Horror Vacui: The Fear of Empty Space

Horror vacui - Mosque Tiles

[Revised from the original article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I once heard the late jazz pianist and singer Shirley Horn say that her mentor, trumpet legend Miles Davis, always liked the way she used space in her singing and playing. I liked that description so well, since Shirley Horn was a master of slow, careful, pared down musical expression. There was never an extraneous note in her playing, and she could never be accused of playing anything too quickly. Sometimes there are such long rests between her lyrics that I worry, Shirley, may, never, get, to, the, end, of, the, phrase. But I have to admit that her singing and playing were very elegant, and the lack of adornment does focus the ear and the mind on the sound and the meaning. (And her version of Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “(It’s Not Easy Being) Green” is exquisite.)

I admire minimalism in architecture and fashion, too, but I’d be bored out of my mind living in minimalist clothing and surroundings all the time. My visits to W Hotels and to Ian Schrager’s Paramount and Hudson hotels in New York left me thinking how fun it was to be in such stark, angular spaces for a little while, and how chic and clean the lines are, how pure and streamlined the sensibility was—and how I could never live like that at home.

In autumn and winter I wear a lot of black, and I feel very good in it. I love to travel in black so that strangers can’t tell that I’m a tourist, or where I come from, or what I sat in on the subway. I love the classic, crisp, elegant anonymity of it. But my lavender shoes and my bright pink coat and the crazy, oversized floral patterns on some of my favorite skirts are just as necessary to my wardrobe, and to the vision I have of myself and how I must sometimes present myself to the world.

I think a lot of us fill up the spaces in our lives carelessly to make ourselves and those around us less afraid. We feel we have to talk through an entire visit with a friend, have the TV on in the background, fill every shelf, and try every dish at the buffet. My mom, who found the study of art and art history thrilling, as I do, laughed with me when she realized that the Latin term “horror vacui,” which describes the fear of empty space which makes some artists decorate every inch of a surface, applied to her and to her life as well. She feared too much quiet or extended contemplation in much the same way that she feared a bare wall. She found it too easy to project her fears of inadequacy, loss and emptiness into those spaces, both literal and metaphorical. A lack of adornment meant a lack of value to her; less was less and more was always more. I’m often guilty of this sort of thinking, too. I collect too many things and crave too many distractions, accumulate to fill up voids in my life and avoid winnowing my collections so I can focus on novelty and expansion, on all the things I might do with them in the future, all the possibilities open to me because I have such a collection of stuff. Winnowing would mean admitting that there are limits to my life and its possibilities, that I may never need that unused German language workbook, might not create a work of art incorporating vintage mah jongg tiles and dominoes after all, probably won’t review my Chinese history notes from 1983 again, and don’t need a dozen Depression glass candlestick holders after all, even if they are 70 years old and very cool.

I think there’s an optimism to accumulation and void-filling, a belief that I’ll use this, I’ll enjoy that, my life will be better if I expand and decorate and dress it up with one more thing. I really will be fluent in French someday! It’s not too late to learn to become a goldsmith! Those broken plates could make an amazing mosaic top for a bedside table! I’d always be sad if I got rid of that Singer sewing machine from 1924! But of course, this sort of self-confidence through accumulation bases value on the ephemeral and external rather than on the lasting and innate. Emphasizing that expansive optimism is how our culture justifies binge spending, over-extended credit (both personal and governmental) and constant expansion. It’s a sign of fear and a lack of discipline, I believe; evidence of a fear of growing older, of growing bored or boring, of appearing outdated to others, of having to make do or invest more energy or time in something or someone, of facing what we really are, have, need, or are capable of. Stuff dulls the senses and brings comfort. I love it, but I think it’s time to stare down that horror vacui a little bit, and see what riches I’m missing in my life by focusing too much on the riches that cost me money.

Monsieur Ibrahim


[Originally posted to Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog in 2005.]

I just watched the lovely 2003 French film “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran” (“Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran”) over the weekend, and I found it a real gem. It’s a story of a 16-year-old boy, Moise (known as Momo) living in a working-class Jewish district of Paris in the 1960s. He looks after his father, a selfish, depressive man who is never satisfied by anything Momo is or does. Abandoned by his mother as a small child, Momo has never known parental love or kindness, so he seeks womanly tenderness from the prostitutes who work the streets of his neighborhood, and he filches money from his father so he can afford to buy some pleasure. He’s rather sullen and quiet, with no real friends and no one to help him learn about life’s possibilities and love’s responsibilities.

Momo makes daily visits to the local grocery owned by Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), a Turkish Sufi who seems to know more about what is in Momo’s heart than should be possible. The two strike up a friendship, and Monsieur Ibrahim teaches Momo about loving kindness, about how to make himself more appealing to others so he can get what he wants out of life, about enjoying the world and the people in it. It could have been a paint-by-numbers sort of coming-of-age story, but instead the interactions feel very real and subtle, and Sharif’s performance is extraordinary. He brings a real joie de vivre to the role, but in a quiet, understated fashion. Monsieur Ibrahim is a nonjudgmental, spiritual man who finds beauty in his Quran and keeps that beauty in his heart at all times, and his connection with this drifting young Jewish man gives Momo’s life meaning and roots while still broadening his horizons, both literally and figuratively.

The religions of the two characters impact the story very little. Momo and his father appear to be secular Jews, and Monsieur Ibrahim’s Sufi Muslim beliefs are important to him but are flexible and nonjudgmental enough to allow him to show kindness and appreciation for prostitutes, as well as a desire and willingness to understand the beauty in other religions’ houses of worship, to which he takes Momo on field trips. But some have chosen to read a lot more meaning into the fact that the characters are of differing religions than actually exists in the movie. There will always be those who cannot handle a story of kindness between people of differing beliefs.

There is some argument on the internet among a few viewers of the film who dislike the fact that Momo’s Jewish father is so unlikeable and careless about the boy, and that Momo’s true teacher and father figure is a Muslim. They have chosen to read anti-Jewish sentiment into the story which I do not believe exists. My take on the film is shared by the vast majority of people who have seen it, apparently, but a couple of outspoken critics find the idea that a film that shows a sympathetic Muslim and an unsympathetic Jew must therefore have a message of hidden hatred of Jews, as if art can never show people of one religion or another having unattractive characteristics without painting all of their ethnicity or religion as bad. This sort of sweeping condemnation has as its basis a sort of bigotry of its own, and assumes that viewers are too stupid to recognize that an individual character does not have to represent an entire ethnic group.

I had no idea that Omar Sharif could give a performance of such subtlety and beauty; he was perfectly cast in the role and he brought much of his own personal experience to it. I always think of Sharif in his blockbuster days, from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl,” in which he gave fine and capable performances, but none of which allowed him moments of introspection. His international playboy persona didn’t help me to believe him capable of the sort of intimate gestures and nuanced emotions that flash across his face in this role. The DVD commentary by Sharif is thoughtful and articulate as well. I love getting a whole new perspective on an artist after having my eyes opened to his talents and possibilities. This film was a very pleasing surprise.


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