The Intimate Experience of Place

The last chapters of Yuan’s book should probably be most interesting to artists. After establishing general principles of how we experience space and place in early chapters, Yuan turns to the kind of intimate experience of place that only artists can bring to life.

He describes intimate experiences as:

Intimate experiences lie buried in our innermost being so that not only do we lack the words to give them form but often we are not even aware of them. When, for some reason, they flash to the surface of our consciousness they evince a poignancy that the more deliberative acts-the actively sought experiences-cannot match. Intimate experiences are hard to express. A mere smile or touch may signal our consciousness of an important occasion. Insofar as these gestures can be observed they are public. They are also fleeting, however, and their meaning so eludes confident interpretation that they cannot provide the basis for group planning and action. They lack the firmness and objectivity of words and pictures.

These experiences are so personal, so subtle, so ingrained that we often don’t recognize them or their effect until an artist recalls them to us.

One intimate experience that everyone shares is growing up in a hometown:

Hometown is an intimate place. It may be plain, lacking in architectural distinction and historical glamor, yet we resent an outsider’s criticism of it. Its ugliness does not matter; it did not matter when we were children, climbed its trees, paddled our bikes on its cracked pavements, and swam in its pond. How did we experience such a small, familiar world, a world inexhaustibly rich in the complication of ordinary life but devoid of features of high imageability.

Though people may have had very different experiences in their hometown, most people will share a fondness for their hometown, a fondness that can even provide an instant link between people if they meet later in life.

Though intimate expressions are not easily described, there are certain aspects of our childhood that we share with members of the same generation:

Intimate experiences are difficult but not impossible to express. They may be personal and deeply felt, but they are not necessarily solipsistic or eccentric. Hearth, shelter, home or home base are intimate places to human beings everywhere. Their poignancy and significance are the themes of poetry and of much expository prose. Each culture has its own symbols of intimacy, widely recognized by its people. Americans, for example, respond to such emblems of good life as the New England church, the Middle Western town square, the corner drugstore, Main Street, and the village pond., An armchair or a park bench can be an intensely personal place, yet neither is a private symbol with meanings wholly opaque to others. Within a human group experiences have sufficient overlap so that an individual’s attachments do not seem egregious and incomprehensible to his peers.

I’m sure my generation‘s love for the classic “A Christmas Story? comes from shared experiences, from the famous decoder ring fiasco to getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Some might even identify with getting their mouth washed out with soap.

Even those who have grown up on the “other side of the track? may have a certain nostalgia for their hometown:

Slums and skid rows are distinctive places in many large North American cities. Some are so peculiar from the standpoint of middle-class values that they become tourist attractions. Air-conditioned buses take upright small-town citizens through Chicago’s skid row as if it were a titillating peep show. Derogatory names like “Jew Town,” “Nigger Town,” and “Back of the Yard” are imposed by fearful outsiders on the local inhabitants. At first the local people may not themselves be aware of their membership in the larger neighborhood; they know only that they live on a certain block in the poorer part of the city. In time, however, the outside message sinks in. The local people begin to see that they live in, say, “Back of the Yard,” an area with a certain character and with boundaries that outsiders fear to cross. “Back of the Yard” as a whole becomes a shadowy reality for the residents, a reality viewed with a mixture of helplessness, resentment, and perhaps also pride if the possibility for political action goes with the consciousness of place.

Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town? suggests the nostalgia many of us feel for declining hometowns:

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I‘d sit on his lap in that big old buick and steer as we drove through town
He‘d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
This is your hometown, this is your hometown
This is your hometown, this is your hometown

In `65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown
My hometown, my hometown, my hometown

Now main street‘s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain‘t nobody wants to come down here no more
They‘re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain‘t coming back to
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown, your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I‘m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good
Look around
This is your hometown

Considering Springsteen’s success, I’d guess that even those who have grown up under very different circumstances can identify with the feelings expressed here.