A previous post on the longing for spaces once traversed elicited a higher-than-usual response from readers. Thinking as to why this is the case has prompted further reflection on one point, namely the relationship between the city and the soul.
As mentioned in that post, thinkers since Plato have looked at the soul as not just immaterial and purely interior entities. Rather, the human soul is something that fans out into space and works itself out in every nook and cranny of the cosmos.
At one level, this should not surprise the Christian, since as human person has long been regarded as a unity of soul and body, and bodies qua material things, work their way through space. However, it should be noted that the intimacy between soul and space is highlighted also in the psalms. Consider, for instance, Psalm 63, in which the soul, pining for God, exclaims that without the latter, the former is a “dry weary land without water”. This biblical theme is explicitly drawn upon and given a cinematic parallel in the reflections of Peter Leithart in his Shining Glory, which serve as a theological reflection on Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life.
According to Leithart, Malick seems to be acutely aware of this relationship in his portrayal of Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn) and the spiritual emptiness that he experiences in the film. O’Brien, according to Leithart, is a person whose material successes belie a soul that is quite dead. But this deadness of soul is not left in the interior confines of Sean Penn’s person. The soul is externalised in the form of a desert.
In a strangely similar vein, the Marxist philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, drew on Martin Heidegger to similarly spatialise the soul. In an essay in his Key Writings, Lefebvre spoke of houses, with its memories and symbols, as a sign of the unity of the soul.
What these two very different perspectives suggest is that, as we work through our urban lives, we cannot ignore the impact that it has on the soul. It is no accident that we often see drab cities as “soul-destroying”, because in a way, they are. The city is in a way a form of soulcraft, and thus no wonder that the products that are peddled within its space, are now increasingly focussing not so much at the material benefits, but on the ability of these products to work on the soul, whether it is cars, crystals, teas or cheese. This link between soul and space, also suggests that, for the Christian, discipleship has real contours. It is not just an attention to an interior spirit, but also, in the words of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, a task of “comprehend[ing] with all the saints, the breath and the length and the height and the depth” (Eph 3:18).