Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sehnsucht and Homecoming

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal. A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly in circles---often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think of it without years. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.
 Christopher Alexander: The Timeless Way of Building, page 38

Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew... It made me aware of nature---not, indeed as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother's toy garden. And every day there were what we called "the Green Hills"; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They taught me longing-Sehnsucht...
C.S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy

I was deep in reading Alexander's book last night when I stumbled on the characteristically lyrical passage quoted above: Alexander employs the passage as an illustration of his "quality without a name," a qualify impossible, according to Alexander, to define with a single word, partaking as it does of several words' meanings: alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, and eternal. In Alexander's opinion, this "quality without a name" is present in individuals, buildings, rooms, towns, art, music: "It is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named." If I were to attempt to define it, my definition would run thus: Alexander's "quality without a name" is the the dawning recognition, achieved momentarily or otherwise, that the present set of circumstances, events, characteristics, is exactly as it should be, all around me suggests harmony and above all, a feeling that man can, perhaps only fleetingly, feel at home and at rest in this world. I realize, of course, that both my definition and Alexander's definition are deeply unsatisfying as philosophical dialectic. There is no exactness, no precision in the language, and in this instance, I'm willing to concede that in argument, very likely, these statements, as they stand, would be very difficult to defend.  

Nevertheless, I believe that what Alexander is trying to get at is at the heart of human experience: how do I come to feel at home in this world, when so often I feel a stranger? C.S. Lewis, in the quote above, describes a recurring experience both in his life and in his lifework, the feeling of sehnsucht: a word he rifled from German romanticism and that essentially means an insatiable desire (not a carnal desire, I must emphatically add). Sehnsucht is that "unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves? (Preface to The Pilgrim's Regress)." Lewis also describes the experience as a longing for a far-off country, a profound sense of nostalgia for a place unvisited but also strikingly reminscient of home. And of course, for Lewis as seemingly for Alexander (for I think Alexander's experience by the fish pond is akin to the experience that Lewis describes), the experiences are only intuitions of a higher experience, incapable of being defined satisfactorily. This desire testifies to two highly charged polarities in man's experience: his sense of belonging in the present and his suspicion or intuition that some more glorious future or situation awaits him. The former could be described as the biological or cultural sense: the desire to perpetuate the species and to make something of the world, so that it is more our home than when we arrived, and the latter could be described as the religious or philosophical sense: the desire to unfold the origin and mystery of the cosmos, discover its Creator, and ultimately, find peace in the purpose and destination of the individual soul. Of course, the two senses bleed into one another: religion not only has a transcendent quality, but it also has cultural and biological aspect, it is one of the ways in which man attempts to feel at home in the cosmos. 

Good music, art, ceremony, architecture, friendship, poetry all partake of Alexander's "quality without a name," and according to Alexander, we need only awaken our knowledge (a kind of Platonic anamnesis) of this quality, to recognize what constitutes goodness and badness. Even if one rejects Alexander's epistemology, Alexander's point should not be summarily dismissed. At root, it proposes the thesis that it is possible for man to make himself at home in the world, to live in a place that is beautiful. It takes Lewis' quest for sehnsucht and says, Yes, trust those intuitions and make of yourself and your home and your inner life something resembling those intuitions. At heart, it's a call to establish order in the soul, in the home, in the city, in the cosmos. Alexander writes:
Each one of us has, somewhere in his heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe. Those of us who have been trained as architects have this desire perhas at the very center of our lives: that one day, somewhere, somehow, we shall build one building which is wonderful, beautiful, breathtaking, a place where people can walk and dream for centuries.
In some form, every person has some version of this dream: whoever you are, you may have the dream of one day building a most beautiful house for your family, a garden, a fountain, a fishpond, a big room with soft light, flowers outside and the small of new grass.  
One may distrust the lyricism, but the message is clear. The world is pliant in our hands, and we can choose two variant paths: one that induces anxiety, fearfulness, and dread, or one that suggests harmony and contentment. The latter is not an attempt to 'immanentize the eschaton,' it's not a burning rage to see the present world go up in flames only to see a newer, more hygenic order arise in its place. Such a view recognizes the limits and possibilities of human existence: its glories as well as its drudgeries, but it suggests that the drudgeries can be ennobled and raised to a higher plane. C.S. Lewis intuited this from an early age: like Alexander's Japanese pond, he saw in the little tin of leaves and twigs the piercing beauty of nature but no less the vocation to order nature, synthesisize it in our art, architecture, poetry, and music. And even if we never truly find restfulness in our present circumstances (as the Christian must believe, since true rest rests only in God, the effort will have meant the creation and perpetuation of beautiful things in our midst. Lewis writes:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (The Weight of Glory)
To incardinate these desires in art seems to be one of the highest vocations, and if Lewis' achievements rest secure, one can only hope that the future is as assured for Alexander. Poetry, music, friendship can find their way into any home, but how successful will Alexander be in his crusade? Will the mass of men return to or reinvigorate a form of building and designing that partakes of these simultaneously earthy and transcendent qualities? Or will it continue to build monuments to despair and disharmony?* Will the symbol of our age be 100 stories of steel and glass? Or will it be something more humane, more divine? Will it have "the quality without a name?"

*In the debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman, Eisenmen defends the notion that architecture should be disharmonious (since disharmony is more representative of our "cosmology" than harmony)  and should actually mirror the despair and anxiety of modernity: "I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc." "What I'm suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything's all right, Jack, which it isn't. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn't all right. And I'm not convinced, by the way, that it is all right." And Alexander ends the debate:  
I can't, as a maker of things, I just can't understand it. I do not have a concept of things in which I can even talk about making something in the frame of mind you are describing. I mean, to take a simple example, when I make a table I say to myself: "All right, I'm going to make a table, and I'm going to try to make a good table". And of course, then from there on I go to the ultimate resources I have and what I know, how well I can make it. But for me to then introduce some kind of little edge, which starts trying to be a literary comment, and then somehow the table is supposed to be at the same time a good table, but it also is supposed to be I don't know what; a comment on nuclear warfare, making a little joke, doing various other things ... I'm practically naive; it doesn't make sense to me."

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