orthogonality…

I was doing yoga last night and was struck (again) by how the positions I was trying to achieve with my body had parallels with a particular satisfying way of thinking that I am constantly drawn to: the linking factor is ‘orthogonality’. This word is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as coming from the Greek meaning “right-angled”… Consider the word “right” – which in turn is defined as being ‘straight’ – and, at least in English, has the meaning of ‘correct’, and even ‘something that is due to a person innately’…

Now this human obsession with ‘right-angles’ – as for example is exemplified in so many of our buildings (round buildings are an obsession for consideration another day)… with their straight edges, their corners, their square doors, windows etc – this obsession does not seem at all surprising to me. Consider yourself standing surveying the world: there is what is in front of you, what is behind, what is to your right, and to your left. This is, I think, likely to be a particularly strong impression to an animal that stands upright. We have a front and a back… and we have eyes, ears, arms, legs etc – right and left of a central axis… This then finds a deep resonance with the world we live in. With its east/west axis defined by the path of the sun and, except on the equator, the sun lies to the south, and thus, behind us, is north. Interestingly, in the Americas (and other places too) there were not only these four directions, but a fifth… the centre… the place you are standing… the place you ‘are’…

Is it surprising then that this omnipresent orthogonality should seep into so much of our thinking? Our writing systems that move horizontally or vertically across rectangular writing surfaces. Our mathematics. Our attempt even to lay out our cities and our fields in grids and rectangles – inscribing them on a planet that, in many ways, we persist in seeing as a massive square – a world with corners…

For me there is an even more subtle consequence. When I do many things, especially writing my stories, I seek a kind of ‘orthogonality’ – that no longer is tied down to rectangles and corners, but rather to an elegance of connection of all the parts so that they span the space (and time) with a minimal elegance; an orthogonality that contains without cramping, leaving the ‘space’ room to breathe…

2 thoughts on “orthogonality…

  1. Perhaps if you have the time, you might want to check out the Zhuang Zi. It’s a canonical Daoist text that is on the same level as the Dao De Jing/Lao Zi. It’s a collection of…mystical stories, for lack of a better word. I don’t want to call them parables or allegories, but it is definitely as much a philosophical text as it is an amazingly sublime piece of literature. Super short. I think it escapes the boundaries and corners you’re talking about.

    On another note, part of Chinese creation mythology (this is problematic, as most of the peoples that occupied the present political geography of China had different ones) includes the first 5 Emperors. They correspond to the 5 elements, and each brought various things to the people (i.e. crops, writing, fire, etc.). The one in the middle was the youngest as I recall; he was the yellow emperor. It made me think of that because I actually find that the Meso-Americas had much in common with Chinese culture.

    1. I had heard of him as Meng Zhuang – but have never read the work… After a quick investigation I was inspired enough to order a version of it from amazon. As for “escaping the boundaries and corners” I’m sure you are right – certainly from what I understand about Taoism…

      As for Mesoamerica, they too associated colours with the directions… and, of course, it is believed that the people who became the Mesoamericans came from Eastern Asia – and so may well have shared cultural traits with the Chinese. I have long thought, for example, that the square spirals and other ornamentation on Shang bronzes was remarkably similar to Mayan ornamentation…

Leave a Reply