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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.