FYP Letters — Knowing Our Home

FYP Letters — Knowing Our Home

FYP Letters is a series of non-curricular notes to keep us in touch over the next days and weeks. They are a combination of original writings and archival ones, including some re-printed FYP News items. — Dr. Susan Dodd, Interim FYP Director.

Having lived for the entirety of the preceding years of my life just outside of Halifax, it was a distinct but not entirely alien experience to spend the better part of a year living in the heart of the South End. By this I mean that, while I was not unfamiliar with the South End before, this was the first time I had the chance to experience it as my entire reality, every day. Not simply as a place I saw from the window of a car, but as a place where I lived.

While I do feel that I can attest honestly to knowing Halifax, that is to say I understand its character, I cannot create a true map of the city in my mind. I can conjure up focal points, a certain street corner for example, but between them are swathes of space where my memory cannot reach. In this way I feel a certain kinship with the geographers upon whom Plutarch commented, early in the biography of Theseus section of his Lives​, writing that they:

crowd on to the outer edges of their maps the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that ‘What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts,’ or ‘blind marsh,’ or ‘Scythian cold,’ or ‘frozen sea,’

However, unlike Plutarch’s geographers, these sandy deserts and blind marshes infest all parts of my mental map. Even more than it is something, my Halifax is nothing: it is scattered with small points I can recreate amid countless stretches that I cannot.

Furthermore, just like Plutarch’s geographers, I make a poor navigator. My more practical friends often lament how useless I am at giving street directions to wherever I am in Halifax; and I have similarly lamented how long this has left me standing on street corners on a mid-January evening.

However, as I began to acclimate to living at King’s, in a small way this began to change.

I walked the streets of the South End every day. I learned their turns and their corners. Just as King’s became my home, so too did everything around it become my neighbourhood. It spread to fill what was once a blank expanse on my mental map.

But to me this wasn’t simply a process of filling in a space. When I think about the South End of Halifax now, it has changed from how I once saw it. To come to understand that space was to let it change in my mind, taking on new configurations and connections. Both Coburg and Quinpool are changed by learning the streets between them; they are put into relation with one another, making what were once disparate pieces part of a whole. I feel ultimately that a city is comparable with the individual works of architecture that make it up, being a construction in space just the same. In this way it seems fitting to apply Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the ways in which architecture is received as a work of art. The city too can be received by use or by perception – or as Benjamin preferred, tactilely or optically. As Benjamin understood, these two modes of perception are not always equal. He writes:

the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means—that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually—taking their cue from tactile reception—through habit.

Though I don’t propose that my learning the streets of Halifax’s South End was by any means a task facing humanity at a historical turning point, it certainly was a task facing me at a turning point in my life. To elucidate this point, we can turn to Michel de Montaigne’s comment in “On Repenting”:

You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life just as well as one of richer stuff. Every man bears the whole Form of the human condition.

Just as we all bear the form of the human condition, what applies to Benjamin’s whole “human apparatus of perception”, neatly applies to a single life. Just as one can imagine the city in a single work of architecture, one can view this urban exploration as a historical turning point in “Kyle’s human apparatus of perception”. There are aspects of Halifax that were revealed to me only by Benjamin’s tactile reception. Further, as implied by Benjamin’s reference to habit, it was in repeated exposure over time that this reception was realized. Thus is the way it was revealed: only by living in the middle of it, walking its streets every day, coming to understand them more and more.

I would like to return to the idea of putting places into relation with one another, by a process of gradual tactile reception, thereby gaining a greater understanding of each place in question. I think this is a particularly appropriate idea to consider in relation to FYP. For me, FYP itself can be seen as a process of this bringing-into-relation. It is coming to understand the development of different ideas, as they are taken up by thinkers in vastly different places and times. To study a thinker in FYP is not just to study their work in itself, but as part of a tapestry of human knowledge. To study Immanuel Kant with Daniel Brandes is to examine how significant Kant’s synthesis of empiricism and rationalism is to western philosophy on the whole; and to study T.S. Eliot with Christopher Snook is to understand how Eliot draws upon so many of his predecessors, recontextualizing and recombining their words to evoke and perhaps even understand the modern world. The thinkers we consider in FYP are transformed by understanding them as part of a chronology of human thought, and I am grateful to have had the chance to study them in this way.

Thus I consider my year living at King’s to be an exploration of two spaces. Day by day on foot I studied the streets of Halifax’s South End, in that way coming to better understand a city that has been my home for my whole life. At the same time, in Alumni Hall and in various tutorial rooms, I came to understand ideas that we are indebted to as moderns, ideas that inform all aspects of our lives. This was a process of becoming accustomed to two homes that had been there all along; the physical space of Halifax, and the intellectual firmament that we are all working within.

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