Sunday, March 29, 2009

Return to the Expanse

A Venezia, e due belli cappuccini.

I've been in a cabin for three days, writing, doing yoga, talking through some principles and emotions with Linz and Anth. The pictures above are from our Italia trip last year, and the thread that connects is Louis: he took the one in Venice, and the second cappucino is his. He was present by phone, and also in our consciousness and conversation all weekend. I chose these pictures to introduce what I'm thinking about because on the trip to Italy I had a profound, concrete experience of the abstract idea of the Return to the Expanse. It was echoed strongly this weekend and I'm reminded of it almost every time I leave my home for a few days and am engaged with a new space.

The first photo is an example of something I and most people I know love to do: take in a view. It's a vista, a moment of largeness and a representation of the sense of awe one feels at the sheer magnitude of beauty that is possible. People hike mountains and go to beaches for this, they eat at rooftop restaurants, they stare out the windows of planes, they build huge windows on the front of hillside properties and they make their ceilings higher and higher still. But it is a condition of wealth in our country to have access to The View--you can't travel, live on a hill, etc. without money. We associate the richness of beauty in The View directly with financial riches even though, of course, people can hike in parks for free or sit on their own roofs. But it's very stark when we're paying for our spaces: book a cabin on a cruise ship and the main thing you pay for is? The View. Book a beachfront hotel room? The View. Buy a house in the Hollywood Hils? The View. And I think the conflation of material magnificence (the aesthetic joy of encountering something so vast as an ocean, city skyline, etc. in the physical world) and materialist priorities (demonstration of wealth in the access to/ownership of the ocean, skyline, etc.) is deeply embedded in our culture. I think most Americans would have trouble separating the joy of seeing the ocean from the pleasure of being wealthy enough to make it to the ocean, even if they tried hard. Even tougher to separate the aesthetic and materialist pleasures when you OWN the View.

Of course the opposite to The View is something small, contained, and therefore undesireable. I'll call it The Basement. Small home to live in, small area of town in which you are safe, the cheap damp rented room, the shitbox car. The obvious lack of means demonstrated by The Basement sets up a false set of categories, however, and it should already feel strange to you.

If a View is defined by its physical size and scope and not its content, then we know that not all Views are beautiful (Ex: looking down from a helicoptor at Vietnamese villages getting napalmed) and we also know that not all small spaces are ugly (Ex: the table holding our cappuccini above), so why even discuss the categories this way?

The problem is that the unconscious association of real aesthetic beauty with materialist satisfaction, such as our fascination with The View, has manifestations that are still very pervasive and subtle despite our ability to come up with counter-examples.

One subtle consequence of materialism that I consider often is boredom. It is impossible, really, to be bored if you are attentive to the many minute opportunities for beauty, awe, and information in one room, in one body, in one piece of media. But we don't feel rich enough if we spend all day at home--and I'm referring to richness in both stimuli and money, since we conflate them. We might temporarily substitute internet or television for a physical View, because the preponderance of options inherent there imply the same sort of largeness of experience. But we can grow bored of anything (or anyone) if we succumb to the pressure to be constantly owning/having access to more.

And thus the great overwhelm of Italia: my impulse to seek out and get lost in The View paired with my impulse to attentively investigate the minutae both being constantly fed with the new, new, new. Add my gratitude for the opportunity to go, the imperative I felt to do something creative and useful with my experiences, and it's incredible that I didn't come back paralyzed.

It seems like the opposite would happen in weekend at a small cabin with no internet. Indeed, on the first day I walked through the space and thought, "Cute! Ok! Let's go see the town!" and thought nothing of that restlessness, because I feel it so often. We did go for a walk, saw some landscape and town, met a few goats, and bought some buffalo jerky from the man who raised the buffalo. But then we settled in. We entered an altered state to write, and be together, and the hours we spent talking, working, listening to music, cuddling, reading, etc. were full and long. The cabin, which had seemed so small, had many corners and crevices and mismatching dishes and inches of history to notice. My computer, which I look at everyday, had files and files of notes and stories I hadn't looked at for years. Our hearts, which we bare to each other more honestly than anyone else I know, still had vulnerabilities to offer up. Instead of seeking The View, which is measured in miles, we returned to an awareness of true expansiveness, which is not bounded by space. (And yes, I appreciate the irony that this kind of thinking was made possible because we are able to get to a cabin in the first place.)

I can often access a Return to the Expanse when I'm doing yoga, dancing, making love, or getting a massage, because it is through the body that I am concretely reminded of how vast the landscape of a person, and by extension, everything, is. I am aware of "my back" when I'm sitting in a chair, but my awareness of it becomes more complex when I'm making tiny adjustments to my posture in yoga, or having a particular muscle worked on in massage, or feeling the electrifying touch of a lover. Suddenly my back, and then my whole body, feels infinitely realized: every inch a new world. When I slow down to attend to a lover's body this way the possibilities for our intimacy multiply exponentially.

This clearly can extend to all of the corporeal world: every space and object offers us information that is more complex than we think. But it is not enough to think of this as some phenomenon divorced from the political/economic reality in which those objects/people/rooms exist. It's not easy to peel back the layers of obstruction our culture has stuffed between our senses and our understanding--but it's possible, I think, to be ever more aware of them.

I had a great writing teacher at Emerson who asked us to go home and write a two-page discussion of an object in our home. Most people found it difficult to get beyond basic description of their object: it's a mug, it's got a teddy bear on it, a chip on the handle. But when we started reading these aloud, a visible discomfort emerged in the students as they realized that the object they chose was suddenly functioning as a symbolic representation of their self, and even more uncomfortable (because it was somewhat less irrational), their class; and so the fact that one student described a piece of very expensive diamond jewelry while another described a broken coffee cup from the Goodwill forced us into more awareness of how much a part of our perception of self and identity class really was. Remember, again, these were all people who were able to gain access to graduate school.

It becomes problematic then, to say things like "I love the tropics" (The View) as if it is a personality signifier wholly separate from the assertion "I love not being poor." Maybe I love the tropics more than I love diamonds, for reasons I can articulate beautifully, but the fact that all my preferences are directly related to what I have access to can't ever be ignored. And so it becomes an important political act to attend to The Basement in such a way that it can be aesthetically informative and even pleasing. This is not an exoticizing or displacing of the problems of poverty. This is a refusal to be dictated by the capitalist aesthetic so pervasively understood to be "obvious" in our country.


  1. beautiful. beautiful blog. Such excellent examples. You articulated thoughts that I had thought were far too abstract to stab at.
    I've been to so many homes in those hollywood hills and exclaimed at the view. the "owner" either thanks me for appreciating their view or looks at it for a second, appreciating their piece of view anew, and says, "yeah."

    My view?

  2. Also, whenever you see any space as separated from the manifold of lived, social being, you participate in the fun little game of dividing the world up into sectors and systems (economic sector, entertainment sector, english department, political science department, the literary novel, the popular novel, etc).

    In any case, I could see just as far and wide from inside a Phish song or a Shostakovich piece as I can from up in the Hollywood Hills...