“Open Our Eyes”
Earth, Wind, and Fire
Academy of Ancient Music
From The Creation, “Die Vorstellung Des Chaos”
Franz Joseph Haydn
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir
Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
“It’s Only a Paper Moon”
Billy Rose/Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg
Galileo Moon 1
Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius
So a man walks into a bookstore with a very old book to sell. The story is told in an article from the L. A. Review of Books, “Faking Galileo.” The very old book the man was selling was believed to be Galileo’s working copy of Sidereus Nuncius and after having been authenticated by people whose business it is to know about such things it was valued at ten million dollars. Of course the book was a forgery. The book itself documents discoveries Galileo made about the nature of the universe and the celestial bodies that travel through it. The most profound discovery at the time concerned the nature of the moon and its surface. Galileo had telescopes he made himself that were more powerful than those used by other astronomers but what he saw on the surface of the moon was clearly visible to other astronomers. Though others saw what Galileo saw they did not see as Galileo saw. Massimo Mazzotti, the author of the article, explains:
The first thing Galileo discovered was that the moon was not smooth and homogeneous, as everyone believed. Instead, it was covered with craters and mountains whose peaks became awash with light when the “terminator” — the line that separates the illuminated and dark parts of the moon — inched forward through the night. Art historians Samuel Edgerton and Horst Bredekamp have written insightfully about how his skills as a draftsman were key to this discovery. Young artists in training during this period were drilled on treatises designed to, in effect, reshape their perception, so that they unthinkingly interpreted certain configurations of two-dimensional light and dark shapes as the surfaces of three-dimensional figures hit by a light source. Galileo’s draftsman eye thus gave him a crucial advantage over other observers, such as Englishman Thomas Harriot, who, a couple of months earlier, had carried out the first recorded telescopic observation of the moon. To Harriot the moon remained smooth and the terminator a fairly clean line. He only saw mountains and craters after he learned of Galileo’s novel description.
This suggests there is more to “seeing” than looking. The astronomers of Galileo’s day saw what they had been trained to see, a smooth surfaced celestial globe. Galileo looked differently, as a trained artist looks, and recognized what others did not know how to see.
All Is Vanity
Charles Allan Gilbert
In light of what Galileo’s book is about it is ironic that those that authenticated the book as Galileo’s proof copy made much the same mistake that Harriot made. In looking at the book they saw what they expected to see:
Until recently, forged printed texts have been relatively uncommon, and most of them have been produced with techniques that did not give depth to the typographic characters. One of the reasons ML (Martayan Lan, the name of the bookstore owned by the man that bought the book) rang true was the way its characters bit the paper. But the forger exaggerated this feature: the printing was deeper than it should have been in a 17th-century book. Similarly, the soiling on the pages and the impurities in the paper were overdone. These features were designed to meet the expectations of an expert assessor. In other words, only a forgery could have seemed so authentic. The ML’s many typographic anomalies were chalked up to ML being a proof copy, and thus they ended up reinforcing the perception of its authenticity. When the international team of experts met to analyze ML in 2008, they already shared a collective representation of ML as a collection of proof printings, one that contained drawings that had been authoritatively authenticated. The evidence that they encountered seemed consistent with this representation.
As in the illustration above we often see what we expect to see. Many on first viewing Charles Allan Gilbert’s illustration All Is Vanity see only a woman at dressing table, a “vanity.” That is what I saw when I first saw the picture. But once pointed out, it is difficult to understand why it was you could not see the skull all along. Perhaps this painting by Hans Holbein is a better example of learning to see correctly as the skull in this painting is not so easily found. Even when you know it is that odd object on the carpet at the ambassador’s feet it is not always easy to recognize as a skull. You have to train yourself to look at it correctly if you are to see it at all.
Hans Holbein, the Younger
But this, seeing what others miss by looking through unconventional lenses, is not new, it has long been understood that those that innovate and see what others cannot often do so because they are skilled in more than one discipline, as Galileo was both a scientist and an artist (though his artwork is not as enduring perhaps as his science). It is often a temptation when looking at things to look for what is familiar because this gives us the easiest access to this new thing. We look for ways to make the unfamiliar, familiar. In the case of the Galileo forgery:
Much in this story has to do with similarity relationships: we came across instances of the same stamp, the same watermark, the same signature, which ended up not being the same at all. The point is that no two perceptible objects are ever identical: we have to learn which traits are important, and what can be ignored. We have to train our eye and our judgment, and we can only do so in coordination with other practitioners. One implication of this view is that there is no uncontested way to split empirical evidence from the knowledge of the observer. Knowledge, no matter how technical, always bears the marks of its historical contingency.
It is sometimes the case that being similar is different from being the same and when this is the case if we are to understand what we are looking at it is more important to become “familiar” with the differences and pay less attention to, or even ignore, the similarities. Perhaps this is a danger in an age that values specialization so highly that we end up closing our eyes to what is not essential to our area of specialization and in so doing blind ourselves to what innovates and transforms our area of specialization. Perhaps “thinking differently” begins at times with “seeing differently.”
Ptolemaic Geocentric Model
from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius
Stephen Greenblatt in writing about the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare, “Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne,” observes, “The angle at which one regards an object, even so intimately familiar an object as oneself, would necessarily change the terms of a depiction. But it is not only a matter of the shifting position of the beholder; rather it is the inner life of the self, as well as the position of the viewer, that is constantly in motion.” It is important to change our perspective, “the angle at which (we) regard an object” if we are to know it fully and this is especially true of how we look at ourselves if we are ever to fully know ourselves, or as Greenblatt quotes Montaigne, “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.” We enjoy discovering that we are “wise,” but often conceal from ourselves our foolishness. Of course fooling ourselves is often easier than fooling others.
Sometimes learning to see properly has more to do with “paying attention” than with looking differently. In the painting above we read the title, The Harvesters, and focus on the foreground of the painting, the “harvesters,” those that are working and those that are resting. This fills up about two-thirds of the painting and is clearly important. But what a about that other third of the painting, why is it there if we are not supposed to look at it and appreciate what is depicted there. Is it just filler designed to frame what is important in the painting? Perhaps. But there are interesting things going on where we often do not look.
The Haresters – Detail People on the Road
In the detail above, which fills the upper left hand corner of the painting, we see something else going on. There are some people walking along a road and what looks like a wagon carrying what, perhaps, has been harvested in other fields. This detail, though not essential to the painting’s theme, does contribute by illustrating the next step in the process, that is, what happens after the harvesters, harvest. But there are still the two figures that appear to be walking down the road uninvolved, perhaps, with the harvest. But what about this detail:
The Haresters – Detail Child Running Away
There is no work being done here, there are what appear to be children, and adults also, at play. One youngster looks like he is running away from one of the adults. It is difficult to see what game it is they are playing, it looks like it might be field hockey or something like it; at least one person has what looks like a stick of some sort and there appears to be a goal behind them. Perhaps the message in all this is simply that while the important work of the day is being done life goes on, and in an agrarian society the harvest is among the most important work that is done. It is also work that must be accomplished within a narrow window of time if the harvest is to be fully realized. But even during the most important work of the day, everyday life goes on, the simple things that make up a lifetime continue to take place. While people work others play and others travel.
The painting suggests that everything is important and has its place. The focus may be on the more important work of the day, but life does not stop, even at the time of the harvest. Who is to say that play is not also important and does not also have its place in the lives we lead? But not everyone in this detail is playing. There is a group that appears to be talking and this too is important. It is in conversation that friendships are formed and affirmed as well as other relationships, work relationships, romantic relationships, community relationships. It should also be remembered that these small details that are so hard to see in the painting when reduced to a size that fits on a page are a bit more noticeable when the original painting is viewed in its proper size. Perhaps there, these details are not so easily missed, though I think they are still easily dismissed. Perhaps this is an important skill that art and art appreciation teach us, that everything in life is important to some degree and that it is important to look not just at the important things going on around us, but the mundane and “unessential” things as well.
Bison in the Nave at Lascaux
The painting above is from a cave in France. This suggests another aspect of seeing. The painting is of bison, buffalo. When I see bison I think of the American west. If I did not know where this painting was made, I might assume the cave wall that is depicted here was in Utah or New Mexico. I would make assumptions about the painting based on what I know. How does the knowledge that this cave is found in France change the way I look at the painting and its subject? What happened to the bison that once roamed the plains of France? What did the plains of France look like when bison roamed them? Is it important that bison once roamed the plains of France? It suggests that the world and perhaps its people are more connected than we often assume. If the red on the one buffalo is blood, it suggests the painting depicts a hunt. Were the buffalo of France hunted in the same way as the buffalo of the American plains? If nothing else, it gives some pleasure to imagine prehistoric Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen, perhaps) on the plains of France hunting the buffalo as Native Americans did on the plains of America.
Country Road in Provence by Night
Vincent Van Gogh
Galileo, among others, changed the way we look at the sun and moon. Van Gogh in this paintings looks at the sun and moon differently still. His way of seeing the sun and moon did not revolutionize science, but it captured ways the sun and moon play upon our imaginations, it captured a magic in the natural world that affects our emotions more than our intellect. Is this perception of the natural world less real because it engages the emotions and not the intellect? How the painting affects our view of the cosmos is probably less important than how it affects us aesthetically. The importance of this way of thinking and seeing probably depends largely on our view of beauty and its importance. If the presence of beauty does not change the world or the people in it, than perhaps it is not that important, but if it does change us, if it speaks to a truth we do not otherwise see, than maybe it is important.
View of Delft
That beauty affects human beings profoundly is difficult to deny. We do not only build ourselves houses, we build our houses with details that are unnecessary to its function as shelter. Stained glass windows, for example, are not only unnecessary, they are not functional. You cannot see through a stained glass window and the staining inhibits the sunlight. It interferes with the practicality of shelter. But while interfering with the practical it enhances the pleasure one gets from living in the shelter. The same is true of paint, carpets, and furniture. There is something in the human psyche that desires not only a functional space, but a beautiful space. In the Vermeer painting we see buildings that are functional, but we also see details that are unnecessary, but pleasing to the eye, spires, red roofs, arched rather than squared doorways. If beauty does nothing else it is calming, it relaxes us. Perhaps it is a part of the way of seeing of the artist that sees beauty where the rest of us see only the ordinary and undistinguished. This is not to suggest that all ornament is beautiful, only to suggest that the desire for ornament leads to a desire for the beautiful. Of course this doesn’t answer the question, to what extent can we trust our desires, are they always truthful?
Still, though desirability may not in itself make a thing good and true, it is difficult to imagine something being good and true and not being desirable. When Pinocchio is enticed to run off to Toyland and play all day long, it is a desire for play that leads him astray. This desire is not entirely false; it is just false to the extreme Pinocchio takes it. It is a good thing within moderation and it is the moderation that is missing. But even if this desire of Pinocchio’s is entirely false and deceiving, this does not make desire itself a bad thing. Because whatever we make of Pinocchio’s experience, there is also the experience of Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Dickens’ Hard Times. There is nothing desirable about Mr. Gradgrind’s educational program and it is its undesirability that first calls it into question; that causes us to doubt its efficacy. It is not just that no one wants to go to Gradgrind’s school; there is not much of value that is learned there.
The film tells a story about seeing. There are four witnesses to a crime, but no one sees the same crime being committed. In fact not all witnesses witnessed a crime. In this story perspective, the angle from which a thing is seen, literally determines what is seen. As a story it reminds us that we each bring a perspective to our experience of the world. This perspective determines how we understand much of what we see and experience. We cannot know the true interpretation of what happens in Rashomon unless we know which angle from which the event was witnessed reveals the “whole” event. In the Renaissance Theater there was one seat, “the eye of the duke” from which the whole stage was in perfect perspective. Only from this seat was all of what was seen on stage seen as it was intended to be seen. From every other seat the perspective is not perfect and the picture within the proscenium is to some degree askew. Perhaps none of the characters in Rashomon observes the crime from “the eye of the duke,” but even if no one saw it from this angle, the angle exists which puts the whole scene in perfect perspective.
This is not just true for how we look at the events in a story; it is true for how we read stories in general. This is not to say that there is only one way to read rightly, but that some things are more worth reading than others and it is important to know how our own tastes and interests can interfere with our judgments about what we read. Arthur Krystal in an article for Harper’s Magazine, “What Is Literature,” observes:
Eighty-five years ago, in The Whirligig of Taste, the British writer E. E. Kellett disabused absolutists of the notion that books are read the same way by successive generations. Kellett concluded his short but far-ranging survey by noting that “almost all critical judgment . . . is in the main built on prejudice.” This, of course, makes consensus about books only slightly more probable than time travel. But if there is even a remote chance of its happening, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our own deep-seated preferences. The adept critic Desmond MacCarthy once observed that:
one cannot get away from one’s temperament any more than one can jump away from one’s shadow, but one can discount the emphasis which it produces. I snub my own temperament when I think it is not leading me straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.
Although the snubbing of temperament is not easily accomplished, we can try. We can move from being ecstatic readers to being critical readers, hesitating to defend a book because we like it or condemn it because we don’t. For when it comes to books, it isn’t always wise to follow our bliss when bliss gets in the way of reason, and reason alone should be sufficient to tell us that War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of the Worlds, no matter which one we prefer to reread.
We should be able to enjoy all the books we read, we should read what we read because we find what we read desirable. The issue is not entirely that War of the Worlds is a desirable book to read and War and Peace is not, if we read both books we read them because, hopefully, they are both desirable books to read. But, whichever book is more “fun” to read, War and Peace gives us more in return for the time invested in the reading of it. And even if we enjoy War of the Worlds more, if we are serious and perceptive readers we are aware, that there is more to Mr. Tolstoy’s book than there is to that of Mr. Wells.
This also suggests desire can take on many forms. We can desire to do, in this case to read, something because it is fun and we can desire to do something because it enriches us. These are different desires for different things and there is good to be gained from both. Recognizing the superiority of War and Peace as literature does not diminish the pleasure we get from reading War of the Worlds.
Boulevard Montmartre la nuit
But what of reading? Whether it is Mr. Wells or Mr. Tolstoy we are reading, what is the value in it? What good does it do; what does it change; what does it add to the world? When we are done reading we do not have a building we can occupy, a car we can drive, or a computer we can compute with. But there is little doubt that reading changes those that read seriously and well. When I read a book my imagination is stimulated, that is a real stimulation in the real world. My mind is moved to consider points of view, philosophies towards life, to look at behaviors and assess their value, their rightness or wrongness; the good and the evil that is in them. These are real thoughts about real issues that affect the way people live and interact in the real world. I am also moved to feel things; my emotions are aroused. These are real emotions. It may be that that which evoked those emotions is totally imaginary, but though imaginary they are grounded in something that is real; the injustice that arouses my anger may be an imaginary injustice, but injustice in the world is not imaginary and it is important to think about how we ought to respond to injustice before we are called upon to respond to it. We should know what it means to be loyal and the demands of loyalty before we are in situations where we must prove our loyalty. But there is more to it than this. Harold Bloom in an interview in The Paris Review, “The Art of Criticism No. 1, Harold Bloom,” talked about his early experience with reading poetry:
I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it?
Galileo Moon 2
Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius
Perhaps this experience is inexplicable to any who have not experienced it, but for those that have had this experience or one like it, it is a very real thing and it changes who we are as people and how we view the world and the people in it. It is being personally touched by the beautiful and transformed by it. Galileo’s book Sidereus Nuncius changed the world. It identified something true about how the cosmos worked and how it is to be understood. Many who have read and been stirred by Milton’s Paradise Lost look at the cosmos differently. Even those like Phillip Pullman and C. S. Lewis who read this poem very differently and whose view of the cosmos was altered in radically different ways were more than entertained by this poem. They were both entertained, but that was just the beginning. We cannot look into a book and come away from it unchanged, unless we never learned how to look in the first place. If I look into a book and see the flat surfaces I expected to see, it is because I have not trained my eye to interpret the shadows that reveal the true contours of the landscape.
River Landscape with a Windmill