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Nature Symbolized

With what joy, or delight, can space be imagined and structured in the mind?  There is probably some pleasure in imagining the distances between stars and trying to grasp their endlessness.  Like staring into one of two mirrors that face each other, or idly looking at the bottle which bears a label depicting a man holding a bottle, on which there is a label depicting a man, the continual regression of limits in the imagining of cosmic space makes the pleasure of glimpsing this space in the mind more theoretical than real.  Space has limits.  The definition of spaces gives pleasure.  The outline of a space's dimension defines that space.  The definition of spaces distinguishes them one from another.  Their physical characteristics define the pleasure we feel being inside them, perceiving their alignment and variation in surface.

In dreams we find streets become corridors, rooms become houses, cities become worlds.  The fact of enclosure thus becomes more real than the size of the enclosures, or their supposed function.  Nor do what we call rooms differ profoundly in their achievement, both being artifacts of culture, from what we call streets.  Neither are natural.  All people live near to the boundary between nature, the world not defined and ordered by people, and culture, the world that people have formed and structured.  We live within reach of nature but we clearly live within culture.  Even if we travel to part of the world where the hand of man has had relatively little impact we carry an envelope of culture around with us.  The way we eat, the way we dress, the way we behave to one another, the way we perceive our surroundings are all artifacts of culture.  Though a park or a street might enjoy natural light and the open air, as spaces they bear no less of the imprint of culture than does a room.  A high mountain meadow in the Rockies, defined by sheltering peaks, untracked by roads, might have claim to being within nature, but even there we find abandoned farm machinery and tenantless cabins.  The cabins rouse themselves back to being rooms when hikers spend nights there.  Even a solitary traveler making his way through such a meadow cannot escape being within culture, nor would he want to do so.  For culture is itself the definition of humanness.

It is the exuberance with which we perceive the limits to the spaces we encounter which gives pleasure.  They frame our activities and, in a manner of speaking regulate our feelings and responses.  The quiet of a museum, with ambient light flooding the space from barrel vaults above, provokes the feeling of calm and joyous perception with which we view its contents.  The traditional church structure, high-ceilinged space within which light and darkness are strongly contrasted, provides a setting within which contemplation on the relation between heaven and earth or between God and man can more easily spring forth.  We enclose our bedrooms, provide chambers for privacy and sleep.  Each space is defined, and its limits are set forth, with the view of bringing forth a certain response from its human inhabitants.  This is no less true of gardens or squares than it is of rooms, nor is it untrue for those spaces that, we may feel, dysfunctionally provoke feelings of unease or even terror rather than of calm.  The response of a pedestrian along a high speed expressway is as valid, and as determined by the nature of the space within which he is enclosed, as that of the picture viewer in a gallery.   It is not a place where he belongs.  The noise and wind of the passing traffic, and the hard and unyielding surfaces, let him know that.

At the moment a man sits writing in an armchair in a living room.