The Karma of Places

There is something weird about the western concept of personality. In a sense it may be described as a variation of the several dualisms with which we are accustomed — be it mind-body, inner-outer, subjective-objective, etc. And a good portion of it may be described along the lines we use to describe the dualisms mentioned. But in itself, this weird thing is not so much a dualism but a dogma: the Dogma of Apartness.

In a simple version the Dogma of Apartness is something like this: We are here and the world is there. This “conceptual” distance brings with it that the world is without us, and we are without a world. So everything that we are is not something that belongs to the world; conversely, what belongs to the world cannot be something that is an essential part of us.

In former times we lived in an oikos, an ordered world, the opposite of which was chaos. The world the ancient Greeks inhabited more than 2.000 years ago was a world structured and ordered, everything beyond that was not real but chaos. In that reading the barbarian countries to the north were not part of the world, the oikos, but belonged to the unfathomable, the realm of chaos. The barbarians were not part of the world. And in that sense not human. [1]

The Christian mundus was likewise a world structured, designed, permeated by something that gave order. Beyond that there were the realms of the heathens, but in a sense they belonged to the world. Where the heathens did not belong to was a world that was destined to be redeemed. The Christian mundus was structured by the ecclesiastical year, in which  every day was assigned to a specific saint, his / her story, blessings, functions. The year had its circle of feasts, Easter being the most prominent and important. The year was emblematic of the Old and New Testament (and parts of the Apokrypha too), the story of the Old and New Covenant and the Passion of Christ spread out through the year and through the spaces, re-encated through pilgrimages to the most important monasteries and sanctuaries (Konstantinopel, Rom, Santiago de Compostella). The stories were re-enacted in the Daily Mess and in the Lithurgy of the Hours. The History of Salvation was re-enacted in a daily and a year’s circle. The Christian mundus was a world driven not so much by purpose but by the expectation of the Second Parousia of Jesus Christ — a revelation laid down in the most sacred texts of Christianity.

This world had a structure, a history, and a future, and at the same time it was a world beyond time. In a sense there was no Apartness, inasmuch as the world was part of the History of Salvation. This world is nearly gone. And even if we are bestowed with its morals and values, the specific sense of a world with purpose, full of sentient beings visible or not, seems to be gone. Under the Dogma of Apartness we have separated person and world, created an I and Thou of a rather specific kind.

Under the Dogma we are here and the world is there. The world is what is different from us. Because we are sentient beings, the world must comprise inanimated items. Because we have a soul, the world can not entail one (or entail beings with souls in themselves). [2] Because we can dream, feel pain, have a conscience, love and tremble, because of that the world must be void of it. The world is matter. The world is without purpose. The objects are things, not neighbours.

We came to think of us as isolated personalities that somehow have to reach across a divide to touch other souls. But we cannot be sure that there is somebody out there or that the other person has the feelings we ascribe to him or her. We project, as we say, and not only do we project negative items but positive ones too. [3] We never reach the other side.

It’s always a mess when you first divide something conceptually and then try to reunite what you’ve separated thus. After dividing things into parts you cannot reunite them and keep them distinct at the same time. You cannot have something divided into us (here) and the world (there), and then expect to get at a theory that combines both and keeps them conceptually apart. As long as the world has the task, e.g., of guaranteeing objectivity in opposition to the alleged subjectivity of the person, you cannot have a theory that covers both and at the same time keeps both at their systemic place.

If the person is a We, not an I, if the person is a flock of other persons, of its sentiments, its dreams, its ancestors and descendants, then we have a way of dealing with the systematic distinction of here vs. there that is constitutive of the Dogma of Apartness. Here and there stop being ways of circumscribing situations of possession, but can be treated more like locations proper. That means that dreams, my dreams, my sentiments and longings, are no longer solely my sentiments, etc., rather they’ll be sentiments in a landscape, with the “my” as a way of saying “here”, at this point in space and time.

With the help of the Dogma we keep person and world apart. With its help we fix and safeguard who we are. We describe ourselves in opposition to something that becomes via description a world, the world.

But being a We not only means blurring the borders between one person and the other, it not only means that we refrain from compartmentalizing us into the nice and the ugly parts. It means accepting that many voices and ghosts permeate our life, that the very concept of our life as opposed to the world vanishes. And with that the concept of projection loses its sense.

Places have different characters, some being boring or neutral, some being special, in the good and, as I’d like to suggest, in the bad sense. As all our experiences happen in a place, it shouldn’t sound that strange to suggest that what people do may have an effect on a place. This is not only or not primarily about the ecological bearings of our bodily interactions with the world. It’s far more the suggestion that our deeds towards other sentient beings, happening at a place, may stay at the place, be part of the memory the place develops. Holy places spring to mind at first, places of worship and pilgrimage. But there is Auschwitz too. There is Srebrenica. There are the places of cruelty not only to other fellow human beings, but of cruelty towards other sentient beings. The slaughterhouse, the devastating of river-landscapes via the construction of dams. The point is, even interfering via engineering will have consequences far wider than the displacement of mud, dirt, and stone. It will have a moral consequence, too, it will have something the place will acquire and pass on.

We still cannot make sense of Nature or her parts as being endowed with their own souls and destinies. This is so because we think the soul is peculiar to humans. Accordingly, we think that every soul-like quality detected in the world must be in the eye of the spectator. Beauty is something subjective, we say. I think it’s not. But the question remains: How can we understand that a landscape may have a soul and at the same time safeguard that this is not our projection, e.g. the projection of our own soul? Under the Dogma there is no possibilty. [4] But aside from it there may be the recognition that Nature, that places speak to us. In their own language, mostly much slower than we do. But clear and articulate. And if places may be like persons, they may have a destiny. Or in other words: Places may have a karma too.


[1] “Oikos” is usually translated as household. It is the proximity that is familiar. Accordingly, what lies beyond it is un-familiar. But the un-familiarity in ancient Greece took the form of the chaos, the disorder, the void, while in the Roman-Christian-West it took the form of the un-redeemed.
[2] This may help explain why through the course of history foreigners and strangers were often regarded as “suspicious”, sometimes not even human-like.
[3] This elegant summary of a huge problem is due to @brendaclews. Thank you.
[4] Historical reasons for what I call here the Dogma seem to lie, among other things, in the teachings of St. Augustine. For a very brief sketch see the post here.


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