Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Another Quick Thought: Empty Places

It's summer in UCD. Once again I am struck by the poetry of empty places. And what seems to me like the strangeness of empty places.

There's almost eight billion people in the world, and yet there are empty places. And not just empty wilderness (though that idea is very exciting), but empty places that are heated, illuminated, and inhabitable.

Somehow I can easily imagine a world where we are never alone, where everywhere is crowded all the time. I'm glad I don't live in that world.

I'm not making any point about overpopulation, underpopulation, natalism, anti-natalism, or anything like that. I'm just reporting a reaction. A longstanding reaction.

I am reminded of "The School in August" by Philip Larkin:

The cloakroom pegs are empty now,
And locked the classroom door,
The hollow desks are lined with dust,
And slow across the floor
A sunbeam creeps between the chairs
Till the sun shines no more.

("Home Is So Sad", as well.)

I've always loved empty places, and pictures of empty places, and scenes set in empty places. Empty playing fields; empty cinemas; empty trains. They can be very wistful, melancholic, dreamy, exciting, and otherwise atmospheric.

Many many years ago, I remember listening to my uncle Willie singing "it's so lonely round the fields of Athenry" in the bathroom of his farmhouse. His voice echoed on the tiles of the bathroom, in the quiet house, on a farm in a quiet corner of Limerick. I was disappointed when I learned "The Fields of Athenry" is a famine song. I thought of it as an evocative tribute to some remote rural area.

For two years in a row I flew to America on Christmas Eve. The first time, I was frightened the airport would be manic. It wasn't. It was completely and utterly dead. (I took the picture below that first year.) It had a very poignant atmosphere.

Another thing that fascinates me about empty places is that they make me think of the mystery of mutability.

The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides said that, in spite of appearances, change is impossible because all that exists is uniform and timeless. It sounds crazy but he had compelling arguments to back it up. (Trying to counter them is fiendishly difficult; apparently, their successful refutation is key to Aristotle's metaphysics.)

Change is very strange. Time and place are very strange. Imagine walking through the ruins of an ancient city and thinking of how, many centuries ago, it was full of life and activity.

Well, all change is like that. A thousand years or fifteen minutes, the principle is the same. I can never quite get used to change; it's both magical and heartbreaking.

I love empty places. I thank God for them.

(Reader, you might be wondering why I didn't give this blog post the apparently obvious title "A Quiet Place", especially since I love that movie. Here's the reason: I hate headlines and titles that are mere allusions to films, books, or whatever else. It's the kind of superficial cleverness  that sickens me. The mood of this blog post is very different from the mood of that film.)


  1. A fine post. Appreciation of empty spaces is the mark of a true soul.