Saturday, September 29, 2012

Adirondack Philosophy: Coaxing the Muse

Over the past few months I’ve been considering what it means to be subjects in and subject to place.  I’ve wondered if this condition of inter-subjectivity is responsible for whether and how our surroundings influence who we are and what we create.

On the one hand, influence is explicit when we make representative art as in landscape painting or poetry and prose whose subject is Emerson’s lake water whipped

rough for a trout;

Or bathers, diving from the rock at noon;

Or listening to the laughter of the loon;

Or, in the evening twilight’s latest red,

Beholding the procession of the pines

In this instance it is easy to spot the muse as she is the context, literally the groundwork, upon and within which we design our vision.  Our sensibilities are filtered through the eyes of Emerson’s red deer, a square mist and his meteor light.  But how can we account for the moment when the curve of a woman’s hip reflects the contour of a mountainside, when the lilt of a voice described in verse carries the subtle echo of a Vireo.  This is the valley between subject and object where influence lies or rather; this is the valley between subjects that gives rise to influence.

There is a lot of talk lately about the importance of place and about how place does more than merely inform our work.  It has been suggested – and indeed I agree – that place directly influences what and how we create.  But before we can understand how this co-creative moment arises and how we arrive at it, we ought to linger a moment on the practical difference between place and space.

I think of space as an abstract concept rather than a location – it is quite apart from a grounding or a dwelling place.  Space is empty of corporeal or sensual, organic characteristics – it is how we describe a vacuous anti-terrain that can be entered and appropriated and ultimately left without disruption to what may have been contained in there, and without any incitement of our own passions that may have been caused by our foray into it.

Place is a different matter altogether, it is what emerges when sentiment, longing, desire and story all inhabit space.  Space then – in this more infused condition – becomes place.  We talk of resting places, familiar and special places, of ownership that is often sentimental as in: this is our place. Spaces are void perimeters, infinite and empty, in contrast to places that are where we locate our humanity.

To talk this way about elements and beings (sentient or not, organic or not – because I do mean to take into account boulders as well as trees along with bobcats and women) inhabiting place, makes it sound as though the world of things – of objects and identities and of beings – all contain a measure of desire.  After all, to inhabit is to be drawn towards something, to desire it and then to be subject to it.  This raises the question of whether this condition runs just one way or do the places we inhabit – in turn – inhabit us?

In these so-called places, what are we to each other? What is the nature of this intersection where the rough bumpy ground meets flesh, meets world?  At bottom, it suggests that we don’t exist alongside a world of static objects separate from ourselves.   But rather that we are in a continual state of coproduction with the world through our presence in what has been called a corporeal poetics of everyday life.  This style of dwelling and of understanding ourselves as subjects in and subject to the world infuses – becomes fused – with our creative manifestations and helps to turn back towards my initial question of how our surroundings influence who we are and what we create.  Here in the midst of what I would call radical subjectivity we are entrained, caught up in the flow of our work and in our worlds.  In this condition we are positioned in reaction to the notion that we are subjects acting on an objective world as independent agents.  But rather that I am conscious of my body via the world, I am a hollow, a fold which has been made and can be unmade.  

 In order to turn towards the world, to disclose ourselves and in turn to bear witness to its disclosure, we must (I think) resist a kind of empirical disembodiment.  This severance, this alienation, runs counter to realizing ourselves in the context of the world.  I propose instead that we celebrate the reciprocal giving-over that joins thinker and thought-about, admirer and admired, lover and loved, self and other.  In this rhythm we can begin to understand how the lived world draws us forth and in turn how it is drawn into what we make (our poetry and our painting, a photograph).  The world infuses us with its own being and we, who are being given the world, interpret and draw out its edge through our own creative process, before we deliver it back into community, in the form of our own self-expression.  A tripartite process of what is given, literally what is submitted, what is received in the exchange that is soon re-visioned, re-imagined and given back as an offering.

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

5 Responses

  1. I have the privilege of being one of the presenters with Fran Yardley [story-teller/writer] and Peggy Lynn [singer/songwriter/writer] for Creative Healing Connections’ Arts and Healing Retreats for Women Surviving Cancer and Chronic Illness hosted at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake and Arts and Reintegratioon Retreats for Women Who have Served in the Military, hosted by Wiawaka Holiday House in Lake George.

    Creative Healing Connections’ staff have often spoken about the importance of “place” in the healing journey and how those who attend these retreats understand our place in the retreat offering but make the connection in their minds and hearts between what we offer and the special places where we offer it.

    In my own healing journey from breast cancer, I wrote a book, She Who Dreams. In order to write that book well, I had to go back to my southern roots. As a southerner living in the northeast, with roots that are as deep as the soil, I identified with these lines from Eudora Welty’s 1994 essay, “Some Notes on River Country” which begins:   “A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out.”

    In that same year she wrote a piece on place in fiction:  “Place, whether it is familiar or exotic, gives us roots. It is where we direct our energies and create the extraordinary out of ordinary day to day experience. It is ground zero for imaginary experiences, where the imagination takes “once upon a time” and gives it personal space in our lives.”  For me, Eudora Welty in describing “place” in fiction, is also describing the kind of “place” we provide in healing, where, from the dawn of man’s imagination, “place has enshrined the spirit.”  My roots, and I suspect everyone has such roots, are those places, permanent, like going home to the south for me, or “found” where we have grown new roots, like Great Camp Sagamore or Wiawaka, where the fire never goes out, where we go for healing, for writing, for finding that special place in our dreams and for writing the stories of our lives in the universal stories of others.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I would agree with all said above but would note place/space is becoming very difficult to compartmentalize.
    We live in a world rapidly distancing itself from the past. While I live in a particular place in the Adirondacks, I am constantly exposed to the world at large. It comes in (sometimes is welcomed and sometimes is not) through radio, TV and the Internet.
    Once upon a time, print was the only medium that could intrude. Now it includes print and all of the above.
    I think it is good and necessary to sometimes step back, which is why it is a good idea to save as much as possible of this “place.” I believe it is also necessary to recognize and accept the larger place of which this place is only s small portion.
    And here is the good news. If we allow ourselves to accept what is beyond this place, we will realize we can see best from this place the Universe – the stars and galaxies above on a clear night – not as well seen in other “places.”

  3. Marianne says:

    Thank you, Wanda for these references and for your thoughtful reading. I’ll look into the work you’ve mentioned here and meanwhile, many thanks again.

  4. Marianne says:

    Hi Pete – I appreciate what you have to say here and I’m particularly drawn to your note on the night sky.

    A dear friend began to teach me the constellations this past July, and so I’ve developed a new love of these northern lights. I’m grateful for many things and chief among them are rare and beloved old friends, sacred places, and our ability (despite the technological encroachment of elsewhere)to see the Big Dipper clearly from a bench at Clear Pond.

  5. Cheryl Chaffin says:


    What a pleasure to turn to your insight writing again, and to remember with you that together as humans we can share the corporeal poetics of everyday life.


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