We all know the phrase, nature abhors a vacuum, but where did it come from and how do we interpret it?
Well, it first seems to have been used in connection with physics in Ancient Greece, where it was used to describe the theory that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural, in going against the very physical laws of nature. It was called horror vacui, and was first proposed by Aristotle, who observed that every space was compelled to be filled with something.
Then in the sixteenth century, the formidably multi-talented Francois Rabelais, restated the phrase as an old Latin proverb Natura abhorret vacuum. And he should have known as a writer, humanist, physician, monk and Greek Scholar, and much revered master of literature. How could we dare disagree?
But note that we have just moved from science to humanist philosophical literature, and we can later find another interpretation of the concept going back to it original expression – horror vacui – and it’s subsequent translation as fear of empty space or voids (also known as kenophobia) in relation to visual art. So here we have the Italian art critic and scholar, Mario Praz, using the phrase to describe what he saw as the choking atmosphere and clutter of Victorian interior design in the nineteenth century, and the phrase has also been applied to Islamic art and illuminated manuscripts essentially criticising the compulsion to fill the space on the page, canvas, or panel with meticulous detail. Those who design this way are using the style of horror vacui – and I must confess I could be accused of painting like this myself and indeed handwriting notes in a similar fashion from left to right margin and top to bottom, and you should see my mind maps! – perhaps proving the point that many people do indeed have a compulsion to fill that empty space.
Now, if we go on to look at the expression from a contemporary perspective, and take the rather nicely vivid word, ‘abhor’, to be dripping with hate and disgust, then we can assume the vacuum this disgust relates to is a highly undesirably place or space, that our human nature as well as nature itself is keen to rush into and fill, like a bit of waste ground attracting masses of seedlings, to make something of it with a sense of urgency to ease the rather anxious discomfort of nothingness. Leon Seltzer, in his article in Psychology Today, addresses this from the human nature angle, arguing that there is a danger of rushing in to fill the empty space within us with hasty judgments, hasty decisions, or pursue too much stimulation when the vacuum results in us feeling ‘bored, antsy, anxious, irritable, lonely, or even depressed’.
And from a creative person’s perspective the vacuum may be externalised as that glaring white canvas as yet untouched by your hand, or that winking cursor blinking on an empty white document. There is a very natural feeling of creative tension and anxiety, we want to externalise what is within us, to get it right for ourselves – at this point we are in the position of our nature abhorring a vacuum. But what happens once we start? Well, after making some marks, typing some words, we have stepped into the space and have something to develop, however tiny that first mark is, we have something to work with and we begin to relax and maybe then get fired up to carry on. We’re initially anxious because what we want to express is coming from within ourselves, only from there, and we want to get it right for ourselves and for others, viewers or readers. So for creative people filling that empty space is a little more acute in tension.
In relation to feeling the vacuum sometimes within us too, it strikes me that we would be better off not fearing being in a vacuum, that we should understand it for what it is – an absence of thinking, doing, or feeling. It’s a bit like meditation, trying to go beyond the surface of ourselves, the surface of the waves making a lot of fuss, to go down to where the stillness is, where our true essential self resides. Many people hate feeling an emptiness within themselves. As Leon Seltzer says what ‘people strive so assiduously to avoid is really a “vacuum of self.” When we’re not enough for ourselves (i.e., can’t somehow fill our own vacuum), we can’t help but focus our attention on what we can import into ourselves to feel more whole and complete’ and of course people can go to all sorts of lengths to do this, making poor decisions along the way, or enduring situations they would be better off changing.
So turning the quote around to make the state of feeling in a vacuum a good thing, we could see a vacuum as a place of peace, like in meditation. Or it could be an exciting place where we can express our creativity and fill it up for a while (hence all the outpouring of visual details and filling of notebooks perhaps). We can make a friend of it, not an enemy. We can expect creative tension to be there, knowing it is perfectly natural, that it may even be conducive to spur us on.
Instead of seeing the vacuum within us as a threatening unwelcome place like this:
where there is so much to do, it’s overwhelming, a place you can’t possibly be comfortable in until you get the space (yourself) sorted…but how long will this take?
You could rather choose to imagine the emptiness as something more expansive like this:
A wide open landscape you can wander in, where you and the space can be in a kind of open harmony, where you can learn to love your inner empty space mirrored by the outer as a friend, rather than a bleak featureless place where nothing is happening to stimulate you, engage you, or demand responses from you. Perhaps people love or loathe empty landscapes for these kinds of reasons. I love them regardless.
A final positive take on our inner personal space -In his writings within A Personal Tao, Taoist teacher, Casey Kochmer, uses the metaphor of the space contained within a bowl (where the bowl physically defines the space inside it – what would a bowl be without the space it contains?) to describe our very nature, our identity. Our inner space is conditioned in the early years by parents, school, society, our own tendencies and experiences etc, but is actually re-shapable and re-definable. We can, if we need or want to, reshape who we are and what we live by for what works for us now, tossing out of the bowl what no longer works. And if you don’t mind me being too philosophical (I promise I won’t make a habit of it!) Kochmer points out the very meaning of life is the ability to craft one’s personal space. So happy crafting!
Top pic courtesy of Pixabay
Lower one of me in Death Valley, on a previous holiday, walking into the roasting salt flats