December 20, 2021
There’s something exciting about the way that, as you visit a new place, the abstract incrementally gives way to the specific. Paris goes from being an idea—the Eiffel Tower in profile, sidewalk cafés, jazz—to being a specific hotel room (a little cold, thanks to that small crack in the window), a specific café (a dog stands close to the door and you worry about someone bumping it), specific weather (gray and windy, but luminous for 20 minutes in the late afternoon), nothing but innumerable specifics. What was blurry has become crisp; reality has filled in a little.
Except that reality was already filled in—you just didn’t know it yet. And it’s still filled in, even after you leave. There’s something disorienting about contemplating places you’ve visited in the past as they are right now—places you’ve seen first-hand (so you’ve got that gut-level, specific intuition of reality) but haven’t seen in years. I was in Granada, Spain, for a few weeks in early 2016, and ran a lot in the high parkland above the city; I remember certain parts of those roads and trails in great detail. It’s strange to think that all that vivid magnitude of detail is still there right now, right this instant, though infinitely changed.
Strange, too, to think of other places that seem completely hypothetical or abstract, but are every bit as real. Say, the 10’ cube of open space a mile above you, mostly empty other than occasional clouds and birds. Abstract as it is, this description corresponds to a place that exists as concretely and vividly as your first afternoon in Paris. Or the similar 10’ cube 500,000 miles overhead, more profoundly empty out there in outer space. This place, too, exists. It has innumerable precise, factual, time-varying characteristics that we could observe if only we were there.
It exists right now, this slice of space, as do Granada and Paris, as do all the other places you’ve visited or not visited. What is disorienting is to recognize that the level of detail you observe locally exists everywhere, all at once: an intricate, loud, simultaneous world. Perhaps it’s disorienting because it violates our intuition of being at the center of everything—an intuition that’s otherwise corroborated by the way the world appears very detailed in the foreground and increasingly blurry as you zoom out and out. But no: it’s all foreground.
Borges loved to play with Pascal’s notion of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere, a metaphor for God or the universe. It’s a pleasing shorthand for this ubiquitous, detailed foreground. There’s something salutary, something conducive to healthy perspective, about thinking of arbitrary places this way: each the center of the universe, with you somewhere out of focus in the background.