Analytical Introductionn: I was moved by what Robert Atwan…

Amanda Howard
Professor J. Sloggie
English 327
October 29, 2008
Analytical Introduction
I was moved by what Robert Atwan said about the need to rethink the idea on spaces. I greatly appreciate Atwan’s insight into the world of spaces especially when it comes to the realization that for the most part of our lives we move like blind men in this world we live in, although we are not blind in the truest sense of the word. Sacred Spaces evoke a feeling of a sacredness of space and time, where Heaven seems to touch Earth. We see all things as interdependent within an “inclusive community” and we experience a feeling of harmony as the process of having achieved balance. This experience comes to us so clear, so inviting, and so welcoming, like good hospitality. At the same time shadows of unknown drift off in all directions. They remind us of the Unknown who is far more than we ever dreamed. We leave the sacred space with the new knowledge that life is far more than we dreamed.
It is true that we are not physically blind but Atwan is talking about another form of blindness. It is a blindness exemplified by the inability to see beyond the limitation of eyesight. This was encapsulated by the following statement, “We confront spatial forms not only literally, as physical presence, but figuratively as well” (Atwan, 226). Atwan was also correct when he said that even if we are not artists we need to understand how artists operate – that they see beyond the obvious and therefore they have the capacity to appreciate life even more. I would like to explore more on this idea. It will benefit the creative side of every person. It is also exciting to realize that we can move beyond the mundane and all it takes is a little imagination and a lot of opening up to new schemes of observing.
Aside from the artistic, one of the most intriguing aspects of Atwan’s work is the analysis of N. Scott Momaday’s work, The Way to Rainy Mountain. It made me realize that the use of sight should not only be limited to its basic function which is to guide a human being in a physical world but also to see beauty and have an insight into the extraordinary. But in Momaday’s story about his people – the Kiowas – one is instructed on the capacity of sight not only to appreciate the raw physical beauty of the landscape but to see the historical and symbolic significance of landmarks such as mountains, streams, plains, giant trees, etc.
Finally, the third aspect of Atwan’s book deals with the idea that a sacred space or sacred place can be public and private. But his most astonishing insight is that a sacred place – in keeping with modern technology – does not even have to remain stationary, it can be mobile. And with this realization one gets a deeper understanding of sacred and personal space. This idea is worth exploring as well as the various concepts mentioned above.
It is the goal of this paper to explore the ideas of Atwan, Momaday, and even attempt to analyze Stephen Dunn’s The Sacred. This can be achieved by using the premise of Atwan, that we should rethink our idea of space, our idea of vision, and our idea of how to interpret our immediate surroundings, as well as places where we have historical ties. Finally we need to rethink our idea on what makes a place sacred or not. In this regard there is a need to consider the insights of Stephen Dunn when he remarked that a car can be also sacred and not only the elevated places, the hallowed places designated by ancestors and other figures of authority. Another good way to understand spaces is to follow the line of thinking initiated by Atwan when he interpreted spaces through the eyes of an artist, a historian and a poet. Each person perceives and uses space in three distinct ways.
Sacred Space
In most parts of the world, religious activity is linked to specific places which have ritual, mythical, or historical significance. These “sacred spaces” become the focus of ritual activity, pilgrimage, and symbolism, and are usually endowed with buildings and art that celebrate the sanctity of these places, create a sense of awe, and accommodate the activities and people who travel to visit them. Sacred spaces capture our imagination and fill us with awe and respect for their ability to evoke peace and power. We yearn for spaces in our life that reconnects us with deeper meaning and fills us completely with a vibrancy that is often thought of as hope rekindled. A sacred space can be as small as a recently vacated egg shell or as big as sand dunes of the Sahara desert. It can be a physical place and at the same it can also be an imaginary location, one that exists only in the mind. Sacred spaces are often seen as available areas that can still accommodate more clutter, more unnecessary items, etc. These spaces can also be seen as the gap between the failure in the present and the future attainment of goals. But sacred spaces can also be a place where someone visits in order to reconnect with the past, get help in understanding the present, and also a place where one can rejuvenate a tired and worn-out body battered by the demands of life. A deeper understanding of spaces can be achieved by looking at various types of spaces through the eyes of an artist, a novelist and a poet.
Artistic Spaces
An artist can see beyond the mundane. An artist has more than one way of interpreting spaces. This is possible because the artist forces himself to see beyond the obvious. Secondly the artist forces himself to see from different perspectives. This was pointed out by Atwan when he wrote, “In developing spatial literacy, we need to retrain ourselves to observe not only objects but also the way they affect our sense of space or spatial location. Many modern artists now produce museum installations in order to educate the public’s perceptual ability to see space not as something that’s missing but something that’s always present in one form or another” (Atwan, 225). This is a step in the right direction.
This mindset is very helpful in terms of achieving artistic insight. This allows the person to create cutting-edge design as well as innovative ways of presenting something. It also allows the mind to appreciate something that is not obvious beforehand. But the most important benefit of this exercise is to help the creative process. The person teaches himself to see an object and its surrounding environment from different perspectives. There is a need to retrain the way people see the mundane because a person is naturally wired to be very efficient in his or her movements and perceptions. It is part of the evolution of the human race to use the least amount of energy in order to survive in this planet. Thus, when a person views an object or a landscape it scans the area and he or she is oblivious to the details.
Historical Spaces
As mentioned earlier the natural tendency of man is to use a shortcut, the action that requires very little effort. This is not laziness this is part of his evolution to become the most dominant species in the planet. But along with this in-built capability to use the least amount of action to solve a problem or to analyze the situation there is so many things that are left out. This is especially true for city dwellers that had to struggle everyday just so they can earn enough money to survive another billing cycle.
As a result a person can live his whole life without noticing historical places, sacred spaces, and places that plays a significant role in shaping the current way of life. This type of seeing can be perfectly seen in the way American-Indians tend to view their surroundings. A typical American will see the environment as a source for the things that he will need to survive or as a storehouse for getting the raw materials that he will need to build something and again with an eye towards solving a practical problem.
The Native Americans can also behave in the same way. Their ancestors are hunter-gatherers and therefore they perfectly understand the necessity of using the environment to supply their needs especially when it comes to the basic necessities – food, shelter, and clothing. But the Native Americans can transcend the mundane and see the environment not only as a source of materials. The environment according to Native Americans can be likened to family album, one that a person can peruse every time he needed a reminder on what is the meaning of life as well as the explanation as to how this family or this clan came about.
In the first section of this paper, the ability to analyze spaces is useful in solving spatial problems. This is also helpful in helping the person move from Point A to Point B and an excellent tool to have in a physical world. But a person can be an excellent map reader and an excellent guide but still feel that he or she is lost. Momaday in his excellent work on The Way to Rainy Mountain reminded everyone that it is not enough to simply be acquainted with the physical aspect of the landscape there is also a need to familiarize oneself with the historical and mystical aspect of the land. Thus, when Momaday surveyed the ancestral lands of the Kiowas he was not simply observing what can be seen by plain sight, he was also seeing the invisible, the historical residue of what has transpired in that exact same location hundreds of years ago.
Momaday was gazing at an elevated grassy knoll. But instead of simply seeing blades of grass swaying in the wind he also saw his grandmother. She has passed away earlier but to Momaday she was alive in his memory and that memory is made sharp by his revisiting the sacred place of his ancestors. There is a scientific basis for this and Atwan explains:
As cognitive scientists know, the concept of space is fundamental to human thought; the brain is wired for apprehending spatial forms and relations. These relationships, in fact, can be so powerful that people many years later will have forgotten everything about what went on in, say, sixth grade except where they sat. For some reason, spatial orientation exerts an enormous influence on memory (Atwan, 224).
It was not made clear if Momaday was aware of the scientific basis for his actions. But one thing is sure, Momaday succeeded in retracing the past, not with the aid of a historical book but in expertly reading the signs found in his immediate surroundings. He saw the Kiowas emerging from the dawn of history and moving eastward to their new home. He saw his ancestors evolve from being nomads into proud warriors. He saw the ancient traditions and able to reconnect himself to them even if he was alone, walking in the fields and moving slowly towards Rainy Mountain.
Sacred Spaces
One of the other things that can inspire the reader is the section that deals with Stephen
Dunn’s poem, The Sacred. It is a poem that reminds everyone that sacred spaces are not only the public shrines and the areas designated by religious figures. A sacred place is made sacred not by the pronouncements of historians or an expert. A place can be sacred because a person has found solace and strength whenever he decides to stay in that particular location. It is also interesting to note that a sacred place does not have to be stationary. In fact, a car can be a sacred place.
Thus, one is made to realize that sacredness is all about spirituality. The place is sacred because it is where a person gets to understand that there is more to this life than just eating, drinking and paying bills. The sacred place reminds the person that he is human and not simply governed by instincts like wild animals. A sacred place is where a person gets rejuvenated and inspired to go on with life.
Conclusion
Robert Atwan began the discussion with the need to retrain the mind so that it can see beyond the obvious. Space is more than the gap between objects, space is more than dead air and space is more than what is empty. Space is not insignificant and space is not unfinished work or what was left out in the mad dash to accomplish the more urgent tasks. Space can be silent but it shapes the world in a way undetected and therefore requires the mind of an artist, a novelist, and poet to come to life and fully appreciated.
Atwan, Robert. Convergences: Method, Message, Medium. 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin, 2004.

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