The experience of distance

Marseille
A morning walk up the steep hill to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Gard granted me panoramic views of the city of Marseille and the sea. I love the peaceful hum that can be extracted from high up of a limbering up for a day of activity.

I underlined these words yesterday in ‘In Search of Lost Time’. The narrator is talking about how his perception of distance was changed when, instead of travelling by rail, he starts to go by car.

‘We express the difficulty we have in getting to a place in a system of leagues and kilometres, which becomes false the moment that difficulty decreases. The art of distance, too, is modified, since a village that had seemed to be in a different world from some other village, becomes its neighbour in a landscape whose dimensions have altered.’

Proust, M. (1921). In Search of Lost Time, Vol 4. Sodom and Gomorrah. (C. Prendergast, Ed.) (Penguin Cl). Penguin Books.

It resonated with me because I’ve long thought of distance as an experience of the gap between two things rather than a quantum of space. That may be strange thing for an engineer to say. Engineers need to quantify gaps often to a very high degree of accuracy, but that is not how I experience the world.

I talk in my podcast from the Forth Bridge about how difficult I find it to understand distances by reading them. I find descriptions of distance much more insightful when I know in my body what that distance feels like. I have no idea what the measurement in metres is from the foot to the summit of the hill that I climbed this morning. But I know that it was shady and cool at the bottom; that my back started to get sweaty under my rucksack from about half-way up; that my legs became weary on the final steps to the summit; and that the sea breeze was cool at the top and that I had an unobstructed view across the whole of Marseille – that’s how tall it was.

From the view point I read on diorama graphics the height of distant peaks. For example, le Col St Cyr, 602m. Means nothing to me.

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