Discover more from Other Feminisms
Cultivating Humane Spaces
Your stories about hospitality and sublimity
For new readers, Other Feminisms is focused on advocating for women in a world that treats us as defective men. Our culture treats dependence with contempt, which harms both men and women, but places a heavier burden on women, since every person’s life begins with absolute dependence on one woman. I’ve written on this theme specifically for Plough, in my essay “Dependence: Toward an Illiberalism of the Weak.”
I usually post here twice weekly: one post is an essay from me; one is a roundup of your comments and reactions. I value the commentariat here—it’s my favorite thing about writing on substack. All posts are free, but paid subscribers make it possible for me to turn down paid freelance pieces to work on this project.
I’m catching up on some of my reader roundups, and I’d like to start the week with your responses to my post on “Fruitful Discomfort” in architecture and in homemaking. I asked you about what kinds of buildings you find anesthetizing (e.g the blandness of “AirSpace”), what you find peaceful, and what you find fruitfully jarring (e.g. the overwhelming scale of a cathedral). Then I asked how this shapes how you keep your own home and what you offer to guests.
Catriona offered a glimpse of a world I’ve never visited:
I have in the past worked and lived at mine camps. The accommodation and offices and facilities were always miserable, uncomfortable, ugly, temporary structures that seemed to be designed to impress upon the workers that they did not deserve to be treated like humans who have the sort of sensual and aesthetic needs that are discussed in A Pattern Language. These workplaces are a world away from the bland, hygienic, styled interiors of inner city offices.
But then you have the sublimity of the underground. To be a kilometre underground in the steamy heat listening to the rocks cracking, seeing the ore minerals sparkling in the light of your head lamp, is something I miss profoundly. Seeing the crystals growing in cavities, the strange fungi, the lights in the distance from machines. The deep, still silence (when there aren't machines nearby!), the scent of the air, the way time moves differently, these are all akin to the experience of a cathedral. But for me there is also a sense of enclosure and security and I yearn to curl up and sleep in there forever. It is a comfortable place, for all its sublimity.
I really appreciated this from Mary:
The comfort of home is "afflicting" in its own way. When we have an opportunity to step away from ugliness and constantly flashing screens into a place where money isn't exchanged and is an expression of a person and/or family, it's...different from our normal experience, and on some level we have to grapple with that, even if we don't realize we're doing so.
Also, part of why sublime beauty is sublime is because we are small/unworthy. Maybe in the next life we will have the capacity to experience sublimity and comfort simultaneously, whereas here we can only experience them separately (which is why we need both cathedrals and throw pillows, but not in the same place).
I don’t always think about the way that gathering together gives people permission to say “no” to the internet and its constant interruptions. When the day-to-day of your life is suffused in this miasma, fresh air can be startling.
I particularly appreciate her point about ads in public spaces. Several years ago, my husband and I did a rosary procession with friends, where everyone brought their favorite image of Mary. Even though everyone had portraits of one woman, there was more variation among our images than among most of the ads we passed in New York.
Jessica pointed out that, historically, everyone had easy access to one form of sublimity:
One experience of the sublime that most of humanity got to experience for millennia, but which nowadays is increasingly rare, is the nightly appearance of the stars. Not a few random speckles across the horizon like we urban/suburban dwellers get to see, but vast and dense collections of constellations and galaxies, giving that confusing feeling of smallness and significance and eternity. Humankind used to share the experience of regularly grappling with that feeling, but now most of us can't.
I think this simple point is itself a strong argument that we’re sublimity-deficient, when something so starkly beautiful has been removed from our vision.
In contrast, as Aidan observes, the spaces we build for ourselves can be orderly-seeming without the actual liveliness that characterizes the natural order.
I think suburbia feels like AirSpace writ large—Obviously, meticulously designed, but in a way that appeals to a marketable counterfeit sense of humanity, not a real, lived-in humanity. In a way, they're simultaneously appealing in a maddeningly overt way to humans' desire for comfort and privacy, but not providing any of lattice-work upon which to build communities that have deeper meaning for real, lasting homey-ness.
One last note on comfort and welcome: a year ago, I got to write about a mixed housing project, Trinity Woods, designed to house aging religious sisters and single mothers attending college. I loved hearing about how the design was informed by the needs of the residents.
Corridors are wide, to allow multiple people with walkers or wheelchairs to pass each other comfortably. Light switches and outlets are placed higher up on the walls, not specifically in order to keep them out of reach of the curious toddlers, but rather so that seniors with balance difficulties don’t need to crouch down in order to plug in a cord. The mothers’ apartments are designed with limited interior walls, so a mother who is parenting alone will always be able to keep an eye on her child, even when she’s studying at her desk.
Being in a place that is designed to the work being done, and the people occupying it, rather than the staging photographs, brings a comfort that you don’t realize you lack until you experience it. But, too often, the built world is the wrong shape, and we’re expected to change ourselves to accommodate what we’ve created.