Saturday, 28 July 2012

Vastness

For most (maybe all) of my childhood I lived in areas which were still polluted by smoke from fires and factory chimneys. Lower Belvedere, beside the Thames in Kent, where I lived from 1962 always smelt of the British Oil and Cake Mills factory in nearby Erith and just across the river there was the giant Fords of Dagenham plant, its huge red neon sign pointed towards the Thames. Occasionally, air pollution was so bad that, combined with weather conditions, it precipitated a pea souper - a fog dense enough to stop traffic. On one occasion, I had to walk the last few miles of my journey home from school and was ill for weeks afterwards.

When I went for my interview for admission to Oxford in the autumn of 1964, I stayed overnight. Returning to my lodgings in the dark, I was amazed - initially frightened - by the clear night sky, clearer than any I had ever seen. What had happened? There were stars. Not just a handful, but everywhere I looked. When years later (studying in Paris) I read Pascal, I had no problem when I came to "Le silence ├ęternel de ces ├ęspaces infinis m'effraye" (The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me).

Vastness has the power to terrify, to awe and to silence us. It doesn't even have to be complicated, just so big that the human scale of things is inapplicable. Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) still has one of the best accounts of our response to vastness.

In contrast, miniatures have no such power. They are often just curiosities, as when someone succeeds in writing the Lord's Prayer on the back of a postage stamp. (In Kyiv and no doubt in other cities, there is a Museum devoted to miniatures. It is interesting and maybe one professes amazement, but really it just shows that humans can set themselves perverse tasks).

There are no miniatures among the great works of art. The miniaturist who paints a portrait or even a whole battle inside a locket is recognised as having a craft skill and that is all. In contrast, if you blow up a quite ordinary photograph to a big enough size, you can get an aesthetic gain on what the photograph itself probably merits. (I don't know if they are still there, but at some point three of my photographs - views of entrances to courtyards in Yerevan - used to be on display in the University of Sussex. I had just made them big enough to dominate a wall)

This contrast between our reaction to vastness and to smallness surely explains why space exploration holds a continuing fascination which the microchip does not. And yet in my life time, it is miniaturisation rather more than space exploration which has transformed the world in which I live.

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