soon.

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