Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Yearning

I can remember watching an episode of Press Gang as a child. Linda left the cramped offices of the school newspaper, running out in a huff because of something Spike said. I remember the next shot clearly. It was a long one, especially in this usually cloistered show. A suburban street was lined with oak trees on either side. For me the drama of the show was momentarily muted, drowned out by something imperceptibly alien about this vista. I was growing up in the suburbs and seen oak lined avenues many times before but nevertheless, I wanted to go there. I had a yearning to travel to that exact same spot and immerse myself in its differentness and somehow to absorb it.

I had more such pangs as I grew up and I began to notice a pattern emerging with regards to the type of vista that would conjure such a feeling. Firstly the vista could not be so original or its scale so awesome as to inspire awe. In this case it was impossible to form a connection to such a vista because it is just too alien, too far outside my day-to-day experience, to be able to imagine myself occupying the same world as it. A photograph of the Grand Canyon or a massive glacier, for example, would not instil the same flavour of yearning. Far more effective was urban or suburban scenes.

In 2010 I went to an exhibition on on New Topographics at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The photo exhibition documented everyday USA. Apart from its historical relevance, the museum was hard-pressed to describe why these photos were interesting, in fact going to fairly great lengths not to use the word "boring". I suspected that people were beginning to take interest in them because they had begun to be historically important. I remember something strange happened when I walked around the room looking at photos - the pangs of yearning went off again and again like a repeating gunshots. Whatever was the common thread between these pictures was most likely the thing that lead to this yearning. I was able to understand this feeling as the result of the following process:
  •  The initial connection is made through recognising the scene as normal, in the sense that these scenes are contexts which the locals that inhabit them consider unremarkable. 
  • Your mind searches through its store, trying to find something in your history to anchor the scene to personal experience but comes up with nothing.
  • You then project yourself into the scene. The yearning arises from the hypothetical -
    "what if my life was that life?"
And that is the linchpin of the entire yearning. It is the moment when the frame of the picture simultaneously forms both a mirror and a window. The familiarity of that framed world allows you to project yourself in there while its foreignness, strips you largely of your history and allows you if not to live someone else's life, then to at least see what they would see. The yearning is the melancholy understanding that you are trapped within your own history and that history has set certain irrevocable parameters so that your course - no matter how wild its deviation from its former trajectories is still bounded and finite. The Yearning is recognition of the limits of your powers. Fundamental to this is the everydayness of the scene depicted because you may visit the place but the associated history that allows the world to become everyday is only possible is only a possible option to you at the exclusion of other places and histories. It is the end of the idea that everything is possible all of the time. The pang is the end of your part of your youth and through this it allows you to become a different person.

What is the relationship between travel and yearning? First it is necessary to draw a distinction between travel and tourism. Travel is a form of self-projection (literally and metaphorically) while tourism is a form of voyeurism, that is - travel you're inside the scene while with tourism you're outside of it. This distinction is so important because an aspect of yearning is empathy with the humanity of your surroundings - to sit outside and to watch it restricts this empathy. Rather, to be 'in it' and to experience its newness is to remove the melancholy note from the chord, thereby transforming yearning into fascination. This world - is now your world, like bubbles coalescing, and with it the parameters that define your path have grown.

1 comment:

  1. Is it a yearning to leave problems and troubles behind? Does anyone yearn to live in a slum? Is it also a yearning for time travel? The same place but a different time?