Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

4. The meaning of space

Spaces can be punctuated with words. Accordingly they take on meaning depending on how they are named both by the locals and by the officials. Often these references diverge and reflect the difference between popular and official culture.

In having postulated the meaning of famous spaces like Trafalgar Square, Piazza Navona, Time Square, Brandenburger Gate, Place de la Republique etc., lesser space but of importance in another sense can be made out. Their meaning resonates due to being named after Heinrich Heine, Viktor Hugo or Dante. If the various categories of names are broken down to provide an outline of man's history in reflection of places bestowed with meaning, Alexander Platz in Berlin goes daily, weekly and monthly through various uses and which all add to the space assuming in the minds of people to have some special significance. When the East German state and the Berlin Wall existed until 1989, the Alexander Platz was often the place where East and West activists met to discuss the pros and cons of Socialism versus Capitalism. Such a friendly contest of ideas could, however, not alter the harsh reality of the Cold War. Hence contact was always only possible under the watchful eyes of the secret police equally present whenever people gathered. Consequently use took on a subversive nature while leaving the obvious to be said to those who could either publish or protest in a much more articulate form like Biermann did till he was ousted in 1976. Always politics and the arts intermingled to test the ground as to what was possible to be articulated within a given time and space. But only when the deeper philosophical reflections behind what moves people can be grasped, then meaning of space takes on another significance.

Given that poetry lets a philosophy of knowledge unfold, even if a mere fragment like that of Parmenides about the goddess who takes the man out of the city on her chariot, meaning can be best gauged by making out the poetic sense of space. Through poetry it is possible to obtain another notion of how space can be used creatively. Thus a poem can describe how a feather floats down to settle on a bench from where the village square can be overlooked. By way of associative thinking becoming a practice of interpretation or 'Deutung', there come to mind unusual moments which start with small observations but leave a life long image as is the case in the following poem taken out of the own collection of 'poetic drawings':


Simple sketches

or only

streaks of light

at the edges

similar to shadows

leaning against trees


to say good-bye.


Hatto Fischer

Berlin 2016

Associative thinking does allow the tracing of a poetic trail as mark of creativity in space. There is in Bonn, the most famous statue of Beethoven who ends up holding usually a petition in his hands once the demonstrators have gone home and makes the BBC reporter curious to read in order to find out what the demonstrators really wanted. Or else the Greek singer Savina Yannatou took the voices of poets in search of the human voice, and let them be heard as if they resound inside a corridor of a monastery. Further associative-poetic thinking would allow the crossing through a garden in a famous hotel in Taormina while thinking of Botticelli's painting of a beautiful woman stepping out of a huge sea shell. If any creative use is sublime, then to fall in love within a certain space.

Even more important in Taormina is that creative use of space which can transform an experience into a metaphysical sensation of deep affinities to life existing. This experience can be made when standing in the ancient Greek temple and seeing through the pillars the snow capped Etna at a distance. That volcano is where Empedocles decided upon his fate. The philosopher had stressed the four elements as constituting everything, including space as consisting of fire, air, earth and sea. He was also one of the last philosophers to express his thoughts in verse and who supposed to have disappeared into the gaping hole of a volcano. The latter may be the last space into which man disappears when returning to earth. Space like this symbolises more than what can reveal the secrets of nature and of the universe. That something more was captured by the German poet Hölderlin when he wrote about Empedocles being in such a space since he marked it with a different kind of departure: not merely from the Polis which wanted him to return in order to govern, but Empedocles as the master who wanted to be free from his slave who had given up everything to serve him: wife, children, house, friends. That makes space into a trauma from which there is no return as did Odyssey first from Troy, then from the island of Calypso and finally from Hades.

Likewise the natural niches, equally poetic spaces within a city exit there, where houses have been constructed in such a way that a little plot of land remains untouched in between the built up spaces. The plot cannot be accessed by anyone and thus a paradise of wild life prevails there. These exceptional spaces give a city pores to breathe very much what any body needs. Unfortunately too many live in urban dwellings where the absence of nature allows the language of cement to be the only dominant one.

By contrast, the unpoetic public squares like Omonia in Athens show the hard side of life. Close-by is another famous space acting like a counter pole: Syntagma Square. The latter is swept day by day by different waves or forces with all seeking to leave their mark or to make an imprint upon public consciousness. At the height of the crisis in Greece, this is where people gathered to create assembles in order to find out the public truth about the extent of the Greek debt. This was followed by repeated public protest against decisions like the acceptance of the Memorandum of Understanding, but they end up usually sizzling out like fire once it starts to rain. Very often it seems as if all these demonstrates are being used to revamp all the failures of past Greek governments. It leaves Greek public life wondering what else can take place between parades to mark celebrate Independence Day and a man committing suicide since he cannot bear any longer the shame of being unable to pay his bills? Memories linger a bit longer on while tourists cross the square to head for Monastiraki. What remains at night are the two lonely soldiers standing guard beside the grave of the unknown soldier. They stand out from the mere flat surface below parliament while at the same time they demonstrate power according to Canetti by obeying the orders carried out by not daring to move. Definitely that limits any creative use of that particular space since especially guarded due to having high symbolic significance for the Greek Republic.

When Bachelard published his La Poétique de l’éspace. Paris in 1957, he pointed out that a sea shell is a space which contains millions of light years. That poetic sense for space means not only tangible but intangible meanings are entailed when we refer to space as a special location. That is every space distinguishes itself by having definite borders and within it some specific features which allow it to be a unique niche where both things and stories gather over time a meaning to be remembered. The meaning of these memories can be evoked by a literary reflection as has done the writer Stamatis Polenakis when walking through the streets of Athens. It is a modern version of confrontation with what one does not know, in order to get out of a space marked by a deepening of a crisis in both a physical and mental sense. It alters the experience of space as can be any street often forlorn in midst of all the traffic passing through.



“I see my image in the broken mirror. I follow it from a distance as it proceeds along the busy street, walking slowly, going past the blurred rows of immobilized automobiles like a sleepwalker. It’s autumn in Athens, the tree leaves are falling, the sunlight hurts my eyes. Today my soul is suffering and ailing. I feel that I am gradually sinking into nothingness. I feel that I’m being carried away by a mighty current, that I’m spinning in a totally dark maelstrom. I don’t know where I am. Perhaps I’m dreaming that I’m in Asclepius Street, in the middle of this very ancient city. Perhaps I’m dreaming that I’m following the fleeting shadow of myself, ill and blind, all alone amidst the ill and the blind who continuously pass in front of me. Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Help us, oh god of healing and compassion.”

Stamatis Polenakis

Such literal memory used to reconnect with the layers of meaning any space and/or place can contain means to trace what happened there in the past. At the same time, such poetic and literal descriptions signify how personal life connects with the socio-historical flow of things and events affecting life in any city and space. Add to this a creation of own meaning, and associative thinking shall be supported by entering that specific space having become a literal meaning.

Famous for capturing this transformation in the use of special spaces is Walter Benjamin's 'Flaneur' who shows idleness being the best resistance against the new passages of consumption created to lure people into special areas of the city. What can happen in these passages became a topic in the film by Bunel. „The obscure object of desire“ leads directly to acts of terrorism in view of what violence means in terms of love being denied or just having become an object of a game. All too often streets as commercial spaces leave little room for individuals to unfold their creativity. Rather they are pushed into a passivity of the typical consumer who is constantly being outplayed by the various categories offering pseudo-choices as if that is freedom when in fact their lives is pre-determined.


In a modern world where hyper-connectivity often results in disconnection from our immediate surroundings, creating the space to explore poetry can make us more reflective and engaged citizens. With poetry, the city becomes a place where we meander, both physically and mentally – or as Chernaik puts it, “be lifted up to another world, even when we’re underground”.


'Cities are built with language': how poetry feeds on urban life, 6.October 2016


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