L’appel du vide

Earlier this week I wrote about the fenscape of Lincolnshire and said that we ‘humans need the comfort of a boundary that is less ephemeral than a horizon.’ I also noted that under those fenland skies ‘you are quickly overloaded with the weight of the void’.

After I had written it, or it had written itself to be more precise, I wondered what it all meant. Why did it feel that way, and as in the theme of the previous post, how has it shaped me.

L’appel du vide
is one of those French existential phrases that we don’t have in English, meaning the call of the void or the vacuum. It’s also translated as the urge some people get when they are close to the edge of a cliff. Does everyone recognise that urge I wonder – I know I do.
Perhaps it’s part of the reason I don’t like heights.

Anyway it partly describes what I was trying to talk about when I wrote about humans needing smaller boundaries than an endless horizon. Faced with vast emptiness do some of us experience externally something of the echo of our own internal void? I tend to think, yes, it’s not likely to be just me is it? And when I talk about a fen horizon being too ephemeral I mean that to relate and cope with the vastness of it, we need to box it up a bit, break it down. A tree here, a stream and hedge there – Devon for example. Otherwise the question our horizon asks is too huge to cope with.

Call it what you like in philosophical, literary or psychoanalytic terms but I believe we all have ‘a void’ and some of us try to construct buffers or, like leaking buckets, fill them up to avoid acknowledging the l’appel du vide. Shopping, religion, television, computer games, writing, eating, drinking – all on the list of potential void-avoiding activities.

Perhaps a whole existence is one which is able to encompass the internal space without either seeking to fill it with busyness, or succumbing to it in other ways. After all it is a beautiful and creative place to visit, but if you had to live there all the time it might become rather like the countryside in winter – dark, damp, muddy and depressing. A place where you might need to drink a lot to just get by. On the other hand, working with the void can produce art with qualities that speak to us beyond mere words.

Maybe that explains the paradox in my own life, which is: to give my mind respite from endless existential questions, I have to occasionally immerse myself in the natural space of a landscape, the type which I might be accused of complaining that I grew up with.

Experiencing the void externally in a wildscape teaches me to go back and accommodate the inner one more wholly again.

The process could look like a year’s walk to Istanbul, or as short as an hour walking the dog. It could be a holiday retreat in the mountains, or a picnic on the Rowley Mile. L’appel du vide, for me, is bringing the inside out and it is essential.

I don’t believe it is as bleak as it sounds though, unless of course your l’appel du vide shouts at you every day and looks like the inner equivalent of the fens…

nb Notwithstanding all of the above, writing this has made me as melancholy as hell so maybe it’s just as well we haven’t got a bloody word for it.

Posted on September 8, 2011, in Art, Be not idle, Biophilia, Words and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Oh, you are starting to resemble a person who was very important to me and who was thinking very philosophically – like you. I always felt a tad inferior next to his big thoughts and came back to the notion that someone has to think the more boring thoughts. That worked for us well until the void got too big for anyone or anything to reach out to…. and the temptation to jump the cliff too hard to resist.

  2. Funnily enough (and more prosaically) today I asked a question about a void at work. We have two massive atria in a big building and there are walkways from our offices on 5th. 6th and 7th floors where you could easily just climb over and jump. I asked today if anyone else, like me, always thought about jumping when they walked via the walkways (I dont mean in a suicidal sense). It seems l was alone… or they lied…

    • Enkunalma, as I said, philosophers are probably just children whose difficult questions get bigger as they do…

      Finkywink – keep asking the questions!

  3. I simply had to appreciate you all over again. I do not know the things I might have followed without the actual basics documented by you concerning that field. It was the depressing condition in my view, nevertheless noticing a new specialized mode you solved the issue forced me to cry for joy. Now i am happy for your support and hope that you are aware of a powerful job you are getting into teaching most people all through your web blog. Most likely you have never encountered any of us.

  4. Hi,

    Can you send me an email so I can shoot you an email privately about this post? It is beautiful and I wanted to ask a question about it.


  5. I definately feel a call, you’re not alone.
    Sometimes it’s hard to resist

  1. Pingback: L’appel du vide | Unspoken Politics

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