Thursday, 4 September 2014

The phenomenological experiential vibe business (or otherwise)

We've been to so many places now - about 70 so far, which definitely falls into the Obsession category, I admit it. But going to so many, one can't help but start reflecting on different Vibes one picks up at them.

Of course, the whole subject is quite hard to disentangle, if it's possible at all. Are 'vibes' just subjective things entirely? Or are there material things you can point to that would trigger similar sensations in any domesticated primate? Or are any feelings you get from an inanimate building All In The Mind?

I've been educated in the way of the scientific method and rationality is a nice firm ground to be standing on. But science can't explain everything easily (or to be optimistic, just yet). And this isn't a science blog, it's art. You can't really go explaining art with science very easily, nor even the other way round, despite efforts. But a multidisciplinary approach to the world has always appealed to me. Perhaps it's also good to take a Fortean approach and not be too dogmatic. For example, Lavoisier (the 18th century 'Father of Chemistry') said that stones could not fall from the sky, because there were no stones in the sky. But now we've stopped dismissing stories of stones falling from the sky because science officially knows about meteorites. The fortean approach can also be about abstracting yourself from the actual stories and seeing what the telling of them might mean too (what can we say about the types of things R + B report experiencing?)

Which kind of brings me full circle without having concluded anything, really. But the Experience of being at these different places is intrinsic to our visits. Mostly we focus on the drawing. Maybe focusing on the drawing sometimes has the effect of deliberately putting the vibes into the background!

Donhead St Mary was one of our recent destinations, and somewhere I felt had a really nice atmosphere. Now why (taking the Rational Approach) might this have been? The village was certainly extraordinarily quaint. It was a reasonably warm day. It felt nice to drive up the ridge and find the church at the top - between trees and housetops we had a good view over the landscape. As we got to the gate we heard a strange apocalyptic roar getting louder and louder, but it turned out to be the good old Red Arrows flying past, a jolly sight. We'd just eaten a bun or some crisps (or some other healthy snack) and our blood sugars were a good level.

Inside, the building was airy and open-feeling, it had a high ceiling and was light. At least, this is the way I recall it to be - this is another issue to consider, memory. It was easy to see pretty much all parts of the interior at once (no dark spooky corners). "As I recall" there weren't loads of over-embellished, grimy looking monuments stuck to the walls (I really don't like them). The font took pride of place in the aisle. And there wasn't (to my recollection) any kind of disgusting smell. While we were sitting drawing, we could hear the ticking of the clock in the tower. It ticked with a very nice, slightly irregular noise, and I found it quite calming. A couple of times we heard rustling at the door but that was some dry leaves outside, and only disconcerted me a little because I can't really be bothered for conversation with strangers (even if it's their church, hoho). I recall the visit fondly.

On the other hand, there are memories of That Place (Britford), which I don't particularly like thinking about and B positively refuses to discuss. I've asked her, do you think we've exaggerated it since the experience? Was it really as bad as I remember it? But she says Yes It Was. I do wonder if it's hard to say - what can I really remember reliably about it? I remember passing a baby's grave with a photo - I thought it was pretty tasteless to have a photo to be honest (though fair enough if that's what the poor parents want to do). Horrible but not spooky at all. So we were still fine when we went in, but it was rather dark, and I think that unsettled me. It seemed to be a big church, the nave was all open and high, but you couldn't see anything of the transepts and the chancel was obscured by a big wooden screen. So I think the lack of visibility was unsettling. But surely we've been in other such buildings? So I remember we went scurrying round looking for the light switches. But we couldn't find them anywhere. I looked behind the curtains over the door - and I remember feeling freaked out looking, like I'd find what? that's a bit daft. And then I went up to the north transept to look, and it was dark and just a bit grotty, it didn't feel used or welcoming. Meanwhile B was getting freaked out by the rows of high pews in the south transept full of pots of some sort (I mean what was all that about).

Miss Steel's photo of Britford church from Geograph. That's quite close enough thank you.

There was a foul smell. And it was really strong because we could smell it for bloody ages after we'd left - or at least we could imagine it in our noses, which amounts to the same thing psychologically. I deliberately went to smell a big flower display that was in front of the chancel, because I wanted to make sure whether the smell was coming from the flowers or not. They didn't smell nice, but they didn't seem to be the source of it. And what sort of smell, can I now remember? I think it had a sort of musty yeasty spicey smell - yes, you will say, just the sort of thing churches smell like. But look, we've been in a lot of them, and we know, they generally do not smell like that. So it's age and decay and incense and furniture polish and dead people. But those things are in every church, surely, and we don't usually get freaked out by them.

And we knew we just couldn't have sat there and drawn the Saxon carvings, it would have been impossible to concentrate. Even the massive intricately-decorated font cover (inexplicably on the floor by the carvings) makes me feel a bit weird in retrospect. What is this, a reaction to over-fiddly decoration?! We stayed long enough to take the photos but I know we were hurrying deliberately. And I know we couldn't have exactly run out the door because I remember looking at the guest book and noting how marvellous everyone else thought it was. So I don't want to turn this account into the Amityville Horror with us running screaming. But it's true that we were in a hurry to get out of there.

It's interesting that smell is central to this story. We live in a very visual culture and do not credit smell with very much. But it's wired into a primitive part of our brains, and it's very much connected with memory and strong reactions. My sister made the very salient point that it's about Instinct, and that when you get obvious signals telling you that Something's Wrong, you should listen to that inner voice and get out of there.

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