After the husband of our next door neighbor died last year - he had been plagued with Parkinson’s for a couple of decades, and his body
just gave out – his wife called me to ask if I would like to have her husband’s grey cashmere dress overcoat, accessorized with a snappy grey and mauve silk scarf.
When I tried it on, it fit like a non-O.J. Simpson glove, as if built bespoke for my body. (Which made me remember his body, which had shrunk
over time, with more stoop and slope, a fall-off from his pre-Parkinson pictures of a robust Air Force veteran.)
When I modeled the coat for the Marvelous MarÃa Beatriz, I had the same feeling as when I tried it on earlier: I didn’t so much put the
coat as the coat settled itself onto my body, as if two unlinked pieces had found their match. I’ve had this feeling with other articles of clothing: the time-rumpled flannel
shirt, a UniQlo-brand long-sleeved shirt of a cotton that soothes as it slides over torso and arms.
What to call this feeling, this “fitness”? Perhaps just that: fitness. Rightness. Something that pokes through the buffer of
abstractions and metaphors that we use to veneer our lives, that keeps us inside our own heads and convinces us that we are the center of some universe (and requires a virtual
reality to remind us that there is an outside after all).
This “thingness” is not easy to define, and may not be word-amenable at all because it is not about words but tactility,
nerve-messages wired in from the whole body electric, not just from the neck up and through the eyes and ears or a VR headset.
A recent review I read of several books about the bodily consequences of digital technologies - of screens and icons - touched upon how a
continual online presence sequesters the body from itself, privileging the abstracted sensation over the felt experience. Yes, to be sure, something experienced online is felt, but
there is a difference between brain-felt and body-including-brain-in-space-and-time-felt, and it’s the latter that digital technologies displace.
Who knows what all of this means for the evolution of a species that suffers emotionally if it does not get enough tactile stimulation, that is
prone to mistake idealistic vapors for concrete realities (and then slaughter others in service to the mistake), that imagines brave new worlds while it shits where it eats.
“Thingness” keeps us anchored and vested. A grey cashmere dress coat settles onto my body like a rhyming couplet - and that feeling is just what it is, unadorned by
meaning, unharassed by symbol. It feels real, and that is all I can say about it.
Michael Benedikt, in his For an Architecture of Reality (a constant re-read of mine), makes a pretty good attempt to capture how the grey coat
felt. At the risk of an overlong quote, here is what he says, and at the end, just substitute “the body that wears the grey cashmere dress coat” for
There are valued times in almost everyone’s experience when the world is perceived afresh…At these times, our perceptions are not
at all sentimental. They are, rather, matter of fact, neutral and undesiring - yet suffused with an unreasoned joy at the simple correspondence of appearance and reality, at the
evident rightness of things as they are…. The world becomes singularly meaningful, yet without being “symbolical.” Objects and colors do not point to other
realms, signs say what they have to and fall silent…. Precisely from such moments, I believe, we build our best and necessary sense of an independent yet meaningful reality.
I should like to call them direct esthetic experiences of the real and suggest the following: in our media-saturated times it falls to architecture to have the direct esthetic
experience of real at the center of its concerns.
Action steps for this? First, decouple from technology and the false sense it gives of always being up-to-date and on point.
Second, once decoupled, apply the adjective “slow” to the acts of living, and then practice the acts: slow talk, slow tasking
(otherwise known as “unitasking”), slow listening, slow thinking. As the Zen mantra goes, “When you breathe, just breathe.”
We need to recover what Benedikt calls “the evident rightness of things as they are” because weathering the political times ahead
will require all of us to be grounded in reality so that we are not ground down to nothing. The grey cashmere dress coat is not ideologically neutral - it reminds us that we have a
center worth fighting to maintain against everything that wants to knock us off-center and feast upon our bones.