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Horror Vacui

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March 18, 2024


HORROR VACUI: The unbearable density of being


I learned this expression “horror vacui” from my friend Andrew Smith who writes on the topic starting with the very crammed Garden of Earthly Delights painting by Hieronymus Bosch, filling every millimeter of canvas with his excessively delightful brand of human chaos.

The phenomenon of horror vacui from the Latin for fear of empty space, is traditionally applied to visual art, but also took a fun historical detour into the darkness of physics. From Wikipedia:

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In visual art, horror vacui (Latin for ‘fear of empty space’; UK: /ˌhɒrə ˈvækjuaɪ/; US: /- ˈvɑːk-/), or kenophobia (Greek for ‘fear of the empty’), is a phenomenon in which the entire surface of a space or an artwork is filled with detail and content, leaving as little perceived emptiness as possible. It relates to the antiquated physical idea, horror vacui, proposed by Aristotle who held that “nature abhors an empty space.”

Aristotle asserted this theory—which most everyone after refuted—that “nature contains no vacuums because the denser surrounding material continuum would immediately fill the rarity of an incipient void. He also argued against the void in a more abstract sense (as “separable”), for example, that by definition a void (equivocally?) itself, is nothing, and following Plato, nothing cannot rightly be said to exist.”

His horror vacui was also called “plenism” (from Latin plēnum, for “plenty” or “fullness.” The void in Greek is τὸ κενόν (to kenón), thus “kenophobia.” Horror vacui was often restated as “nature abhors a vacuum” from François Rabelais in his series of books called Gargantua and Pantagruel of the 1530s.

Scientists later asserted that nothing could exist, rather than the double negative “nothing cannot” be. But the void as we know it seems complicated and potentially quite dense and measurable. Now we face figures that up to 85% of the total matter and energy of the universe is “dark,” which doesn’t mean it’s nothing but rather just mysterious to us. From NASA,

Astronomers didn’t even know dark matter existed until the 20th century. In the 1930s, Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky coined the term while studying the Coma galaxy cluster, which contains more than 1,000 galaxies. The speed at which galaxies within a galaxy cluster move depends on the cluster’s total mass and size. Zwicky noticed that galaxies in the Coma cluster were moving faster than could be explained by the amount of matter astronomers could see there.


Scientists today think dark matter exists in a vast, web-like structure that winds through the whole universe—a gravitational scaffold that attracts most of the cosmos’ normal matter. They’ve determined that dark matter isn’t composed of known particles of matter because the universe would look very different if it were. The search for what makes up dark matter continues.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured the magnificent starry population of the Coma galaxy cluster, one of the densest-known galaxy collections. The view, spanning several million light-years across, covers a large portion near the cluster’s center. From: NASA

Another seemingly empty phenomenon of space actually containing massive amounts of matter we can’t fathom are black holes. Again from NASA,

Black holes are among the most mysterious cosmic objects, much studied but not fully understood. These objects aren’t really holes. They’re huge concentrations of matter packed into very tiny spaces. A black hole is so dense that gravity just beneath its surface, the event horizon, is strong enough that nothing—not even light—can escape. The event horizon isn’t a surface like Earth’s or even the Sun’s. It’s a boundary that contains all the matter that makes up the black hole.

And what black holes are not—“Cosmic vacuum cleaners. Black holes don’t suck in other matter. From far enough away, their gravitational effects are just like those of other objects of the same mass.”


I could have used this elusive cosmic vacuum when I had two young girls trashing a small crammed house. We would go comb the Hudson beaches for unique rocks and treasures, but sometimes just discover and sort the mysterious matter under our living room couch:

Under the couch haul, 2012

Even though out of favor, I still think Aristotle’s instincts ring true that blank spaces have a tendency to be filled, or at least that we humans seem to have an innate compulsion to fill them. Emptiness makes us itchy. We can readily apply the idea of horror vacui more widely to our entire daily existence. Our contemporary equivalent of the Fear of Empty Space is best exemplified by our continual bad habit of grabbing at our smartphones any moment we find ourselves waiting or feeling some pang of ennuior malaise or melancholy setting in (why are these blah feelings so often French?) and mindlessly doing the ol’ doom scroll to numbing oblivion. It used to be that folks exited the NYC subway and lit a cigarette to busy themselves milling at the corner for a friend or walking the few blocks home. Now it’s phones, everywhere phones, merged with our hands, heads down. We are conjoined. Siamese, shared organs between our nervous system and this warm vibrating device. How it keeps our twittering heart abeat when it bleats. Dare I say, smoking seemed almost healthier in comparison to this contorted freakery.

The horror vacui in living, and writing, is a real fear—facing that blank page, the silence, the white space, the loneliness. Just getting started here each time I embark on a new essay is a feat. And then, once started, the compulsion to overdo it, the voices in the background trying to break kneecaps, that it’s not enough, more research required, more revealing, until uh oh, it went from zero to sixty, and then maybe I overdid it on, say, an unsavory subject like Kafka cockroaches, and it all became too much.

When I first started sharing my creative writing in college it was as if the Hoover Dam had breached. William Faulkner was my literary founding father, the first author that really planted a viral seed in my young mind that I wanted to be A Writer Like That. Everything from The Sound and the Fury to more obscure Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!—I dog-eared them to deathonly reinforced my instinct for overspeak. “That’s a lot, wow” said some note in the margins from peers, and also, bewilderment, “What are you going for here? What’s this actually about?”

I have asserted myself as the anti-Hemingway—so severe and spare he seemed, violently twisting every wet towel dry—preferring instead the purple prose flourishes of Shakespeare, Nabokov, Morrison. It’s the same with my musical taste: opting for overcomposed Björk over minimalistic Philip Glass. Layers, textures, more is more.

Living with my dad, my actual founding father, being very full of himself and possibly a narcissist, meant there was very little room growing up to be heard. My tendency to write rather than speak started as soon as I established penmanship and knew I needed another medium since I couldn’t get an outloud word in edgewise. I wrote to my parents, and even to God, long letters itemizing complaints that still went unheeded. I got used to sending words into the void, one-sided, so the rejection that comes later as a rule for a fledgling fiction writer was already part of my psyche. Even in more recent years, I wrote my elderly parents treatises for gun control and against Trump, which obviously effectively produced great results that changed the course of our country.

Against the backdrop of a few quintessential overbearing men, I zigzag between the insecurity bookends of not enough and the too much, more of a female plight of mind for sure. The other words used against us women who dare express with our emotions: Calm down, shut up, chill out, relax—even if it’s just internalized. “Too much” when I anxiously attached to my ghoster and haunted his inbox for days, rattling the cage bars unrequited. My demands of more communication leading up to this were “too much,” as asking for change does anything but inspire change. That unstoppable need to prove how special I am on a first date instead of finding out first if the dude is worthy of such specialness. The endless pursuit of productivity that turns me into my spirit animal: the hummingbird, nervously ever-flitting. If I risk being too much in life, am I also often too much in words? And how painful when I open the Pandora’s Box for someone and the words aren’t well-received, or worse: ignored. My poor tumbling Tower of Babel.

ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

But I have my limits. As a visual person, the density of books that number too many pages and the pages too full of words like Mark Danielewski’s tome House of Leaves, collecting dust and never read on my bookshelf, are overwhelming, full of hubris. There’s no room to fit myself in there, the footnotes take up all the oxygen. My parents were hoarders after all, so my survival instinct or rebellious tendency is—mostly—not to be. I have found myself in recent years throwing away more than I keep, getting more industrial and modern and less decorated in both style and soul.

The older I get, the more my former attraction to density can sometimes tip into revulsion and overwhelm. After enjoying a quieter week of childlessness in the alternating weeks of my custody, I get claustrophobic when the car is full again of chattering teens who want to determine the playlist and where we’ll go spend the money. Motherhood, in all its shapeshifting, can be a house of windows and no locks, no privacy, no boundaries, no quiet, no delineated self. I am, after all, an introvert and must retreat inside my shell to refuel, repair, regroup so this role, to say the least, isn’t an easy fit. Divorce meant true time off from parenting and these reprieves are a gift. In and out I can now go, from blank slate to the predetermined. Navigating between the poles of my being, week to week, mother to not-mother, populated to solitary, dinner prep to empty fridge, stressed mess to tidy bookworm. I’m not good at this, and I’m good at this.

So this month, for no particular reason, I want to face the void with fearlessness, impose less words on this space than my usual, write less, work less, because everyone, even me the hummingbird, needs a break. And this topic already has spawned other ideas in my head to explore for the coming weeks—white space, silence, writer’s block—where I have readymade language to borrow from my former writing instructor days, still quite applicable to regular life.

I want to steep in my own juices, stay still, speak less, listen more. Embrace the emptiness. Stare into the abyss. Turn the phone upside down, ringer off. Not text just anyone alive as filler for the sake of a dopamine hit. Not need to fill every evening with work after work. The warmer weather helps. I could run to the river when I got home yesterday thanks to this Daylight Savings that gains us more precious daylight time, where I hope we can stay now. If the urge to scroll sets in for no reason at all, I will find something “useful” to do instead. And by useful, I don’t mean my usual busybodiness just for the sake of it. Live with intention. Be present. Look around while I wait in the Walgreens line. Maybe even make a friend or reach out to an old one. Call my mom. Finally read A Handmaid’s Tale, with its horror of a different sort that forever resonates with the horrors of our crowded world. Learn to knit red hearts over the moth holes in my favorite black sweater. Or better yet, breathe. Do nothing. Be.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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