Several years ago I stood in front of a painting by Vermeer. It was a painting of a woman reading a letter. She stood near the window for better lighting and behind her hung a map of the known world. I was stunned by the revelation of this work. Vermeer understood something so basic to human need it had gone virtually unnoticed: communication from afar.
Everything we have done to make us more capable, more powerful, better protected, more intelligent, has been by enhancing our physical limitations, our perceptual abilities, our adaptability. When I think of Vermeer's woman reading the letter I wonder how long did it take to get to her? Then I think, my god, at some time we developed a system in which one could leave home and send word back! We figured out a way that we could be heard from far away and then another system so that we can be seen from far away. Then I start to marvel at the alchemy of painting and how we have been able to invest materials with consciousness so that Vermeer can talk to me across time! I see too he has put me in the position of not knowing as I am kept from reading the content of the letter. In this way he has placed me at the edge, the frontier of wanting to know what I cannot know. I want to know how long has this letter sender been away and what was he doing all this time. Is he safe? Does he still love her? Is he on his way home?
Vermeer puts me into what had been her condition of uncertainty. All I can do is wonder and wait. This makes me think about how not knowing is so important. Not knowing makes the world large and uncertain and our survival tenuous. It is a mystery why humans roam and still more a mystery why we still need to feel so connected to the place we have left. The not knowing causes such profound anxiety it, in turn, spawns creativity. The impetus for this creativity is empowerment. Our gadgets, gizmoes, networks of transportation and communication, have all been developed either to explore, utilize or master the unknown territory.
If the unknown becomes known, and is not replaced with a new unknown, if the farther we reach outward is connected only to how fast we can bring it home, if the time between not knowing and knowing becomes too small, creativity will be daunted. And so I worry, if we bring the universe more completely, more effortlessly, into our homes will there be less reason to leave them?