I just came across a scrap of card on which I made a note to remember this review by Jonathan Lear in the LRB of two books by Christopher Bollas, “perhaps the most prolific and widely read psychoanalytic author at work today”. I think I wanted to remember these paragraphs in particular:
Bollas is a fan of walking in cities. “Living in a city,” he tells us, “is to occupy a mentality.” He speaks of an architectural unconscious: not only the countless mental forces that went into the creation of these buildings, then settled into the background of shared public awareness, but also the barely noticed idiosyncratic associations the buildings evoke as we move through a familiar city. I live in Chicago, a few blocks from Obama’s home (before he moved) and beside a lake almost as long as England. As I walk north along the water’s edge towards the city centre, the overwhelming lake – how could it not be the sea? — is on my right, its colours and moods changing every day. Monet taught me how to see it. Straight ahead, on my left, is the Chicago skyline. A few miles along, two trees seem to grow up out of the water, in a large V-shape, like a giant catapult. Standing between the trees you can line up the entire cityscape. The conversation Socrates and Phaedrus had about beauty must have taken place here; somehow, the story has been transposed to the outskirts of Athens.
“When we traverse a city,” Bollas says, “we are engaged in a type of dreaming. Each gaze that falls upon an object of interest may yield a moment’s reverie.” It is, he thinks, important that we don’t know the names of all the buildings, don’t know their history — just as it is important on a country walk that we don’t know the names of all the trees, flowers and geological formations. He suggests that we do better to ignore the naming of objects so as to remain within the realm of the visual imagination and dwell in the emotional resonances of form. Each of us, Bollas thinks, has a need for what he calls the evocative object: “To build the evocative on whatever scale is to open the psyche-soma, seemingly expanding the mind and the body in one singular act of reception which links the new object to the pleasantly surprised subject.” He notes that when we take in a “breathtaking” sight it is, on occasion, actually breathtaking. The mouth opens — almost like a startled infant — and out comes a very physical “Ahh” or “Oooh”. The spectacle disrupts the normally involuntary and unconscious process of taking a breath.
The lazy part of me particularly liked the suggestion that learning about the architecture and history of a city, or the about the plants and animals in the countryside, doesn’t improve our experience of those places. I’m not sure that’s correct, but I can also see that it’s different rather than wrong. Seeing your surroundings in terms of what they evoke in your imagination, rather than in terms of facts linked directly to objects.
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