This essay is about our experience of space. Even today, when our lives tend to be dominated by accurate time-keeping and the relentless passage of the minutes and the hours, we can recognise, in ourselves and in nature, that there are other experiences of time which are possible, expressed in rhythm and in feeling and in the quality of our engagement with what is happening. Time can become something different to soulless clock time. Is it also true of space that we can recognise other kinds of space than the normal? I believe we can and do. I will begin with three short poems by the reclusive Emily Dickinson whose condensed poems often open out into a revelation which she has to work at containing. In one poem beginning “We pray – to Heaven –“ she tries to grasp this place beyond our ordinary dimensions:
Is Heaven a Place – a Sky – a Tree?
Location’s narrow way is for Ourselves –
Unto the Dead
There’s no Geography –
But State – Endowal – Focus –
Where – Omnipresence – fly?
The poem ends with a verb, ‘fly’: the place or state of Heaven cannot be grasped from our “narrow way”. Another poem begins:
They leave us with the Infinite.
But He – is not a man –
We cannot conceive of this condition which is beyond our human conditions when it comes at us in a word like ‘Infinite’. But there is a hint in another poem of how we can leave our everyday space without trying to define or describe the Infinite. The poem beings “I dwell in Possibility –“. This possibility is there in her poetic imagination:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
She spent most of her adult life not leaving the same house. Out of such confinement she finds a release through something within her which can also be imagined as a simple physical gesture, the gesture of possibility. The poem ends with this gesture which touches infinity, touches Heaven:
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
In this gesture is a more feminine infinity, not the dominating Absolute of ordinary space:
They leave us with the Infinite
But He – is not a man –
His fingers are the size of fists –
His fists, the size of men.
Geometry means, originally, measuring out the earth, a necessary activity for all the practical calculations at the heart of culture, from parceling out land, to building, and travel and communication. Just as with time, our modern technological culture needs accuracy and order in the handling of space. This need for control, that things fit together, is one way of dealing with space. There are other experiences of space which complement this primary geometry. These other experiences are to do with life and with consciousness and the self-consciousness of the human being. We all live with these other kinds of spatial awareness but we tend to think of cold, clear measurement as being the most basic, the most real, and that the other kinds of experience of space are somehow just fanciful and insubstantial. The realisation I am working towards in this essay is that the practical attitude to space, however valid and useful, is not the primary one, but comes into being out of a richer, more living understanding of space, one we carry with us all the time but which cannot be pinned down so easily, and, so, escapes our awareness.
The essence of our everyday way with space is that things have, at any moment, a fixed position – there, and there, and there. This belief goes together with a view of space itself which both sees it as emptiness and yet also gives it existence as an entity. It is as though we pass our lives in various kinds of empty rooms – the walls and floor and ceiling giving the space within a sense of reality, however clearly we know the space is empty. As someone looking at the room we can see ourselves as another thing in the space, separate from the other things. Some or all of the things may move in the space but that doesn’t in itself affect the other things, unless they collide, and doesn’t affect the space, the emptiness, in which all this is happening. I recall a cartoon showing two architects looking up at the night sky, with stars shining down from the heavens, one saying to the other, “Wonderful use of space!”.
To try to present other experiences of space I want to use plant growth as a pure manifestation of the way life manifests in space. The innocence of plant growth means it can’t speak directly of human experience, but it can help the shift which frees us from being observers, for whom space is dead and empty, and things just stay where they are put. The growth of a plant asks us, allows us, to participate, to feel our way into an experience of space as something in which living forms come into being. Space is coming into being in our consciousness and in the life forms we participate in. Things will no longer stay still to be measured in this kind of space.
Before living into the growth of the plant, let me give you a couple of examples to help you let your thinking be more mobile. Take a famous painting, Georges Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnieres’, which you will find hanging in the National Gallery in London. You can focus on the myriad dots of paint, or you can redirect your attention, and see the painting’s subject. It is not a question of changing the optical focus of your eyes. Your attention must move. The two experiences are inter-related – the image is created out of the dots, and the dots embody the idea. You can focus on the parts, the separate bits, and you can separately see the whole which is both the purpose and, in a real sense, the source of the dots.
A second exercise is to compare the normal experience we have of being with a group of strangers in a space such as a railway carriage, or shop, or on a city street. However friendly our disposition, we will be behaving as though all the people are like points, separate entities. An unstated conviction will be that I am in control of my own actions, although I may have to avoid bumping into others: separation and personal control. We are usually wary of participation – I have already used that word to describe the quality of space which I am working towards and which I consider primary – we are wary because participation usually means loss of personal control, and autonomy is a key modern value.
Now imagine a completely different social situation to a crowded railway carriage. Imagine a situation in which you have joined together, voluntarily, with others for a common purpose or out of a common commitment. There is no leader, no ruler, no traditional hierarchy. The obvious image for such an arrangement is a circle, without there being any need for the people to be actually gathered in a physical circle. Each individual belongs in the circle but, in the ideal social possibility I am imagining, the circle is a source from which, out of which, all the individuals can experience themselves as individual, unique centres of being and agency. The space within such a circle of consciousness is not an emptiness in which separate entities have their positions. It is many spaces of interpenetrating activity, all with a common source but with many individual centres, concentrations of being, coming into being within. You may feel this picture stretches the idea of ‘space’ beyond anything still connected to the meaning of what it is we measure with a ruler or a pair of dividers. It is a big shift but I have consciously chosen this as a way of disturbing the deadness of measured space. Our constant wish for ‘some space’ in our lives is both staying connected to good old reliable, measurable ‘space’ and asking for something intangible and soulful.
The everyday space of fixed entities actually extends out to this thing we call Infinity, the ungraspable Absolute. The emptiness just goes on and on. In a way which I hope you will be able to enter into, having imagined your way into the growing tip of the plant, when you come in towards a centre from a source, from the plane of the expanded sphere, you are not contracting or collapsing in towards a heavy centre. Think of “spreading wide my narrow hands” of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems and not the fists of the named Infinity. The coming in is like the gesture of a sculptor, living in planes which shape, not fists which consolidate. It is the gesture we see in the spirals of seashells such as Nautilus, and in many plant and animal forms, a gesture which does not come to rest in a definite point of matter at the centre but spirals in towards an inner infinitude. But this infinity is there within the material world. It disappears into the material substance of the living form but it was necessary for the genesis of form.
If you examine the growing tip of most plants you will be able to see that the appearance is not of a point thrusting up into space. The plant does grow upwards, of course, but, typically, via a process that occurs around and within a concave, hollow space enclosed by uncurled, unformed leaves. Growth involves the opening out into substance of these incipient leaves, each becoming, in turn, more substantial and flatter. In so doing the leaves engage, biochemically, with the light, in photosynthesis, but this inner space, this hidden enclosed space also belongs to the sun, as an infinitude drawing in the life and form forces of the light. In the flower you see this cup-like space caught, filled with delicate substance, yet still magical and immaterial in its colour and scent. In the fruit you find the hollowness filled and rounded just as most living bodies are filled and rounded, finite. The seeds are then the, typically, hard, grainy, point-like entities which are at the same time the place where the lifting up of substance into the forms of life can begin again. Growth and the development of form in living organisms are best understood by conceiving processes, fields of force, working in from outside, rather than as processes in which substance is built up from the centre in the way that inorganic structures become larger. In the plant, living substance is drawn up and out by forces which work in towards the centre from the periphery, like hands that have been spread wide, now shaping inwards in planar movement. Living forms cannot be understood without trying to live into the way that expansion and contraction, the relationship to the centre and the relationship to the periphery, work together in the interplay between the material substance (and the forces belonging to the centre), and the spiritual or life-forming activity which comes from the periphery and works in to draw the physical substance into the form that appears and moves in space. Expansion and contraction, movement in time, are creating space as forms appear and change. Space is not a pre-existing emptiness in which things are placed and as they move let us be aware of time. Here I am asking you to give priority to time, to processes of development, which allow our consciousness to know space. Space comes about through our participation in transformation.
To end I will go back to the human being and offer you two thoughts about correspondences, on different levels of being, to do with contraction and expansion, centre and periphery. The first is to do with our sense of being at home with solid, measurable earth on which objects do not shift. Mineral nature accumulates from a centre; space becomes filled from a centre but the rock does not have an inside. We too feel ourselves to be beings with a centre, with a point centre of individuality, of self-knowledge, connected to our physical embodiment. This centre is not like the rocks but it is different from the ebb and flow of the processes of life and form, the processes typical of the plant and animal which are ongoing rhythmical processes between inner and outer, between organism and environment. The I-being of the human being only finds its way into physical existence through these experiences of life but it has its own point-like identity.
The second thought about the human being concerns that hidden concave space out of which the plant’s material growth emerges. I find in that space of emerging growth an image of the condition of inner empty wakefulness which the human being has the power to create out of the centre of the self. This is the space which Emily Dickinson meant by “I dwell in Possibility”. I think it is rightly called a space and it is a space coming into being out of time, out of the relationship between the infinitude within and the encircling plane, in which I also belong, and which is both the source and the intuited purpose of my present centredness. I dwell in possibility.
There is a much-loved poem by Brian Patten which can give this essay a more familiar world to conclude with: the experience of falling in love. The poem, titled ‘The Ambush’ addresses the person who has been hurt by love lost:
You sit in a bar and boast to yourself
“Never again will I be vulnerable.
It was an aberration to be so open,
A folly never to be repeated”.
But the ambush will come – ‘a day when in a field/ Heaven’s mouth opens’. All sorts of disturbances of the normal will happen, emotion ‘will flare up within you and bleed you of reason’ and:
Your body will become a banquet
You will loll in Spring’s sweet avalanche
Without the burden of memory
And once again
Monstrous love will swallow you.
This essay has been about the experience of falling heavenwards. It goes together with falling towards the centre of the earth. The falling in love is a falling upwards. It can make us dizzy and unstable, it undoes, as the poem says,
The routines which comforted you
And the habits in which you sought refuge
Will bend like sunlight under water
And go astray.
The familiar disturbance of our normal experience of space, the bending of light under water, opens up the universal significance of forces of light and growth which are responsible for life and consciousness and which keep us open, keep us vulnerable. We don’t have to deny them and we don’t have to rely on intoxication to enjoy them.