Monday, February 21, 2022

On Atmosphere (I)

For a long time, I've wanted to write about the concept of atmosphere. It's something I think about all the time. In fact, I think about it so much that I often reproach myself about it. But I can't help it.

Regular readers will recognize the above photograph, which I've featured several times, and even written a whole poem about. It's actually my favourite photograph. It comes from the Guinness Book of Records and shows a record-breaking snooker marathon.

The reason I love it is because of its atmosphere. That's the reason I love all the photographs I love. Composition, lighting, camera angle, and all that other stuff are hardly of interest to me. I want atmosphere.

But it's not just when it comes to photography that atmosphere intrigues me. It's a much more generalized fascination. Perhaps 'obsession' is the better word to use.

The memories that stick with me are generally the ones that are shot through with a particular atmosphere, although generally it's an atmosphere that's extremely hard to describe.

For instance, I have a very vivid memory of my cousin, at a children's party, cracking open a peanut, throwing the kernel in the air, and catching it in his mouth. I think he was probably an early teen at this time. I would have been considerably younger.

I thought it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I loved its nonchalance and bravado, and I think at that age I thought it was quite a feat of coordination in itself.

But that doesn't explain why the image lingers in my mind, so that it even features in my (not so) legendary Purple Notebook.

An atmosphere is intangible to begin with, but its very intangibility is composed of any number of elements. When it's a personal experience, how can we even hope to describe them?

I'll try with that memory of my cousin. First off, the house where it happened (where I think it happened) had its own atmosphere. Every house and every place, when I was a child, had its own atmosphere. (I remember also coming to the conclusion that every family had its own smell. But apparently children have a better sense of smell than adults. And besides, I was doubtless attributing the smell of the house to the family-- although, as soon as I write this, I remember that the "family smell" seemed to travel with its members even outside the home.)

This sense of every house having its own atmosphere was extremely strong to me as a child. So that even now, when I can't really remember what it felt like to be a child, I can remember that without any difficulty whatsoever. To call it an "atmosphere" is an understatement; it felt like every house was its own world, its own reality, that the place literally had its own spirit and mind.

So there was the particular atmosphere of the house. Then, there was the atmosphere of a party. It was a child's party, of course, which are probably more exciting than any party we attend as adults. The purpose of a party was pure enjoyment, and I think this made me rather giddy. And then there was something else, a sense of anticipation and of gathering intensity that has haunted me all my life; everything, no matter what it is, seems to me a first rung on a ladder to the ultimate of that thing. So that a pretty girl's smile always seems to beckon towards some distant horizon of unspeakable feminine beauty; a line of poetry seems to invite me into a bottomless sea of lyricism; a kid's party seems like a prelude to infinite festivity, infinite merriment.

And then there was the atmosphere of my cousin. He was a jaunty, somewhat cynical type of fellow, and this greatly impressed me. (For once, the Dirk Benedict photo is somewhat relevant, as he did actually bear a resemblance.)

So all that is there in the image of my cousin throwing a nut up into the air and catching it in his mouth. Indeed, I've had to suppress the desire to go into greater detail, for fear of exhausting the reader.

I encounter the world as a series of atmospheres. I am not at all observant, much to my enduring frustration. When I remember a place or a scene, what comes to me is not an image but an atmosphere.

And I find myself chasing atmospheres, seeking to recapture or reconstruct atmospheres; a quest which repeatedly strikes me as foolish or wasteful but which continues to draw me nonetheless.

Here is an example. There is a particular atmosphere which is attached to a montage of various memories I have. I'm pretty sure these memories are not simultaneous. One memory is the central plaza (so to speak) of the Ilac shopping centre in Dublin city, in the early nineties. At this time, the shopping centre had a fountain, a glass lift which rose over the fountain and a mezzanine café. The other memory is of reading a particular book of W.B. Yeats criticism, one which examined the influence of Irish mythology on his work. I don't think I was reading this book in the café in the Ilac Centre. I think it's much more likely that I was reading the book and I thought of the café. In any case, the memories are stuck together now.

And there's a feeling of bliss in this memory. Something about the book of literary criticism appealed to me greatly, perhaps a sort of wonder that poetry could be taken so seriously or examined so deeply. But why should this be so, when I had already experienced poetry criticism by then? I'm not sure. So it must have been something more specific than that.

In any case, I realize I have often found myself seeking out books of poetry criticism in the hope of experiencing that atmosphere again.

I have just deleted two paragraphs where I was trying to describe another "atmosphere", but failed to do so.

This subject is quite hard to approach. I think I'm going to leave that much there and come back to it soon.

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