by Richard Nilsen
A compass has four cardinal directions. North, south, east and west. That would be fine, if the earth really were flat, like a map. But, as you walk in the world, you know there are at least two other cardinal directions: Up and down. Now that we have flown to the moon, up is a serious consideration, and with submersibles finding strange creatures at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, down cannot be ignored. North, south east and west, up and down — or forward, behind, to the right, to the left and the sky above and the mud below. This is the orientation that we daily find for ourselves.
We tend to take our own cultural norms as definitive, so it can feel like quibbling if I claim these two new directions, except they are not new. Several cultures — among them Native American cultures — count six directions as the norm. But even that is not the final word: At least one Native culture counts seven directions, and the seventh may be the most important direction: Up, down, right, left, in front, behind and — center. That is, the point where you are standing. It may be too obvious for yourself, as you are occupying that spot, but all directions are abstractions. The least abstract is the last: Center, that is, inwards. The tiny dot that is the essence of your awareness. Innigkeit. You can travel in that direction at least as far as you can travel to the distant stars. It is a very deep pool.
If you look at a world map from the Middle Ages, you will find the most important spot is not north or south, but Jerusalem: the center of the world. It is the axis mundi, the point around which everything else revolves. The still point at the center.
This idea of an omphalos: a focus of the world occurs in many cultures. Among the Norse, there is Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree, which is the axis of the world. Among Puebloan peoples, there is the Sipapu, the hole in the ground from which the world emerges. In our scientific understanding, there is a gravitational axis that runs from the north to the south pole around which the planet spins like a top.
All of these, however, are external. They are places that you learn about, either from books or at your mother’s knee. But when you stand in the Great Plains and look around you, or when you are in the middle of the ocean and stare at the horizon, you know the moving dot that is yourself is always the center of the world. You look up at the night sky and see yourself at the center of the universe. You don’t learn this, you observe it. It is the truth of the world from infancy to death. The real axis of the world runs from my pate to my feet. The world revolves around me. I don’t mean that in an egotistical sense: The world revolves around each one of us; we are each the center of the world. There are seven billion centers. All that spinning — it makes Ptolemy’s model seem simplicity itself.
There is this ratio: One to seven billion. And at each end of the equation is a different understanding of life. A different telescope to look through; a different microscope.
You can look at the world statistically and understand that you are one of seven billion and recognize the insignificance of your squabbling, sniffling existence, or you can stretch your brain out inside the expanse of yourself and recognize not your insignificance, but the multiplicity of significances: Seven billion people each with an infinite cosmos inside, each as large and expansive as your own: Each of those centers is the gravitational pull of the universe around them. This is the real embodiment of the phrase: “a circle whose center is everywhere and its circumference, nowhere.”
You stand before someone, talking. If he raises his right hand and you raise yours, you point in different directions. It is the same for those centers, those inwardnesses.
We all have to live in two worlds, the one where we are one anonymous dot in a field of seven billion dots, and the other, where we are the center of the universe. In the first, we hardly count to anyone but our families. In the second, we build a towering mythological world, with ourself as the hero. We are the protagonist of the novel we are writing in muscle and bone, and at the same time, one book in a library of seven billion volumes.
When we are in love, that love outweighs everything else in the world, and I mean that quite literally: You can bring out the scales, like the Egyptian god Anubis, and weigh your love (as you feel it) in one side, and the world (as you value it) on the other and if the hormones have done their job, the scales tilt toward love.
I don’t mean to make this sound soapy: If you weigh your depression or your anger when it is roused, or your disgust at its height, such things will also outweigh the world. As Shelley wrote, “All things exist as they are perceived, at least in relation to the percipient.” He has both equations in this sentence: The world as it is perceived, and also the world external to the perceiver; it isn’t mere solipsism, but an awareness of the two selves — the one, and the one-in-seven-billion.
William Butler Yeats, in his peculiar book, A Vision, describes human personalities as “tinctures” of two basic world-awarenesses. He calls them the “primary” and “antithetical.” They can be understood as I have described it. The world seen from inside your skull, and the world seen from the outside. The antithetical person tends towards the arts; the primary towards service work, such as nursing or the law.
My wife, Carole, who was an art teacher for over 30 years, says that you have two different types of children’s art. In one, if a boy draws a baseball game, he draws the four bases and the outfield, and puts figures at all the positions. In the other, he draws himself big, holding a bat in his hands with a giant smile on his face. These two are technically called “visual” and “haptic.” But they are the same as Yeats’ primary and antithetical.
No one can (or should) live in either of these conditions entirely. We all have some mix of the two. Just how aware are you of your insignificance in a world so densely populated that if you instantly disappeared, the planet could not weigh the difference? Take away a grain of sand from the beach and see. But also, how aware are you of your heart beating in your chest, your brain buzzing behind your eyes, your breath soaking in oxygen and spouting out carbon dioxide? You are in a machine, looking out, and everything you do is permitted or constricted by that machine of meat you wear as a temporary garment in the world.
Can you balance those two things equably? The one is your function in the world, the other is your personality, the you that makes the you-ness. The you-niverse.
As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.