Symbolism of Place
V.The Space Of Place
The landscape of space is like media in that it surrounds place all the time but surrounds it in a very subtle manner so that its presence is difficult to discern. All places have space but all spaces do not necessarily have a place.
There are two types of space which are relevant to the symbolism of place. One is the objective space associated with such factors as direction, orientation and size. This space involves the physical position of the story hero to his environment. The second type of space involves subjective space involving the position of the narrator of the story, the observer of the actions of the hero within the story. The most common illustration of this space is the narrative point of view in literature. A type of subjective space not related to location and narrative point of view might be termed historical space. This space is related more to epochs of history and suggests dominant types of world views for these particular periods which objective and subjective space exist in.
Besides providing a background for the hero to move against or a position from which to tell a story, space also serves the funtion as "framing" the action. Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes about this "framing" function of space in her poem "Space":
"For beauty, for significance, it's space
We need; and since we have no space today
In which to frame the act, the word, the face
Of beauty, it's no longer beautiful.
A tree's significant when it's alone
Standing against the sky's wide open face;
A sail, spark-white upon the space of sea,
Can pin a whole horizon into place.
Encompassed by the dark, a candle flowers,
Creating space around it as it towers,
Giving the room a shape, a form, a name;
Significance is born within the frame.
A word falls in the silence like a star,
Searing the empty heavens with the scar
Of beautiful and solitary flight
Against the dark and speechless space of night."
In the following sections we explore some of these themes of space and show how they "frame" stories.
Objective space for our purposes refers to the physical location of the hero to his environment. The hero can be located above, below, in the center, on, inside, outside, in front of or in back of story places. All characters in stories are always within one or more of these spaces at each moment. It is this relationship which plays an important part in the overall "gestalt" of the story and adds place symbolism and dimension to it.
Objective space has a strong relationship to various literary genres. In the book Gender, Language and Myth edited by Glenwood Irons, Barry Grant notes that horror tales focus "down" while science fiction tales focus "upward." Irons mentions Poe's "The Premature Burial" and filmaker David Croneberg's They Came From Within as examples of this downward and inward focus. Science fiction, he notes, tends to gaze up and out such as Jules Verne's From The Earth To The Moon and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Glenwood Irons mentions in the introduction to Gender, Language and Myth, "Horrow fiction is a lesson in penetration - murderous, psychological, sexual, always violent..."
The literary scholar Leonard Lutwack notes a number of properties of objective place in The Role of Place in Literature. The properties of space he notes are extent, verticality, horizontality, centrality and a-centrality. While his focus is on place in literature his observations hold true for space in cinema and advertising.
In the following section I discuss these various properties and add a few classifications of my own. This is not meant to be a complete classification but rather only a start in suggesting the relationships between place and space. Six general types of objective space are outlined below but the reader might find other spaces or different classifications. Again, as in most of the material of this book, I attempt to make some initial headway into frontier land rather than establish elaborate cities.
One of the major properties of place is the determination of its spatial size. In other words the extent of context surrounding place. Are there limits to the "extent" of place? As Leonard Lutwack notes in The Role Of Place In Literature:
"An obvious property of a place is its size or extension in space. Beyond the planets of our solar system and the visible stars, place is unimaginable, Milton's 'vast vacuity.' Stars and planets, however, play an important role because they mark the border between outer space and the habitable world. No matter how inaccessible practically, they are imaginatively inhabitable and are thus places in our sense of the world."
Within the universe, notes Lutwack, there is a series of places of diminishing size such as "earth, continents, regions, landscapes, dwellings, the interiors of dwellings, areas within touching distance, and finally spaces too small for human occupation except by imaginative extension."
This hieracrchy of size is difficult to perceive by the senses and literature has often used analogies to explan these types of places. As Lutwack notes:
"The world is thus represented by Homer by a description of the design on the shield of Achilles; the city in naturalistic fiction is most often rendered by an account of the activities of a single street."
The analogy of microcosm to macrocosm, notes Lutwack, "permits writers to include in their repertoire of settings places either too small or too extensive or remote for human occupation."
Examples of this "extent" place phenomena from literature can be found in a wide variety of artists. The reduction in size of human beings that lets Rabelais populate the mouth of a giant. In Fantastic Voyage, Isaac Asimov sends a team of doctors on a journey through the bloodstream of a heart patient. In the movie Tron, people are put inside a computer. And, in one of Robert Louis Stevenson's stories, a bed-ridden child creates "The Land of Counterpane" from the folds of his bed-clothes.
While the size of place expressed by "extent" is an important consideration, the objective space attributes of above and below, up and down and middle are also important aspects of spatial symbolism. As Lutwack notes, "A number of place attributes depend on the relative position of a place in relation to other places - whether a place is high, low, central, or apart."
Apart from the specific symbolism of these various parts of verticality, the basic vertical nature of place can add drama and excitment to a story that is beyond the ability of horizontal places places to do. Verticality has also been associated with being more picturesque and less dull, boring and uninspiring than horizontal places. Literary critic Roland Barthes has remarked in his Mythologies that "the picturesque is found any time the ground is uneven."
Primitive man utilized vertical symbolism by dividing his cosmology into three levels. It was from these three levels that the places of heaven (above), earth (middle intersection) and hell (below) were found. As Lutwack notes:
"Ancient cosmologies commonly identified three levels - upper, middle, and lower...Differentiation of levels inevitably leads to a hierarchy of values. Thus in the Christian cosmology heaven and hell are absolutely opposed while earth has qualities of both...Great depths as well as great heights are often held sacred, for there the middle place, earth, is intersected by realms inhabited by gods, and there the extraordinary man may be favored spiritually...A mountain...may touch both the heavenly realm above and the world below."
Places connected to both the heavens above and the depths below have an important symbolic significance. Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism calls this the 'point of epiphany' and supplies examples in the mountain-tops, towers, and staircases of the Bible, Dante, Yeats and Eliot of this point. In connecting places on different levels stairs symbolically afford a passage from one mode of existence to another. And Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space, goes so far as to claim that verticality in houses has a strong appeal to the consciousness.
A place which is above suggests some basic symbolic relationships. One relationship suggested is that the actor in this background has a larger perspective on life below his above position. That is why, as we will show in the next section, third person, omnipotent narrative techniques relate the narrative from an above position.
Associated in traditional mythology with Gods and the heavens and the stars, "above" is ultimately the home of the gods. And so it is that ascending upward has great symbolic significance throughout history. As we shall see later, "above" also relates to the color of white, or light, and to the basic element of air.
The place of above, though, can also symbolize an isolation from the life which goes on below. The phrase "He is above it all" is meant to define a person who is not connected to life, or who is apart from it.
The major natural places that "above" is associated with are mountains. However, during the last thirty years and the birth of the space age we must consider above as also above the earth. Within the man made places, above relates to the skyscapers within cities and the space inside airplanes. However, above is relational and even a small hill can serve to be above a village down below.
Being "above" the world gives the hero a broader perspective on life and existence whether the hero is in outer space or simply on a hill overlooking a village. Here are two examples - one is from NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell and the other is from novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Mitchell went through a type of religious experience after his trip into space. He writes about this experience:
"None who have looked at Earth and the cosmos from deep space have failed to be dramatically moved by the sight. For me, as I contemplated the tiny jewell that is Earth, against the background of stars and galaxies, I experienced a sense of oneness and wholeness beyond my previous experience. I recognized that my prior vision of 'reality' was far too limited. The universe is more grand, more magnificent, more purposeful than I had ever imagined."
Although outer space provides a type of ultimate "aboveness" a small hill can also provide this above space for a new perspective. At the end of the novel Lolita, after transversing the horizontal space across America with Lolita and being within the inside spaces of numerous motel rooms, the narrator climbs to the top of a small hill which overlooks a village.
"As I approached the friendly abyss, I grew aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like a vapor from a small mining town that lay at my feet, in a fold of the valley. One could make out the geometry of the streets between blocks of red and gray roofs, and green puffs of trees, and a serpentine stream, and the rich, ore-like glitter of the city dump, and beyond the town, roads crisscrossing the crazy quilt of dark and pale fields, and behind it all, great timbered mountains. But even brighter than those quietly rejoicing colors...both brighter and dreamier to the ear than they were to the eye, was that vapory vibration of accumulated sounds that never ceased for a moment, as it rose to the lip of granite where I stood wiping my foul mouth."
The narrator has a sudden revelation from this viewpoint and says "I soon realized that all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home and the men away."
The concept of "below" or "depth" has aspects which are in contrast to those of "above." In the film Blue Velvet, the symbolism of "below" is stated early in the story. One of the themes of the film is about the dark and evil things which move just below the shiny surface of everyday life.
The shiny everyday life is a small lumber town in the Northwest part of America. One morning, Mr. Beaumont, owner of the local hardware store, is out watering his lawn. Here is how the film script by David Lynch takes us below the surface of life:
Exterior. A Shady street. Day.
A bright red gorgeous fire engine is moving very slowly down the street. We move in to see the happy face of a fireman.
Exterior. Flower garden. Day.
Yellow tulips sway in a warm afternoon breeze.
Exterior. Beaumont's lawn. Day.
The same white picket fence with roses in front of it. Panning slowly now away from the roses down to the rich green lawn and over to the sprinkler which goes around and around shooting water droplets sparkling in the light. This is slightly slow motion and dreamy.
Exterior. Beaumonts' Front Lawn. Day.
Closer on water droplets. The water droplets are somewhat abstracted as they dance in the light. Pan down now to the green grass, traveling along the grass. The music becomes fainter as we move suddenly under the grass, now in a dark forest.
Slowly moving through the grass.
The grass is like great timbers. It is getting darker and ominous sounds come up as we discover black insects crawling and scratching in the darkness.
The film Blue Velvet can be approached and understood from this vertical aspect of place symbolism. The opening scenes described above serve to state the theme of the film: it will be an exploration of the darkness that lurks below the surface of middle American life. It is an examination of this top and bottom, vertical perspective, of place.
The space of depth also has a symbolism associated with various aspects of the person. In this sense, one speaks of spirit and intellect as located in a type of above space. This above space is the head in the human body. The heart is a type of center space when it relates to an outward symbolism of space. It is the soul of the individual, though, which has depth.
In The Planets Within, Thomas Moore examines the concept of the soul and its connection to the space of depth in the astrological psychology of the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino. He writes that:
"Soul is also depth, a metaphor we use to point to a certain intensity of experience. Having soul, we feel a certain reverberation and resonance carrying through beneath the surface of everyday experience. With soul, events are not merely two-dimensional; they carry an invisible but clearly felt dimension of depth."
He distinguishes these types of experiences from the space of above or of height. "These resonances," he says, "do not appear as meaning and explanation, nor even as understanding - that would be height, the work of intellect." Soul is not something that cannot be "fabricated by evaluating experience, trying to figure it out, or through intense introspection." Moore notes that the:
"significance of soul is clearly downward, away from the head, closer to the stomach where the outside world is absorbed, internalized, and broken down; toward the intestines where in an extensive labyrinthine journey the introjected world becomes partly self, partly waste; down toward the lower orifices where what is not made into self is eliminated; down near the organs of sex where the pleasure, relational, and sensation fluids are focused."
While Marsilio Fincino related depth to soul and discovered a strong vitality and inwardness of experience in the relationship, the Greeks had a difference view of depth.
For the Greeks, depth was associated with death. As Moore observes in The Planets Within, "In Greek mythology the natural world accessible to our senses is mirrored by an underworld where there is no flesh or bone but only phantasms or immaterial visages. Here again are labyrinthine passages leading to numerous chambers where strange happenings reflect the world above." In Greek mythology Demeter, the mother who gives the world its beauty and fruitfulness, is inseparable from her daughter Persephone, who is dragged into the underworld to become the queen of death and, as Moore notes, the personification of depth.
There is a more drama associated with vertical spatial dimensions than with horizontal space dimensions. The greater drama is related to the fact that verticality and its above and below and up and down dimensions relate to basic cosmic symbolism. A hero in ascension or descension in physical places offers a more pronounced drama that one going from the horizontal direction of east or west. The journey to the west or east, however, may symbolize an ascension or descension as the journey east in Hesse's The Journey to the East symbolized a spiritual ascension.
As Leonard Lutwack notes in The Role of Place in Literature, "Lacking the unknown potential of heights and depths, flat places are safe, restful and reassuring". He finds other examples to support the principle that "predominantly horizontal places are uninspiring and dull." An example is the ecosystem of deserts and the wastelands associated with deserts. In addition, horizontality and levelness may have some type of symbolism to tragedy. For example, in the Scriptures the sign of direct catastrophe is the leveling of high places such as hills and towers.
While predominantly horizontal spaces may be dull and uninspiring, the magnitude of nature and the smallness of the hero against this nature can best be shown in a horizontal space. The development of the technology of Cinemascope and the current 70 mm size films celebrate the horizontal shape over the original sqaure shape of the movies. Cinemascope became an excellent vehicle for the westerns where the hero could be superimposed against the overwhelmingness of natural places. What the western genre may have sacrificed to the flatness of the deserts of its stories it made up in the dramatic contrast between man and the magnitude of his environment.
The concept of centrality of place is associated with the need for orientation around a center place. As Lutwack notes "To orient himself to the world man seems to require a sense of the deployment of persons, things, and places around a center, and this center thus acquires paramount importance over all around it." This "centrality" as Lutwack observes, "is associated with rest, certainty, wholeness."
One of the major features that serves to define the "hero-protagonist" in stories and mythologies is the need of the hero to disturb this "rest" and "certainty" of the center and journey away from it outward to peripheral, a-central places, and back again. As Lutwack remarks "One of the most satisfying narrative motifs is the journey of the hero from a central place to a number of outlying places and from them back to the starting place."
But more than a "satisfying narrative motif" this journey is really an essential motif to the world's great mytholical stories. It is this journey that Joseph Campbell has defined in Hero With A Thousand Faces. Through a study of the journey of the "hero" in the world mythologies, Campbell has found this journey from central places to outlying places to be a common element.