What is the simple and enigmatic power of this thin line dividing the sky above from the world below? How do we understand the boundaries of our perception? And what strange horizons split us away from each other, ourselves, and our futures?
I grew up on the Isle of Wight, a thirty mile wide rock just off the south coast of the British Isles. I'd spend every day either in – or at the very least beside – the sea. It had a profound influence on me, in ways quite beyond my ability to measure. How many days did I spend, sat upon the shore (or nestled upon an outcropping on the cliffs), staring out to the horizon?
Those who have not lived near the sea cannot quite appreciate the relationship with the horizon I have. My wife, raised in foothills and mountains, sees nothing of interest in this dark blue line, which splits the sky from the sea below. To me, it is a symbol of the mysteries of life and existence, for I cannot under any circumstances see beyond it. What is across the offing I know only because I imagine it, a mental image constructed from my acquired beliefs about the world.
When a ship sets sail for France, it can be viewed from the southern coast of the Island as if it travels from left to right, getting smaller and smaller as it does. Any sense of further is in my mind, for all I see is shrinking, not receding. Similarly, distant clouds hanging low in the firmament do not convey their distances as effectively as they can their scale. Everything is distorted from linear relations, yet in my mental reconstruction of what I am seeing I reassign notions of distance since I know this is ‘what I am seeing’.
Knowing of the curvature of the Earth, I found myself as a child trying to reconstruct that minuscule recession from the ideal plane in my imagined perspectives. Yet this is not easy, perhaps not even possible, precisely because of the distorting effect of the offing, that band of ever-more distant sea that ultimately becomes infinite (or infinitesimal) at the horizon itself. The curvature is so scant, it cannot be seen and must instead be projected from mind into world.
Similarly, attempts to imagine how the horizon would appear had our planet been flat, as some of the more ancient cultures believed, fail me. It is the distance not the curvature that gives the horizon its illusory properties – clearly even a flat plane would have stretched out to a vanishing point, as every dabbler in artistic perspective can vouch. The horizon cannot, then, provide much evidence for the spheroid shape of our world when taken on its own. We must already be thinking of curvature before it can have any meaningful connection with the horizon as actually seen.
Then there are the times when the horizon is invisible for other, more visceral reasons – when the surf pounds upon the shoreline with awesome and relentless force. The horizon is still out there, but it is lost against the spectacular power on display in front of me, which could, and in several instances almost did, end my life without hesitation or awareness. This is Kant’s sublime in all it’s fearsome beauty! I can never underestimate what the waves mean to me, in their terrible and relentless roil. I play at being brave, edging closer to their fury. But like the horizon itself, I cannot get any closer than peering from the edge.
There are those for whom the world is viewed as known, every detail in place. Oddly, the perpetual revising of knowledge reinforces, rather than undermines, this sense of completeness for many who hold such a perspective. For me, whatever I know is always limited by horizons of mind as well as sight. These can be found not just at the edge of the physical world, but at the boundaries of our experience. Each Other we face lies beyond a horizon of understanding – we project our beliefs of what we know of someone, something, into that nebulous gulf that separates us from them. We do not, except perhaps for one scant moment, sense the horizon that separates us from all that we are or might be.
Our world appears complete, the horizon a mark of distance. Yet that distance is there in every encounter, every moment of being. It is a mystery of the most wondrous kind, and I have no desire to void it with comfortably square-edged beliefs about what is and is not, what is really the case versus what we merely believe. Our beliefs are never merely beliefs, they are our world and they change every aspect of our experience within it. When I look at the horizon, what I see and what I imagine come apart completely, since I could not ever hope to see the horizon as it ‘really is’. So it is with life. Some may despair of mystery. For me, mystery is what gives life its most marvellous potential, for time like space is sheared off at a horizon beyond which lies every wondrous possibility yet to come.