Time and Place

Yuan’s last chapter entitled “Time and Place? provides a nice transition to next week’s look at Gaston Bachlelard’s The Poetics of Space since it seems more speculative and more philosophical than previous chapters.

He notes that finding a sense of place is more difficult in a mobile society than in older, traditional cultures:

Modern man is so mobile that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial. This is the conventional wisdom. Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the “feel” of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones. A sailor has a recognizable style of walking because his posture is adapted to the plunging deck of a boat in high sea. Likewise, though less visibly, a peasant who lives in a mountain village may develop a different set of muscles and perhaps a slightly different manner of walking from a plainsman who has never climbed. Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing. In time we become familiar with a place, which means that we can take more and more of it for granted. In time a new house ceases to make little demands on our attention; it is as comfortable and unobtrusive as an old pair of slippers.

Since my father spent much of my childhood moving up the ladder of success, I certainly identify with this problem of establishing roots. Regularly moved from place to place, I spent much of my childhood feeling like an outsider, even if by choice rather than by necessity. Later in life, returning home to the Puget Sound after several years in the Army, it no longer felt like home either due to my Vietnam-induced alienation from society in general or to the rapid growth that engulfed the city.

If Yuan is correct when he suggests that:

Objects anchor time. They need not, of course, be personal possessions. We can try to reconstruct our past with brief visits to our old neighborhood and the birthplaces of our parents. We can also recapture our personal history by maintaining contact with people who have known us when we were young. Personal possessions are perhaps more important for old people. They are too weary to define their sense of self by projects and action; their social world shrinks and with it the opportunities to proclaim fair deeds; and they may be too fragile to visit places that hold for them fond memories. Personal possessions-old letters and the family settee remain as accessible comforts, the flavor of times past hovering about them.

Then the past must be of limited concern to me, because I have very few possessions from the past, have limited contact with “old friends,? and must be younger than I thought because I still define myself by my projects and actions rather than by my personal possessions.

That doesn’t mean that at times I don’t see a better life in the past than in the future:

Young people live in the future; what they do rather than what they possess defines their sense of selfhood. Yet the young occasionally look back; they can feel nostalgic toward their own short past and proprietary about things. In modern society the teenager, as both his body and his mind undergo rapid change, may have an infirm grasp of who he is. The world seems at times beyond his control. Security lies in routine, in what the teenager perceives to be his own sheltered childhood and in the objects identified with an earlier, more stable phase of life. In general, we may say that whenever a person (young or old) feels that the world is changing too rapidly, his characteristic response is to evoke an idealized and stable past. On the other hand, when a person feels that he himself is directing the change and in control of affairs of importance to him, then nostalgia has no place in his life: action rather than mementos of the past will support his sense of identity.

I seldom suffer fits of nostalgia, but I am guilty of looking at the environment and longing times long past when the wilderness seemed infinite and indestructible. Now I fear we may have gone so far in conquering nature that we have destroyed its ability to sustain us.

Strangely, though, the quote that intrigued me the most was this, which seemed strangely out of place:

Some people try hard to recapture the past. Others, on the contrary, try to efface it, thinking it a burden like material possessions. Attachment to things and veneration for the past often go together. A person who likes leather-bound books and oak beams in the ceiling is ipso facto an acolyte of history. In contrast, one who disdains possessions and the past is probably a rationalist or a mystic. Rationalism is unsympathetic to clutter. It encourages the belief that the good life is simple enough for the mind to design independently of tradition and custom, and that indeed tradition and custom can cloud the prism of rational thought. Mysticism likewise disdains clutter, material and mental. It declares historical time to be an illusion. Man’s essential being belongs to eternity. A mystic frees himself from the burden of material things. He lives in a hermit’s cell or by Walden Pond. He is disencumbered of his past.

Very few things, even those I’ve created myself, seem important to me. I love books, but, except for poetry books, seldom keep them after I’ve read them. It’s the ideas in the books, not the books themselves, that are important to me. The question remains whether I’m a rationalist or mystic, though I’ve never thought of myself as either, despite a previously noted love of Emerson and Thoreau’s Walden Pond.