The Pursuit of Coziness
How underworlds turn things inside out, and create an existential coziness.
One of my favorite things to find, in a book written for children, is an image of a burrow. Several years ago, when I was reading The Wind in the Willows with my daughter, I found this image of sleeping animals ensconced in a burrow. It was in the time of pandemic lockdown, so I felt isolated and alone. The burrow illuminated a protected space. But it was not a lonely space, or a defensive fortress. It was a secret, hidden little space. It was a cozy space. For days, maybe even months, after finding that image I thought about coziness: about how delicious it is, and yet how difficult it can be to find. I thought about the tranquility and safety it promises. I remembered how good I was, as a child, at making and finding it: how good all children seem to be at coziness. I lamented how bad I’ve become, as an adult, at creating it. Coziness is something I constantly long for, and never quite seem to find. Burrows, for me, are like holy icons of coziness.
One of the adages about writing and research that I’ve heard dozens and dozens of times in my academic life is that people only ever have one idea. You might write twenty books, but in the end you only ever write about one thing. I think about this a lot. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s true. But I do ponder, from time to time, what my one idea might be. After writing my book on death, I’ve considered that it might be mortality. But I actually think I’m much more preoccupied with the challenge of surrounding the fact of our mortality with a kind of condition, or quality. This is why I study theology, I suppose. Whatever else it is, it’s certainly a field that’s preoccupied with conditioning our mortality. Sometimes I think my one idea might be coziness: how to make it, find it, recover it, illuminate it, ensure it, celebrate it. Not simply in a physical sense, but an existential one. I think about the things that help me, in the pursuit of coziness.
Underworlds can be many things, including terrifying. But, as burrows remind us, underworlds can also be cozy. Underworlds help me think about coziness. I found myself thinking about coziness again, when I was recently in France researching Paleolithic cave art for my new project on underworlds.
Caves and Coziness
The cave art at Abri du Cap Blanc is unlike most of the other Paleolithic art that I saw in the Dordogne region; the art is not painted, but purely sculptural. Granted, there is also a sculptural quality to many of the paintings on cave walls. It’s clear that the artists were working with limited light (small lamps made with rock, and animal fat). The shadows on the wall, at differing angles, make the paintings into shape shifting figures. The figures move around, as you look at them. So they are far from two dimensional. But the figures at Cap Blanc are chiseled into the wall.
One of the reasons that Cap Blanc is so distinct is that people had a different relationship with this rock wall. The large painted galleries that are much more famous, like the grotto at Lascaux, are located deep within cave interiors. People would have had to walk for a considerable amount of time (perhaps as long as half an hour) to reach them. The caves would have been actively inhabited by animals, like bears and hyenas. And it would have been a logistical challenge to bring along enough light to last. It’s hard to imagine that these spaces would have been in regular use. There are theories about what these spaces were used for, and whether they had any “religious” purposes. I’ll get into that, in a couple of weeks. But for now, let it suffice to say that they were probably rare and special places.
Cap Blanc, on the other hand, was a shelter under a rocky overhang. It’s unlikely that people lived “in” it full time, but they probably slept and cooked there, in bad weather. There is also a body buried there, in what appears to be an intentional formation (with rocks placed at her head and feet). Whether or not this was a living space, it would have been easily and regularly accessible. People would have been able to spend hours there, chiseling animal faces into the rock.
The sculpted frieze, at Cap Blanc, is filled with images of animals. Some are difficult to discern. Others have been carved in detail and high relief. There are a number of different types of animals, but the most prominent ones are horses. Today, when you visit, you’re standing far below the images because the floor has been hollowed out, for archaeological research. But you can still see the lines where the original floor would have been. It looks as if the feet of some animals were meant to be touching the floor.
As I was standing there, in the shelter, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to get close to those delicately wrought animals. I wanted to imagine what it would feel like to gather near these animals, in the shelter, as if they were carved onto the wall of my living room. Or perhaps above the patio in my backyard. Their life-sized rock bodies gave me a kind of serene feeling; something about being in their presence made me feel grounded, or comforted. It was as if I could reach out and touch one of their solid bodies, for reassurance that we’re both still here together, in a shared world. I also noticed that just to the right of the frieze was a little enclosure. It looked like a tiny room. I could imagine tucking a little child in there, for a nap. It looked like a cozy space for nestling, and the whole rock shelter filled me immediately with a sense of coziness.
Later on in my trip, when I visited the grotto at Rouffignac, I thought of Cap Blanc again. We’d ridden a little train deep into the cave, so that we could see one of the most elaborate galleries on the ceiling, deep within the recesses of the tunnel network. On the way there, we’d stopped in a strange little passageway which was riddled with what we learned were cave bear nests. Some of these (long extinct) bears could have been as large as 2000 pounds. And they’d dug out these bowl-like structures where they would let their gigantic bodies hibernate. I found the experience of being that deep in the cave to be a little terrifying. My breathing had become shallow. I felt like I was in a place where I didn’t belong; a space where I would not, could not, survive for long. But seeing those nests changed the feeling for me. It suddenly seemed livable, and cozy.
I’m tempted to say that caves and burrows feel cozy because they provide a place to hide: a secretive space in the underworld. But underground bunkers also provide a secretive space to hide, in the underworld, and I haven’t seen one that feels cozy to me. In fact, there’s something about an underground bunker that seems inherently hostile to coziness. Perhaps it’s something existential. Perhaps it’s because a bunker is a space that’s created out of paranoia and mistrust. It’s a defensive fortress. It’s not a space to nestle, it’s place in which escape from disaster.
How, then, could a burrow or a cave offer glimpses of coziness that an underground bunker cannot? What creates and sustains this coziness?
Bringing the Outside Inside
I always enjoy the task of moving into a new space, because it feels like setting up a nest. But I have always hated looking for new living spaces. Mostly, it’s because the living spaces that I can afford always feel degraded and run-down. It’s difficult to imagine building a nest when you can see a garbage adorned alley, or barbed wire, from your window. I felt this acutely when we were looking for a house to buy. But in the midst of the process, I had a kind of vision. Or maybe you could call it a recovered memory. Whatever it was, it reminded me that I could make a home anywhere I needed to.
One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I thought back to all of the spaces I’d inhabited as a child. We never had much money, as I was growing up. So the spaces where we lived were always a little run-down. This was just as true of the spaces where my mother had grown up, in an immigrant family. But I always felt like the domestic spaces of my childhood were lovely, and cozy. My mother and grandmother were masters of coziness, and I think that one of the ways they mastered this art was by learning to bring the outside inside. Our living spaces were filled with wildly healthy houseplants, fresh flowers, dried flowers, grasses, sticks, rocks, and the bones of animals that had been recovered from the woods. These weren’t things that they bought at the store (apart from the houseplants, I suppose) but things they found outside, and brought inside. I’ve learned to do this, myself. I guess you could call this act of domestic curation a kind of art.
I think that this is what I was feeling, as I noticed the coziness of Cap Blanc. I was marveling at the tender and grounding way that these Paleolithic artists had brought the outside inside.
It’s not immediately clear why objects from the outdoors would help an indoor space feel cozy. They could just as easily make it feel cluttered and dusty. I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s a way of gently domesticating the great outdoors. It’s a way of bringing something of the world outside into a much more protected space, without letting the charged forces of the wild outside take over. It’s a way of letting the wild outside creep tamely in. But there’s more to it. I also think that, existentially, what happens when you bring the outside inside is that you turn things inside out, you invert them. You create a kind of channel or a portal through which the exterior becomes interior and the interior becomes exterior. It’s a form of openness, or a looping.
This is what distinguishes a burrow from a bunker, I think. A burrow is an interior space that’s not sealed off. It’s an interior that expects and accommodates elements from its own wild outside, that’s not hostile to the wild outside but can also make it feel a little gentle.
In this way, underworld spaces like caves and burrows teach us how to be in the world in a particular way. They teach us how to be who we are, in a very particular way. They teach us how to find a space to hide while also clearing the air, and opening things up. They teach us how to borrow, lightly, from the big world as we create our own little world, apart from hostility. They remind us that when we are hidden away, in our safe interior spaces, we continue to depend upon the vital presence of the wild outside and its many forms of life. They remind us of how to make this more than human world an integral presence in our little human space, to make it part of the what we dream about, and visualize, when we think of home. And when we can nest in a space where these dreams and visions come softly alive, we start to feel more settled in a little world: we feel coziness.
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