Tag Archives: Buddhism

Alternative Spatial Metaphors

It’s time to play “Disrupt the Hegemonic Spatial Metaphor”!

At the end of the second chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve are just hanging out in the Garden of Eden, naked and shameless. Chapter three is comparatively less paradisiacal – in particular, the part where God tosses them out of paradise, leaving them to spend the rest of their nasty, brutish lives lamenting that they didn’t eat from the immortality-granting Tree of Life while they still had the chance.

The “walls and mortality” theme comes up in the Buddhist origin story as well. Growing up, Siddhartha’s dad keeps him cloistered inside the palace to prevent him from discovering such things as old age, sickness, and death. Of course, one day the prince goes cruising outside the palace walls in a chariot, where he comes across an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. Channa, Sid’s royal servant, finds himself in the unenviable position of explaining this afflictionary triumvirate. Siddhartha takes this news kind of seriously, has a lengthy affair with asceticism, rejects it, and ends up the Buddha.

Fifteen centuries later, Tom Stoppard protagonized (inventing words and I just can’t stop) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to raise a compelling objection to the veracity of the Buddhist narrative:

ROSENCRANTZ: Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering – stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality.

You’d expect, Ros thinks, that even in the absence of palace walls and a father determined to prevent you from stumbling across mortality, there should have been a time in your life before you encountered death – experience is limited by time, not just space. But if the threshold between the ontological side of the issue (i.e. being mortal) and the epistemological side (knowing you’re mortal) is significant, why don’t we remember it? Rosencrantz can only think of one explanation: there are no walls, and there was never a time of ignorance.

In the Biblical and Buddhist versions, a spatial transgression accompanies the shift from being mortal to knowing you’re mortal. In both stories, this shift is also associated with becoming truly human (or at least understanding humanity). We empathize with Adam and Eve once they become tragic figures; in the garden, their total innocence makes them unrecognizable. Siddhartha’s condition is similarly incomprehensible until he gets beyond the palace walls.

While the older stories would have it that one has to get “outside” to understand one’s place, Stoppard has Rosencrantz postulate that there is no outside. Yet his play does explore an analogous divide, most clearly manifested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s continually frustrated attempts to leave the stage (in fact, Stoppard’s script never gives them a final exit; the stage directions merely state that they “disappear.”) The players continually problematize the relationship of the actor (who, the player reminds us, is the opposite of a person) to death, and the conclusion is essentially an extended meditation on the Shakespearean metaphor of the world as a stage, its men and women players, and each with their entrances and exits.

It’s difficult not to see in these summaries that classic modern-postmodern binary where the older, theological narratives associate knowledge with “getting outside,” while Stoppard’s more recent narrative disavows this possibility. The existential confusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – as well as Rosencrantz’s specific claim that we are born knowing our mortality – can easily be interpreted as a nod to the Heideggerian “always already.” But the schema’s superstructural spatial metaphor is out of alignment with the specifics of these narratives: the cliché associates knowledge with being above, not outside, and this privileged spatial-epistemological condition is associated with objectivity and transcendence, not humanization and the existential crisis (which the theological narratives resolve through transcendence) inherent in the meaningless quotidian milieu.

The “superstructural spatial metaphors” I referred to above could also be described as diagrams. The diagram for what I think of as the generic modernist epistemology consists of an objective, omniscient point from which one looks down on the earthly plane. This spatial relationship – which permits one to see everything – is understood to entail understanding everything. But that isn’t the diagram we encounter in these narratives. First, this diagram is rotated. Instead of a vertically oriented “above-below,” we discover a horizontally related “inside-outside.” The second difference, which emerges from the visual-epistemological implications of the diagram, is equally profound. The vertical paradigm is unidirectional: “above” looks at/understands “below.” But in the horizontal diagram, “exterior” doesn’t look back to “interior.” (Dumbly, the wall forbids this visual relationship, with epistemological consequences.)

Thus, the Platonic cave – despite its apparent horizontality – actually belongs to the vertical regime: by getting outside the cave, the philosopher discovers the truth behind the “reality” of the cave’s interior. While the horizontal diagram shares with the Platonic allegory the idea that interiority is a condition characterized by naïveté, the spatial threshold is opaque. The horizontal diagram implies that the knowledge gained from being outside has no bearing on life on the inside, because the interior is not a truly human realm.

The traditional, vertical diagram is geometric and spatial, but it is not architectural. The point above and the plane below exist only in terms of each other, their relationship is unmediated. The horizontal diagram is, however, architectural. The interior and exterior don’t exist in direct relation to one another; they are defined by their relationship to a third term: the threshold.