‘To fathom’ has three meanings which essentialise an artistic/scholarly process.
In the most widely used sense, to fathom means to understand, comprehend, get to the bottom of something. Both artists and scientists spend most of their time figuring things out by thinking deeply. They also tend to imagine things which are not there, and sometimes will them into existence. Perhaps it is exactly this ability to will things into existence that defines the power of an artist/scientist, their influence on the world.
Secondly, to fathom means to measure depth. Going underwater is a poignant metaphor of an artistic/scholarly process. In order to fathom something, we go deep.
A stereotype of artists is that they are a crazy and/or depressed lot. Rightly or wrongly so, certain psychological processes, akin to depresson, can be compared to going under water – and, hopefully, re-emerging. Not all re-emerge, unfortunately, but when they do, they have something to say. Mad and, less often, depressed scientists are a stereotype, too. Perhaps it’s safe to say that as artists and researchers we are all a little bit unhinged in this way or another, when at our best. We go into the process of deep submersion, in our different ways, to reemerge with something we manage to grasp (fathom) from the bottom.
Finally, going to the etymology and the deepest level (even deeper than the many-fathoms-underwater level), the original and oldest meaning of ‘fathom’ is to measure with outstretched arms, or embrace. And now that we come to this level, to the body, it becomes especially rich. What do outstretched arms or embrace symbolise?
Embracing something, figuratively, is learning to live with it. Coming to terms with things. Embracing conflict. Embracing the nagging feeling that there is no legitimate way to differentiate between facts and values, art/science and politics, body and mind, art and science.
Embracing can be smothering, or it can be loving. The best research and art I’ve experienced originate in love for whom it is done for and with, even though the outcomes might look harsh and not particularly pretty.
In dance, embraces and outstretched arms are laden with many meanings. In flamenco, braceo (cognate with ’embrace’) is the term for the sweeping arm movements, which are the dance form’s trademark. Outstretched arms are about taking the space or inviting others into your space. They express sometimes joy, sometimes grief, sometimes the confusion and pain of both at the same time. In any case, stretching out the arms is a dramatic gesture of enormous power.
So it is these three translations of ‘fathom’ – comprehending, submerging, and embracing – that I will be exploring in this blog. I hope that you, fellow artists/scientists, will be with me on this underwater journey.
Enjoy the dives!