A sorry sight?

I am fascinated by liminality, intrigued by areas that exist on the edge of things, or in the space between them. I’m not sure when it all started, or why it has had such a hold on my imagination -but there you have it. Not everything has an owner, or for that matter even a responsibility to one side or the other.

Standing on the edge of a crowd to see what they’re up to does not commit me to join in, nor does it limit my escape. Admittedly it’s an unstable location, and I’d risk either being dismissed, or incorporated into whatever it approximates, but that’s part of the fascination: being a thing at an edge, a thing in between things -or, a non-thing, if you will. But can you really look at the space between two branches, say? Can you really look at an empty space or does there have to be something you’re looking at? Is complete and total emptiness a thing, in other words?

But, equally interesting I think, is that an emptiness -a space– is given a shape by its boundaries; an emptiness is dependent on what it isn’t to define what it is -or where it is… And as such, is awarded properties it wouldn’t otherwise exhibit. Couldn’t exhibit. How can that be?

The Japanese have long appreciated these attributes, however, and  I was reminded of this by a very thoughtful essay on this (ma) in the Kyoto Journal by the architect Gunter Nitschke. https://kyotojournal.org/culture-arts/ma-place-space-void/

‘For a Chinese or Japanese using language consciously, 間 [ma], depicting a delicate moment of moonlight streaming through a chink in the entranceway, fully expresses the two simultaneous components of a sense of place: the objective, given aspect and the subjective, felt aspect… The translation of ma as “place” is my own (Nitschke’s).’

Ma has many iterations, however -as many as there are dimensions, it seems. I find its time dimensions perhaps the most fascinating, especially when I think of that magical moment where moonlight can be glimpsed briefly streaming through, say, a crack in a wall. We all experience things in Time, and the shorter it is, the more unexpected it is, the more special -or the more laden with memories- it may become.

Another aspect of ma I find intriguing is attributing subjective feelings to it. So the space itself takes on the characteristics of what the observer is feeling about it. ‘This shows us another side of the ma concept — the notion that animation is an essential feature of place. The animation may be something which is projected from one’s subjective feelings; but it also may be some external, objective quality, the genius loci or the spirit, which projects itself into our minds… the identity of a place is as much in the mind of the beholder as in its physical characteristics.’

Interestingly, Haiku poetry -much beloved of my university days- is imbued with this. ‘Many… haiku poems begin with a phrase that employs ma to paint the atmosphere of energy of the setting.’ For example, among trees, or on waves… Or, do you remember Matsuo Basho:

The summer grasses.

                                                      All that remains

                                                      Of warriors’ dreams.

But people also exist in spaces, don’t they? Different societies define these in their own societal terms -not only where they live, or where they work, but also where they ‘belong’: their social place. This may determine how they are identified and treated. Indeed, in a collectivist society, everyone may be educated ‘to shake off the delusion of a separate individual ego, and to express supra-individual values. What characterizes a person as human is that one is always together with other humans.’

At any rate, I fear I am straying from my original awe of spaces as being unoccupied zones between things. It is an experience that contrasts something with nothing. ‘A consciousness of ‘the “void,” of “no-thingness,” of “emptiness.” It is therefore not a philosophical or aesthetic concept, but a notion derived from personal experience, a notion both beside and beyond the personal experience, a notion both beside and beyond the experience of our physical world. It does not deny it. It is based on the reversal of the usual flow of our energy.’ That’s more like it…

Children, I think, understand. One day, My daughter presented me with a crayon drawing she’d made at school; she wanted me to put it on the fridge door. It was an interestingly coloured series of lines radiating from what seemed to be a pot. It was a bouquet of flowers, I could tell, but one of the stems seemed oddly angled away from the rest.

“That’s beautiful, Cath,” I said and gave her an appreciative hug. “And they’re my favourite colours, too!”

“I know,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.

I duly attached it to the fridge with magnets and pointed to the line that seemed to be falling away from the rest. “Did this flower just fall over?” I asked, curious as to why she would draw it like that.

She folder her arms across her chest and looked at me as if I was a little slow. Then she shook her head and rolled her eyes. “No, silly. It’s just special… Like you,” she said with a sly look in her eyes.

I returned her glance with a puzzled look on my face.

Her smile softened, “I had to decide just how special, though… Miss Adams says space is really important for some people -the special ones, anyway…”

I gave her another hug. “So…”

She glanced up at my face. “So, the space is where you don’t want to be.” She pointed to the picture. “The side where you are, is different from their side, though… see? And there’s a big area between them…” She proudly outlined the wiggly stem on the flower on the opposite side of the space. Mine was nice and straight.

“Wow! That’s really clever, sweetheart! Did you think that up all on your own…?”

She shrugged. “Well, actually Jeff accidently on purpose knocked my arm there,” she admitted, touching the wriggles. “But Miss Adams says it looks better this way.” She smiled innocently at her flowers and sighed. “I do, too…”

My five year old philosopher.

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