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The Cross and the kimono

Christopher Alexander puzzles over the difference between a Catholic vestment, which is likely to have a symmetrical design centered on the Cross, and a Japanese kimono, which is likely to have an intentionally asymmetrical design, although one composed perhaps of symmetrical and even identical elements like stylized blossoms. (The Nature of Order, vol. ii, pp. 484-88.) The difference strikes me as a consequence of differing metaphysical views. The vestment connects to the world by imaging it as a whole. Like the Catholic world, it’s centered on the cross, about which everything arranges itself. That’s a natural way to present a world ordered hierarchically by some knowable principle. The kimono, in contrast, connects to the world by imaging one part of it. That part is intentionally made radically asymmetrical so we can make sense of it only by seeing it as a part of a much larger whole that is only implied. What you see on the kimono is like what you see looking through the gaps in a Japanese fence or partition—a fragment that implies something much larger and more complete. That’s a more natural way to present a world without a highest principle that can be stated or known.



Similarly, I once read that the Chinese, in their garden temples, built crooked, bent, pathways. The explanation was that the devil travels in straight lines.


The effect might have been to put the temple at a distance spiritually from the everyday. You can’t just go there, there’s some special route you have to take.

In Stalker, the movie I commented on a day or two ago, you couldn’t go directly from the entrance to the Zone to the room where your inmost wishes will be granted. You had to take an extremely circuitous route through various ruined tunnels etc.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

More of a citation than a comment: In A Pattern Language, Alexander describes a walled courtyard of a Zen Buddhist monk’s house in Japan. There’s a diagonal slit in the wall, so as you’re walking you only get a brief glimpse of a beatiful ocean view. Alexander didn’t draw any metaphysical conclusion as you did. His point was just that the view remained fresh and was never taken for granted, as would a view from one of those evil picture windows.

I haven’t read The Nature of Order. Would you recommend it to someone who really likes A Pattern Language?

Re the cross and all sorts of other Catholic symbolism, J.-K. Huysmans’ novel The Cathedral is interesting. The main “character” of the novel is the cathedral at Chartres, which of course is arranged in the shape of a cross.

Also, I don’t know anything about kimonos or Catholic vestments, but couldn’t an asymmetric design be just as much of a microcosm too, rather than an “incomplete” picture? And when you say that “we can make sense of it only by…”, is that the Euro-centric we, or does it include the Japanese as well?

Alexander seems drawn to East Asian aesthetics. My impression is that there’s a metaphysical reason for that, although not one he mentions. He has a generally modern and scientific cast of mind, and seems to want to extend the modern scientific view of things as little as possible while still making enough sense of the world human beings actually inhabit to function as an architect. That drives him toward a minimalist conception of God—something impersonal, unknowable, unsayable and nonhierarchical like the Tao.

I’d say the same applies to his interest in Turkish tiles and carpets. Islamic art takes the view that God can’t be shown, so the principle of universal order it implies is abstract and impersonal. I haven’t read vol. iv of The Nature of Order, though, which apparently contains extended reflections on religious issues.

An asymmetric design gives a lesser impression of completeness. In Japanese art the effect is enhanced by the way the boundary of the image often cuts off elements of the design. So I think it’s genuinely part of the art to present the image as a part of an implied much larger unseen whole.

I’d recommend The Nature of Order to anyone interested in Alexander’s other work. It takes a grander view of things but develops the same fundamental approach. I’ve posted some comments on the first volume here, here, here, here, and here.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I’ve just been getting into volume 4 of The Nature of Order, and Alexander elaborates on his metaphysics much more in this last volume. He states several times that the ultimate reality is indeed personal, not impersonal and Tao-like. He rarely uses the phrase “quality without a name” to describe it. Very often he uses “I”, or “the existence of an I” to describe what lies beyond or beneath or through the visible order and beauty of nature and buildings. (This “I” is only tangentially and occasionally related to the Vedantic identification of Self and Brahman…the “I” in Alexander is understood to be a person that is in some sense not us, or perhaps not entirely us, and which seems to have a consciousness and will of its own.)

There is an entire chapter at the end of the book called “The Face of God”, in which openly theistic themes come bursting forth. It is true that Alexander frequently uses language so immanentist as to be mere pantheism, but nonetheless the movement is there. I sense that despite Alexander’s description of TNoO as his crowning work, he is in fact still in media res, and I for one expect more surprises from him in his next book.

I’m not claiming that Alexander is an overt or consistent theist now, but the degree to which overtly religious and personalistic language has begun to spring from him tells me something interesting is going on.

Needless to say, I highly recommend you continue through TNoO, and see if you agree with my take on the final volume. Which is titled, “The Luminous Ground”. Interesting.