In a Manner of Seeing

A writer explores the essence of sight and realization

QUITE by chance I have been reading a collection of essays. They are a mixed lot, but I keep bumping into ``seeing'' as I read them. In an essay called ``Seeing,'' for example, Annie Dillard suggests that discovery, using our sight to see, is a ``free gift of the universe.'' She discusses passages she's read in the book ``Space and Sight'' by Marius von Senden. These passages give accounts of how people, blind from birth, cope with the gift of sight provided them by successful operations.

``For the newly sighted,'' she writes, ``vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.''

I think of a friend who has a new baby. She's told my wife that her two daughters carry the baby around, making faces at him and each other, while the baby just stares at their ears. I wonder what the baby sees. For now, I presume, he perceives ears simply as a play of light and shadow which changes constantly as both light and ears move.

Dillard goes on to say: ``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.''

My friend's baby will undoubtedly reach out to touch his sister's ears. After innumerable repetitions of this act he will achieve some notion of the fact that ears have form and consistency. Pinching them may even make his sisters say: ``Ouch!''

But how long will it take for the baby to realize that ears also have function? And does this realization have to do with eye-seeing? Or with mind-seeing? Isn't ``realization'' a way of seeing with our minds?

And yet we teach babies to see the way we see. Surely mind-seeing has something to do with the way the baby will learn to perceive. This learning - is that the part that is ``tormentingly difficult'' for newly sighted adults?

At what point do infants begin to perceive ears less as a play of light and shadow and more as mechanisms of hearing or objects that when pinched cause their owners to say ``Ouch!''? Once babies learn these things, will they ever again perceive ears as light and shadow except with a conscious retraining of their eyes?

In an essay called ``Not Looking at Pictures,'' E.M. Forster pokes fun at the difficulty of this retraining. ``Pictures are not easy to look at,'' he writes. ``They were intended to appeal to the eye, but almost as if it were gazing at the sun itself, the eye often reacts by closing as soon as it catches sight of them. The mind takes charge instead and goes off on some alien vision.''

Loren Eiseley reports a similar problem. For him the mind ``has become a kind of unseen artist's loft. There are pictures that hang askew, pictures with outlines barely chalked in, pictures torn, pictures the artist has striven unsuccessfully to erase....''

He relates a visit to a painter friend who does landscapes and buildings. When Eiseley looks at the friend's latest painting, he sees the face of a fox. But the artist has painted no fox in the picture. When Eiseley starts to point it out, he threatens to make the fox visible to the artist and thereby destroy the picture for the man who painted it.

At this same time I am aware of an earlier exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It explores the advent of Cubism - Braque and Picasso pushing beyond the frontiers explored by C'ezanne. They train their vision not to see objects, depths, or shadows, not to see ears as functional mechanisms, in other words, but instead to see shapes, cubes, planes.

As I write, I look about my office trying to see this way. I can do it only by looking at objects by not looking at them, by letting my sight enter a shadow shape and then ``see'' other shapes in my peripheral vision. It is not ``tormentingly difficult,'' but it takes thought and concentration. Discerning shapes, cubes, and planes no longer seems a natural way to see.

At this same time I have gone to the nearby university to attend a symposium on an art exhibition called ``Central European Drawings 1680-1800.'' Not my sort of thing really; drawings leave me cold. But after a season of football watching, maybe I owe a Saturday to art.

A Polish scholar shows slides of religious statues carved by a man known only as Pingel, a master of what the speaker terms ``the forgotten Lvov school of Rococo sculpture.'' Like the best art, these sculptures attempt the impossible.

For they are dancing; the folds of their garments are swinging, swirling, bouncing. The slides look like stop-action photos of a chorus line of saints, abbots, and patrons. These statues have never moved. But, amazingly, they are dancing.

That evening PBS shows the 1944 black-and-white movie ``Laura.'' I have never seen it. Has it become a ``classic'' mainly because of its best-ever theme song? Or is its plot as intriguing as it sounds: A detective falls in love with a woman whose murder he is investigating? I have to find out.

FROM the opening shots, ``Laura'' is wonderfully moody. But a bit disappointing as a story. (A nice play of light and shadow, in other words, but how well do those ears hear?) It seems dumb to me that Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney keep lighting cigarettes, taking a puff or two, posing with them, then tamping them out.

Then suddenly something gets into my eye. The cigarettes stop being mechanisms of stimulation, characterization, or '40s manners. They become instead accents of white in a composition of grays. The smoke curling off them forms moving patterns in stationary compositions.

Suddenly I find myself excited by a movie for the first time in months. Not by the plot or the acting, but by the play of light and shadow.

The art direction and cinematography are fantastic. Gene Tierney doesn't need to act; it's enough that changing patterns of light fall across her face. It doesn't matter that Dana Andrews takes off his coat improbably. Because a moment later he stands in the foreground - dark trousers, white shirt, dark hair - juxtaposed against Laura's portrait in the background - dark dress, white shoulders and face, dark hair. A lovely composition of whites and darks.

I suddenly notice backgrounds: a projection of light through venetian blinds on a wall, footsteps in snow, actors walking through rain as if through a beaded curtain.

There is a moment when the villain stands poised on a stairway. But who cares? Look at the curve of that column on the left! See how that shadow accents it! Notice the light behind the villain's silhouette? Catch the pilaster mid-right with those wonderful flutings; they take the curve of that column and turn it inside out.

EARLIER in the day watching slides of stationary art I wanted to tell those Rococo statues: ``Move! Dance!'' And now watching a moving picture I want to cry out: ``You are such a beautiful composition! Don't move!''

Something has definitely gotten into my eye. I'm seeing differently: not merely objects, not just functional mechanisms, but the play of light and shadow, the juxtaposition and interrelation of forms.

As I write, a three-day rainstorm is passing through. It offers plenty to delight my eye. For several days I move around in a state of heightened awareness, full of excitement.

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