Monday, March 14, 2011

Horror Vacui: The Spirit You Fear May Be Your Own

I don't mean to remind you that nature supposedly has a powerful prejudice against vaccums, another use of the term. I'm thinking about the aesthetic concept. Horror vacui, literally the fear of empty spaces, implies a drive to fill the entire picture plane. It means packing a whole area with design, pictures, or whatever. Leaving no empty space. Mario Praz, author of what some have called the greatest work of criticism, The Romantic Agony, had a lot to say about it once. Here's the man himself.

Mario Praz, critic

He talked about it in reference to Victorian clutter in decorating, but it's been applied to just about all types of art. In junior high, I was told by a hippie art teacher that the ancient Egyptians believed that if you leave blank spaces on a wall, evil spirits could enter them. I heard it again later in college, but I can't really find any details online. I'm surprised that, in this vast sea of information, there's not one readily-found drop of information. Darn philistine medium!

So forget it. No interesting, related video. Sorry, YouTube, I'm not posting Walk Like an Egyptian by the Bangles.

Anyhow, the fear of leaving empty space because something bad may occupy it makes sense in an intuitive way. You can make what you will of the idea of spirits, you can be an animist if you want, believing that everything has a soul, or you can be an atheist and subscribe to Hegel's geist as some sort of abstract. Or something in between, or nothing. You don't have to know what any of that means to understand the concept, there's just something very basic and real about it.

But I don't think it's a good idea.

Have you ever known someone who can't stop and sit for a second, who's always looking for stimulation, and you started to wonder if the person is running away from something? Or have you ever wished you could walk into a public place without piped-in music because you've had enough of the constant drumming in the back of your mind? Have you ever needed to go outside and get some air and quiet for a few moments? Then you may agree with me about American horror vacui.

And if you've felt this way in another country, well, the empire has a broad reach.

If you yourself can't seem to just hit the off switch, to turn away from the modern din, maybe you've got a fear of empty spaces, a fear of something else filling the gaps.

You know, all that noise is fake. The feared spirits just may be reality coming crashing in. It just may be yourself intruding. Not your job, your clothes, your image, your reputation, but the you without props that's been trying to tell you something for a long time, that's been struggling to be heard. The you that's just there.

I sometimes wonder if the artificial space we create for all senses, which is very hard to escape, is put there to subdue reality, or you could call it nature. Somewhere in the backs of our minds, that nature is a lion or tiger that my be very hungry, but you know, we're far from being any creature's prey now, except to own own kind.

Each one of us is like Manhattan Island, so buried in artificial environments that the real foundation is obscured.

Manhattan Island before and after

Have you ever tried to walk along a wooded trail and found your senses jarred when someone else passed by, talking loudly on a cell phone? Or how about the couple jogging and yelling back and forth about business? It's hard to escape. Horror vacui.

Are you familiar with alpha and beta brainwave activity? The birds singing, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, the movements in the undergrowth, encourage alpha-wave activity, in which you're just being. The talk stirs up beta waves, meaning that you've started to think. It's unhealthy to remain in a beta state for as long as we do in the modern world, which is why a doctor may suggest meditation to prevent another heart attack. Tell your mind to stop talking so much, the stress is killing you! Or someone's always trying to sell you some product guaranteed to get you into an alpha state.

So are we doing all this to shield ourselves from predators, real, imagined, or otherworldly? Our artificial spaces have isolated us so much that we don't have to look outside ourselves to find danger and destruction. The effort to maintain such monolithic structures is killing us. You could be your own most fearsome predator.

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