Working from observation, one quickly realizes that the whole process of seeing is complicated. Most of us take seeing largely for granted, just as we do our ability to speak our native tongue. We navigate space with hardly a thought except when some ambiguity – the lack of a clear overlap, an episode of camouflage in the visual field – interrupts the seamless division of figure and ground that dominates our perceptual process and wakens a higher than usual alertness as we struggle to make out what’s going on.
Seeing is not the automatic result of looking. People assume that everyone sees equally and that artists are those who have a “talent” to do something with what they see. In fact, most of us, artists included, go through our days in a kind of auto-pilot mode, filtering out 95% of the sensation that greets our eyes. Artists, when they are on duty, are different only in the decision to look, to direct the gaze, to spend time attending to the appearances of things. (That is one thing artists have in common with thieves: they both look inappropriately long at things.)
The common utterance, “Ahh, NOW I see!” whenever a new understanding comes washing into our minds is telling. The kind of seeing that allows painting to go forward is a kind of opening, a shift in perspective, in which the relations between things alter, configuring sense and meaning where before all was opacity and obscurity. Everything is as it was before, only we have changed. The texture of our thoughts in those moments seems to change, not unlike the experience of those magic 3-D illusions that come into being when we shift our focus a certain way.
Annie Dillard’s marvelous book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, explores this business of seeing throughout, but especially so in a chapter titled, not inappropriately, “Seeing.” A section in which she talks about those who are newly sighted after being born blind has always struck me as important information for students of painting. For many years I gave this essay to my students. I think I will start doing so again.
From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, an excerpt from the chapter, Seeing:
I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating. Many doctors had tested their patients’ sense perceptions and ideas of space both before and after the operations. The vast majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, had, in von Senden’s opinion, no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables. A patient “had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness.” Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and asphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. One patient called lemonade “square” because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands. Of another postoperative patient, the doctor writes, “I have found in her no notion of size, for example, not even within the narrow limits which she might have encompassed with the aid of touch. Thus when I asked her to show me how big her mother was, she did not stretch out her hands, but set her two index-fingers a few inches apart.” Other doctors reported their patients’ own statements to similar effect. “The room he was in… he knew to be but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look bigger;” “Those who are blind from birth… have no real conception of height, or distance. A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps… The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal.”
For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” Again, “I asked the patient what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive field of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, and in motion. He could not distinguish objects.” Another patient saw “nothing but a confusion of forms and colours.” When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, she asked ” ‘ Why do they put those dark marks all over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those are shadows. That is one of the ways the eye knows that things have shape. If it were not for shadows many things would look flat.’ ‘Well, that’s how things do look,” Joan answered. ‘Everything looks flat with dark patches.’ “
But it is the patients’ concepts of space that are most revealing. One patient, according to his doctor, “practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets hold of it.” “But even at this stage, after three weeks’ experience of seeing,” von Senden goes on, ” ‘space,’ as he conceives it, ends with visual space, i.e., with colour-patches that happen to bound his view. He does not yet have the notion that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present even though it is not directly seen,”
In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. Soon after his operation a patient “generally bumps into one of these colour-patches and observes them to be substantial, since they resist him as tactual objects do. In walking about it also strikes him – or can if he pays attention – that he is continually passing in between the colours he sees, that he can go past a visual object, that a part of it then steadily disappears from view; and that in spite of this, however, however he twists and turns – whether entering the room from the door, for example, or returning back to it – he always has a visual space in front of him. Thus he gradually comes to realize that there is also a space behind him, which he does not see.”
The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. “The child can see, but will not make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficulty be brought to look at objects in his neighbourhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir him to the necessary effort.” Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” A fifteen year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it any more; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.”
Some do learn to see, especially the young ones. But it changes their lives. One doctor comments on “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression. While he was blind he was indifferent to objects unless they were edible; now, “a sifting of values sets in… his thoughts and wishes are mightily stirred and some few of the patients are thereby led to dissimulation, envy, theft and fraud.”
On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is “something bright and then holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out, “It is dark, blue and shiny… It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as “the tree with the lights in it.” Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, “The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.” One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that “men do not really look like trees at all,” and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face. Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!”
I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes, intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn’t sustain the illusion of flatness. I’ve been around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn’t unpeach the peaches. Nor can I remember ever having seen without understanding; the color-patches of infancy are lost. My brain then must have been as smooth as any balloon. I’m told I reached for the moon; many babies do. But the color-patches of infancy swelled as meaning filled them; they arrayed themselves in solemn ranks down distances which unrolled and stretched before me like a plain. The moon rocketed away. I live now in a world of shadows that shape and distance color, a world where space makes a kind of terrible sense. What gnosticism is this, and what physics? The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window – silver and green and shape-shifting blue – is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn. That humming oblong creature pale as light that stole along the walls of my room at night, stretching exhilaratingly around the corners, is gone, too, gone the night I ate of the bittersweet fruit, put two and two together and puckered forever my brain. Martin Buber tells this tale: “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things any more.’”
Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names. The scales would drop from my eyes; I’d see trees like men walking; I’d run down the road against all orders, hallooing and leaping.
Read the full chapter, Seeing, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.