The fine art of seeing.

As I do just about every week, I stopped off on the way home from work last Friday to check a couple of books out of the Fayetteville Public Library. I usually read quite a bit, and I try to keep the beast supplied with a plenitude of reasonably nutritious fare — otherwise I start browsing things like the back of my cereal box or the ingredients list on my Twinkies, and there are some things we really weren’t meant to know.

I don’t know what you’re going on about: I see Paul Krugman.

As I was settling in to dinner later that evening I picked up one of the books to enjoy during my meal — I know: a habit frowned upon in all the nicer homes, but an essential part of my digestive process. I fumbled the book briefly as I was sitting down, and a folded rectangle of paper fluttered out onto my chair.

Down one side of the paper was written, in a tiny handwriting like the footprints of bees, a list:

“Luxeuil; wandering Irish bishops & saints; Boniface of Grediton; Fulda; suburbicarian; the great anarchy; Chronicle of St. Gall by Elekchard IV; Lindisfarne.”

Upon opening the piece of paper, I found that it was a receipt of the kind that public libraries often provide these days, generated by their computerized inventory system. Oddly enough, the receipt was not from the library in whose book I found it, but from the University of Arkansas’ Mullin Library. There were three books listed on the receipt:

“Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World”, by Walker Percy; “Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer; “The Making of Europe: an Introduction to the History of European Unity”, by Christopher Dawson.

Of those three books, the only one I’ve read is the first, “Love in the Ruins”,  which I read about a month ago — taking it out of the Fayetteville library during the same week as this mysterious other person was borrowing a copy from the University.

No doubt you’re thinking: “What the hell is the point of all this?”  Guess what? There isn’t one! Yep, you’ve been had.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

 

— From the Poem “Jabberwocky”, appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there”, by Lewis Carroll

We are primates, underneath all the literature, and our history has left us blessed — or otherwise — with an amazing capacity to perceive patterns. We can look at a clump of shrubbery and spot the apple — or the snake — by the mere visual deviation of those objects from the general background of twigs and leaves. We see patterns, and we see things that interrupt those patterns. That perception kept our hungry ancestors from starving, and kept them out of the bellies of even hungrier predators.

For us, living in our modern world, these pattern recognition skills are still useful, but we’ve had to learn to analyze and interpret what our instinct picks out for us: we notice that one of the cars in the parking lot is moving relative to the others, so we don’t walk out in front of it; we see the fly in our soup, the typo in our term paper, the misplaced decimal in our income tax return, and we use our intelligence to decide how to interpret those things. At the same time, our animal awareness can cause us to force patterns that are not really there: faces in the clouds, writing on a seashell, the Virgin of Guadalupe on a grilled cheese sandwich. To be really useful all of this has to be filtered through the lifetimes of knowledge and insight that each of us has at his or her disposal, through education, through critical thinking, through personal experience.

There is an underlying logic to my mysterious list (“suburbicarian”? “the great anarchy”?) but I don’t know what it is. With a little study, I might come up with some reasonable guesses — I might be able to perceive a pattern — but I might just as likely end up trying to impose my own prejudices. Maybe it was a dyslexic’s grocery list. Maybe it was a secret communique from the Latverian Embassy to Doctor Doom’s covert agents in Northwest Arkansas.

And that, of course, is what art and poetry and almost any other human creative endeavor is all about. Read Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” and you’ll find yourself attaching images to the “borogoves” and the “slithy toves” even before Alice prevails upon Humpty Dumpty to explain what they are. Certainly every fortune teller since the days of Noah has understood that most human beings will create a narrative from the skimpiest fragments: A tall, dark stranger? What are the chances of running into one of those, purely by accident? Money changing hands? Rent’s due on Tuesday! How did she know?

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!’

– from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll

I love patterns that emerge from chaos, like a painting — which is, after all, nothing but dabs of paint on a flat surface — coalescing to show me a princess, or a steak dinner, or a racehorse, each with its own story, its own message, its own meanings to impart.  At the same time, I recognize that perceived patterns aren’t always real patterns, or that there may be legitimate patterns in a body of information, but not those that are immediately apparent. Economic statistics, election-year polling, charts and graphs of all kinds, they are all clouds or trees or oil-on-water rainbows. They can mean something, or nothing, or many things at once, depending on how you parse it out. As with a Monet painting of a haystack at at dawn or a parable from the Book of Matthew, we have to use both our instincts and our intellect to read the message.

I believe in the human role in global climate change; not because someone told me to, but because there is a vast body of data available today in which I can see certain patterns, informed by what I know personally and by the insights of people whose experience and expertise I trust. Other people may look at that same data and see cow farts, or volcanoes, or Elvis, or nothing at all. Within a generation or so, we’ll probably know whose interpretation was correct. On the other hand, I don’t think the alignment of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh and the wording of the Declaration of Independence are related through a common link to visiting aliens from Canopus.

But I could be wrong about climate change, and the Declaration could contain hidden instructions for how to build a warp drive, written in Canopian karbooble ink. We shall see.

We all observe — or very assiduously ignore — the stirring in the bushes, that’s part of our evolutionary birthright: what makes us human is our ability to think about it, to reason and analyze and decide for ourselves whether what’s in front of us is the apple or the snake.