Submission No. 7

Signage, Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Watch the gap.

Watch The Gap.

It is between these two extremes – between the gap and The Gap – that we must make our fraught and tenuous way in the world.

“Watch the gap”

For there is always the gap.

Before our every step, before our every action, we must begin with an awareness of this gap that begins and ends it all.

Bending halfway over, almost bowing to it, hands on our knees, bug-eyed, we stare at it multiple times a day.

A red circle may not always be visible around it as we look… A band of yellow light may not always illuminate our round head and the little beak of our nose…

But look we must.


What is the gap? The gap, put bluntly, is this:

There is nothing “out there,” separate from our experiences, to give our lives meaning.

There are no Tracks running to some eternal vanishing point. No great Third Rail, ready to send sparks out from your skin. No billowing heavenly clouds or angels plucking on harps. No goddamned “noumenal field” out there, somewhere, beyond those phenomena that we can observe. There is not even that cozy alternative, so fashionable in the early 60s: the existentialist pose of working to improve the lives of others, just because.

There is only the gap.



This sign has it exactly right. (Ignore the photos on either side of it, the horizon and clouds and sky and flowering bushes… The gap cannot be prettied up.) But I would go farther than the sign says. I would say that anyone, particularly any artist, who does not watch the gap is wasting his or her time and ours.

Artists, I believe, should begin with the assumption that there is no meaning out there, separate from our experiences (Hamlet to Rosencrantz: “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”). Only then, by watching this gap, as it were, will we have a chance of producing art which may advance our understanding of ourselves and our world.

Oh, I know, Bach, Chagall, etc., religious themes have infused great art for all of human history, etc., etc. They didn’t watch for the gap, did they?

I’m sorry. That was then and this is now. We have had the Scientific Revolution. We have had the Enlightenment. We have had more than a few days and nights (36525 rotations of the Earth in the last century alone) in which to look for answers. And now we have the Internet, so it’s easy to look them up! Are you really going to claim there is some Great Meaning out there, separate from all this, that could possibly be of interest to me? Jesus Christ, isn’t this enough for you? Can’t we start from what we know and work from there?

I am interested in small “m” meanings.

That’s all we have. They are enough.

The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam writes:


A Body Was Given To Me

A body was given to me – what to do with it,

So unique and so much my own?

For the quiet joy of breathing and living,

Who is it, tell me, that I must thank?

I am the gardener, I am the flower as well,

In the dungeon of the world I am not alone.

On the glass of eternity has already settled

My breathing, my warmth.

A pattern prints itself on it,

Unrecognizable of late.

Let the lees of the moment trickle down -

The lovely pattern must not be wiped away.

— 1909

We are the gardeners and the flowers too, see? We make meaning out of ourselves, flowers each of us.

But I hear some readers objecting… What about that pattern he’s talking about, the one printing itself on the glass of eternity? I can only say that, in my reading, this poem is not intended as a pep-talk. It is a lament. The lovely patten was, is, and always will be wiped away. It’s just a matter of time.

But it is lovely. What happens on the platform is lovely to behold.

“Watch The Gap.”

At the opposite extreme from the gap, however, there is another threat: The Gap.

Here we confront something quite different than a void of no-meaning. The Gap, instead, threatens us with the false proliferation of meaning. So we watch it not to keep it in fixed in our mind, not bowing down to it like the man in the BART sign, but so as to avoid it. Think of the Gap as the black space behind his beautifully curved butt.

At The Gap’s website, or in its stores, we can buy the right swimsuit, and match it to the right straw hat. It is strongly suggested that happiness will follow.

Of course this is false, but this claim can present to us a momentary sense of belonging to a narrative bigger than ourselves. And this momentary sense is enough, more often than we would like to admit, to get us to lay down our money.

Nothing wrong with that. Narratives bigger than ourselves do make us happy. The problem with The Gap is that the meaning that is promised is NOT OUR OWN. It is manufactured with the express purpose of soothing us — that is, to present us with an illusory version of experience, one that is nearly immune to interruptions or disappointments or even the passage of time. One that conceals the sweat and drudgery and even the raw materials that are used to produce it.

Inconveniently, in actual experience, happiness and pleasure only result from experience lived in time — from sweat, and from drudgery, from raw materials.



So. What is my point?

My point is, if you fall into the gap it’s all broken ankles and empty gestures.

If you fall into The Gap, it’s all saggy jeans and pastel-colored T-shirts.

Between these extremes, however, my fellow bug-eyed friends, is a life worth living and art worth making. The lovely pattern must not be wiped away.

And you have to admit, the rust stains at the edges are gorgeous.

About Tom Clyde

The best place to learn about me is to read my riffs. What could be more revealing? Cheeky, maybe, but true enough.


  1. Yes, all of that. And then:

    There’s also the pragmatic function of WATCH THE GAP when using transportation, any transportation where there’s space between the vehicle and the platform. This particular WtG sign encourages us to do more than simply _notice_ there is a gap so that we may negotiate our way across it safely. Indeed, it seems to require that we _study_ the gap, at length, fixedly, perhaps for the entire span of time we must wait for our train to arrive. Keep your eyes on that gap, make sure you’ve got a posture that prevents a sore back because you’ll be there awhile.

    They don’t trust us to understand the physical layout of the situation? They are concerned we will miss something critical if we look elsewhere? Or, perhaps, they know there is metaphysical content we will fail to inculcate if we don’t hold our gaze long enough?

    • I admire the man’s concentration. It makes me think that he is doing this out of love, watching the gap for love. Is there any other conceivable reason that would make someone concentrate on anything with that intensity? In some sense he is an artist, I suppose, for the sheer concentration of effort that he demonstrates. Kafka’s Hunger Artist is a literary analogue to this WtG man. There’s a scene in a stage adaptation of the story (by the Polish playwright Tadeusz Różewiczs) where the circus manager’s wife, taking pity on the Hunger Artist, who is wasting away, stuffs her nipple in his mouth, hoping that he will suckle from it. But he does not. He cannot. The BART WtG man would no doubt refuse a Grandé caramel latte or a New York Times or a game of Angry Birds too. He cannot. He MUST WATCH. He watches for all of us.

  2. Diana

    “I used to think that after we are gone
    there’s nothing, simply nothing at all.
    Then who’s that wandering by the porch
    again and calling us by name?
    Whose face is pressed against the frosted pane?
    What hand out there is waving like a branch?
    By way of reply, in that cobwebbed corner
    a sunstruck tatter dances in the mirror.”

    — From “March Elegy,” Anna Akhmatova

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