The Living Centers of the World

1 May 2010

In a living world, we are filled with wonder. Every aspect of the wholeness that is before us draws us in, buoys our hearts.  At every level, on every scale, whether we stand up or lean in, we are amazed.  And our standing up and our leaning in with wonder become themselves a feature of the living world…

How do we describe this phenomenon of wonder?  How do we explain it?  What language can we use?

The answer Alexander gives to this question is perhaps the driving concept in The Nature of Order, more important for what it does even than wholeness.  It is a concept both empirical and mystical.  (Mystical in the sense that it fills one’s vision with light.)  It is the concept of the center.

A note: It is important not to confuse this use of the word “center” with the idea of a “point” or a “perceived center of gravity.”  Centers are not the points in the “middle” of geometric shapes which can be measured by standard units. Alexander is indeed talking about a kind of entity in space, but his concept is much more like our use of the word when we say things like “center of attention” — although that too would be a little misleading, suggesting centers are flashy or eccentric or spectacular things.  In our vision of a living world, our sense of good feeling, of wholeness, is created by the tiniest details, as well as the vistas, and our hearts are warmed by the softest colors, as well as the bright ones.  The stalks of dusty yellow and pale green grass along the gray-blue river make the red-winged blackbird sing.

So, what is a center?

I mentioned above that it is a kind of entity in space.  That is also misleading, in the sense that we tend to think of an entity being a clearly bounded “thing”.  A center is indeed an entity of a sort, but it is nonbounded, they have no clear beginning or end, even as they exist in space: “[T]he building blocks of nature [are] in fact nonbounded centers: Centers of influence, centers of action, centers of other centers” (NOPL, 108, fn 12).  A center is an entity which “has, as its defining mark, the fact that it appears to exist as a local center within a larger whole” (NOPL, 84).  The initial problem (of identifying what is what) emerges as the revelation: each “larger whole” is itself another local center, and each local center is itself a larger whole.  Our solar system within our galaxy, our planet within our solar system, each continent and sea, each geographic region, each mountain or field, each home…

Examples are always helpful:

Above is a picture of Jessie’s parents’ house in West Virginia.  When you are driving up Wilson Hill and come past a row of trees and bush creating a boundary between their land and their neighbor’s, the first thing you see is a sprawling oak (a beautiful whole in itself), its massive limbs sweeping low to the ground and the four wooden swings — one for each of their kids, now grown — these form living centers within the wholeness of the space created by the tree.  This oak sits at the foot of a lawn with a gentle slope, on the far side of which is a farmer’s field, sometimes high with corn, other times flowing with alfalfa.  The inner space of the lawn, a fine open area, is loosely created by a couple apple trees along the drive, some cherry trees in the northwest corner, a few other scattered bushes and small trees, and of course the house.

This lawn is where Jessie and I had our wedding reception, an incredibly beautiful event, lovingly created by family and friends, with innumerable simple touches (local, living centers) making it what it was.  The wholeness of what was already there made possible the particular life of that event, with each of its details.  It was not for any other reason than the wholeness of the lawn which already existed that I knew it had to happen in that place.  (The fact that on the morning of the wedding we had to use a large piece of plywood to level one of the more significant dips in the lawn did not detract from the life of the event in the least.  If anything, it somehow added to it.)

Crowning the lawn is the Harriman home.  It is simple, and astoundingly welcoming.  One feels immediately comfortable there.  (Today this feeling is amplified for me by having gotten to know Jessie’s folks over the years, and so perceiving in advance the warmth and love which will be flowing inside. But I can attest that when I first saw it ten years ago, arriving half sick and in the rainy dark, it still gave a deep initial impression of comfort and welcome.  The knowledge of the characters who live inside only intensifies, now, the life of the house’s façade.)

The house — or what we call, too simply, “the house” — is the major local center in the larger wholeness of the place, and the wholeness of its life is comprised of dozens and dozens of other, smaller centers.  I will only list some of them, with minimal guidance for seeing them as part of a field of living centers

The porch, with its four slim pillars and their humble capitals, along with its corrugated metal roofing, is grand in its impression (despite its bare boned simplicity), a more powerful center even than the house behind it.  The triangular peak of the house above the porch.  The stone chimney that divides it.  The smaller triangles on either side of the chimney, with windows tucked into them suggesting cozy little rooms.  The painted shutters. Around the porch, the half-ring of gone-wild forsythia and other flowering plants forms a boundary between the house and the lawn which roots the house in the land, intensifying the quality of each as a living center.  The space between the pillars, and the shade they frame.  The hanging baskets of nasturtiums, bright and lively against the shadow of the porch.  The steps leading gently up to the porch.  The simple railing.  The simple lip of the railing.  The flower pots at either end of each step, each one different — not intentionally, probably, but just as a matter of course: different pots for different plants.  The porch swing on the west side.  The ornamental diamond shapes between its boards.  The worn cedar siding.  The shadows of the tall, slender cherry trees on the northwest side of the yard which create the lively play of light at that beautiful time of the day when time seems to almost stop completely.

These are some of the centers which intensify each other so wonderfully and bring such a sense of life to this place.  But we should not think of the wholeness of this place, the nameless quality of it, as created by these elements, as if it were a machine made up of parts.  Instead, says Alexander, the wholeness is primary.  This is a very hard thing to see.  I have only just begun, after months of reading about these ideas, to be able to see it as he describes.  Often I cannot make the switch, I am so used to the mechanistic way of seeing.  As soon as I had a glimmer though, I believed he was right.  The wholeness is what makes the centers centers.

The wholeness of the land (wherever it begins or ends) had that latent center which invited the placement of the house.  The wholeness of the built house included varieties of latent centers all around it (what we might typically call “empty space”).  After several years the strongest of these latent centers invited the porch — an addition which nails the phrase: You can hardly imagine this place without (this porch).  It is such a living center in the wholeness of the house you begin to understand that in a sense it could not have not been built — at least not without hindering the life that was latent.  The porch then invited in its construction a certain number of columns, and the “empty space” between the columns invited hanging plants, and forsythia growing from below, and the porch swing, and so on.

What is important to understand is the nonbounded quality of those centers to which we give bounded names, like “house” and “porch.”  These things consist not only, or most truly, of their physical reality, but of the local centers within them, many of which are latent.  Instead of changing the names of these things — who would want to change names like “house” and “porch” and “oak”? — we can begin to perceive the living centers they refer to.  They are living centers which draw us on from one to the next — as we lean in, stand back, peek out, step forward — and these centers, Alexander claims, are the things our whole world is made of.


An anecdote from Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters compiled and retold by Martin Buber (Schocken Books, 1948; 149):

Sanctification of God

The disciples of the maggid of Zlotchov asked him: “Concerning the words in the Scriptures: ‘Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy,’ the Midrash comments: ‘My holiness is beyond your holiness.’  But who does not know this?  What do we learn through this?”

He expounded: “This is what is meant: My holiness, which is the world, depends upon your holiness.  As you sanctify my name below, so it is sanctified in the heights of Heaven.  For it is written: ‘Give ye strength unto God’.”


4 Responses to “The Living Centers of the World”

  1. Lucas Harriman said

    Hey Mike — welcome back to the realm of cyberspace! Now that I am free (free at last) I hope to be able to follow your ongoing interrogation of this guy’s ideas. Really interesting stuff. And maybe I’ll comment occasionally as well.

    For now, I can appreciate Alexander’s hesitance to name this quality since each name seems to carry so much baggage: beauty, goodness, rightness, truth (thinking here of the way something is “true to” itself or something else, implying fidelity or the etymologically similar “troth”). Each name would also summon up its negative (ugliness, evil, wrongness, falsehood) which don’t really seem to fit into the discussion you have going so far, even as you employ the placeholder “wholeness,” which calls up the quality of incompletion (or maybe even Bakhtin’s “unfinalizability”). For example, it will be interesting to see how Alexander would describe those spaces lacking in the nameless quality.

    This leads (for me) to the notion of subjectivity (which we were sort of discussing the last time we were together). As I was reading these two posts, I kept thinking of Freud’s discourse on heimlich/unheimlich (even as I realize that this would be a somewhat different type of quality). The root of the words, heim, or home, seems to locate the quality largely in the observer rather than in the object since it relies on the notion of familiarity. Thus as I look at the pictures on this post, I am perceiving the house’s qualities differently from most of your viewers since the images are rather literally “heimlich” for me. I suppose one question I hope you mull over as you write these posts is the extent to which Alexander can, or even wishes to move beyond any sort of “it’s beautiful to me” relativism.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on these fascinating concepts.

    • Luke,

      Yes, definitely, those two questions especially — the questions “What about ugly, oppressive places?” and “Isn’t beauty a matter of personal judgment?” [or, alternatively, “Isn’t beauty a matter of culture and positive associations, etc?”] — yes, these two questions are at the root of it.

      For that reason they are difficult to answer quickly in a reply like this. And I am still working with them myself, obviously.

      One thing I value about Alexander’s views, and one of the most difficult to swallow (or even taste!), is the notion that beauty and wholeness and life are not relativistic values, but objective phenomena which can be understood and recognized — and even, to some degree, quantified. Yet it is not some completely external form to which we must measure up, of which we must learn the doctrines, and without which we are lost. Beauty is not whatever we say it is, but on the other hand, if we can forget our need to fit into any certain style (not reactively, but freely), and if we can let go of our fear of what others think, and if we can just trust our deepest instincts, we can hardly help but find ourselves in touch with something that is alive and beautiful.

      For that reason, I have been realizing just how much the idea of subjective values undercuts our own integrity as people. Far from freeing us to be ourselves, I think it only makes us doubt our lives have any meaning or substance at all. And, if I can add one last bit, I don’t believe the subjectivity of a larger community is in any better of a position. It is not a matter of individual subjectivity or communal subjectivity, but a matter of a human relationship to truth. I just believe we all want true life.

      As for Bakhtin, I don’t recognize that term specifically, but I imagine it has to do, incidentally, with his notion of subjective experience and the idea that as an “I” I can never be consummated, or completely “whole” — “I” am always working, acting, oriented toward the “task”. Something like that. (Correct me if I am wrong.) My not-a-Bakhtin-scholar thought about him in this context is this:

      If we are called to be ‘consummators’ of the world — that is, people who make the world more and more whole — then in some sense we cannot ever be fully whole ourselves, even as wholeness and a true connection to life [Holy Spirit?] persist, indefatigable, in our depths.

      Alexander’s basic architectural principle applies here: we are called to preserve the living centers which exist, and nurture those latent centers that are not yet full of life (and are often far from it).

      Okay, that’s more than enough. Thanks for helping me think!

  2. mom said

    i humbly submit this comment: i like the things you said, mike. ! love, mom h.

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