It's All Right There

"We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted by crossing. Or it appears as declining development. The anthropologists among the criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo." — Nietzsche

"Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see. You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly." — Georges Perec

We like to believe, perhaps, that there is a surface of things that is transitory and, in the end, meaningless. Under this surface is what really matters: there lies the the truth of things.

But the world reveals itself, always and necessarily. Scratch away the surface and you scratch away life itself.  The trick is to learn to see the world.

Usually, we don't see.  Our vision is blinded by familiarity and fear — familiarity of what we know and expect; and fear of engagement with the overwhelming vitality of the now. And, of course, out of fear we rely on the familiar — we prefer to see the controlled dead rather than the sublime living.

Look around.  Everything is right there.  Not only all the information you need but all the information there is.  You might have to poke about a bit. You might have to squint. You may even need to close your eyes.  But you'll never have to sift it out because life happens in this world and nowhere else.

Now look at someone's face.  Really look at it.  See the overwhelming amount of information in the skin, the posture, the eyes, the rhythm of movements and twitches.  It's unbearable. We leak ourselves  continuously, relentlessly, necessarily. There are of course thoughts and fears and images in your head I can't see but if I look long enough and hard enough at you, I'll sense those thoughts and fears and images.

This is what psychics do: they read the wealth of information available, the information we tend to ignore out of fear. But just look and you, too, can see. It's obvious when we desire and are desired — you don't need the girl to say, "I want you," to know that she wants you and, at the same time, that she's a tad ambivalent, curious, cautious. You know all that. But still you ignore it, play dumb: "How am I supposed to know?" Because you do.  You see it on others. You can tell when that girl likes that boy. But when it comes to yourself, your engagement with the world, you turn blind.

We wear our experiences. We wear our lives on our faces and in our flesh. We wear our fears and thoughts and desires and images and histories. We are a cinema screen (and a camera at the same time).

The trick is knowing how to read it. The trick is not just listening to what people say but to how they say it. We know this most of the time — so and so protests too much, we thinks.  Which is to say, we read people's behaviors not just what they say. But we stop short of reading all the information they are giving us.

Look again at your lover's face while he or she is speaking, thinking, cooking, writing, sleeping.  Really look.  The complexity and plethora of pathos is sublime: it overwhelms.

And yet if we overcome this fear of sublimity, we'll be so much smarter. We'll understand why and how we feel the way we do, why and how we ended up here rather than there.  We'll know that our lovers speak of nonchalance but are in fact profoundly afraid of loneliness, of stillness; we'll know that even though they say they love you, they in fact love love; we'll know all the ambivalence that goes into every kiss.

Sometimes, to see means not staring at your lover's face but standing back to take in the lay of the land. You need to see the map of the territory and the trajectories that landed you here and where they'll most likely take you next. Like all things, seeing demands both touring and mapping your life. 

We live at the surface, always. This is not superficial, at least not in the sense of being false or "mere" surface. This is being empirical rather than blind. 


Ben said...

I really enjoyed the way this post made me reflect on the virtue of seeing. Another way to describe it might be Awareness. This is something I like to ponder often. It makes each one of us so very unique. Within the infinite realm of meanings and images, the way we choose to filter/assemble/process this information is most important. It is remarkably challenging to expand that aperture and allow more of it to wash over us, (in different wavelengths and colors). It is as overwhelming as it is rewarding. Perhaps what makes us scared to do so is a fear of loosing our indentity. Indentity is bound to seeing. If we change the way we see, we change who we are. This isn't always a bad thing, since we are not as static as we would wish to believe.

Daniel Coffeen said...

This is great — the sublimity of that much information erases our individuality which IS our filter, and vice versa. Yes yes yes. Thanks.

This happens to be people of acid sometimes — there is so much information pouring in, they becomes stilted, mute, afraid, evacuated.

Baby Shad said...

"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

-Andy Warhol

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Baby: Yes! I still love me some Warhol....

roca de carioca said...

"But the world reveals itself, always and necessarily. Scratch away the surface and you scratch away life itself. The trick is to learn to see the world."

“Scratch away the world and you scratch away life itself.” I think this is great especially because you’re talking about seeing while using hand acts (“scratching”) to describe it. And that’s great because it invites me to think of my hands and senses in different ways.

I often think of hands as my access to other parts of the world— the instruments of my sense of touch. It follows that I often think of my eyes as the instruments of my sense of sight.

I sometimes think it’s strange that hands were called hands and eyes were called eyes because when my hands are feeling and my eyes are seeing (doing what they “ought”?) it seems they should be called feelers and seers. But when I treat my eyes as tools of sight rather than seers (same with hands and feelers), I think it connotes them as something I might use to get somewhere (there) instead of being somewhere (here) (no Zen intended). Don’t tools connote the “scratching,” scraping in the dark, “[blindness]” to which Coffeen refers at the end there?

Curiously, when I’m thinking the opposite of each—that is, when I think of my eyes as feelers and my hands as seers—their sensory values take a different flight. (@Ben: changing the way we feel or smell or taste or hear also changes the way we are. Again, not a bad thing, but different, yes).

Seers, eyes, or windows unobstructed (cameras maybe?) observe the swirl of the everyday. As Coffeen mentioned, sometimes a blink, a reset, a rebooting or an obstruction of flow is what’s needed to engage the always-alreadiness of sublime living. And the obstruction, I think Coffeen is saying, is the fear of sublimity.

When my eyes really feel and sense the world I like to engage them like my palms engage liminality on the surface of a calm pool—buoyantly, with a little give and take and a spirit of exploration. When this happens, sensing floods in the space between my hand and the surface of the pool, which is still definitely the water and my hand and neither and both. Here, there is no space to scratch just to feel; just feeling. The phenomenon I witness is the gobsmacked (British for dumbfounded, learned it last week!) sense of the feeling I’m seeing with my hands in front of me!