Brain Pickings

Annie Dillard on How to Live with Mystery, the Two Ways of Looking, and the Secret of Seeing

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“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

In her 1984 novel The Lover, Marguerite Duras wrote that “the art of seeing has to be learned.” It is a sentiment at once poetic and practical — cognitive science now knows that our brains invest a great deal of resources in learning to unsee and tune out irrelevant stimuli, which is why “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

Anything that can be learned can be taught, and there is hardly a greater teacher in the art of seeing than Annie Dillard — an astute and lyrical observer of the world, both inner and outer, and a supreme enchantress of aliveness. Her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) is one of those rare treasures best described as secular scripture, partway between Thoreau and Mary Oliver. In this gift of a book, Dillard explores seeing as an act of love (“The lover can see, and the knowledgeable,” she writes in one of her bestirring asides), but also as a monumental task for which we are chronically and profoundly underequipped (“My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head,” she observes with sweet resignation; “I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect.”).

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

Dillard writes:

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

[…]

I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks … are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.

Indeed, this uncertainty of vision is necessary if we are to befriend the mystery we call life — for the wider a view we take in observing that mystery, the more space for uncertainty there is. Dillard explores this with enormous wisdom and grace in another passage, using the word “we” with the perhaps intentional ambiguity of connoting both the universality of all human beings and the subset of humans who call ourselves writers. (For, lest we forget, “a writer is a professional observer.”) She reflects:

We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

'Beams of Light Through Glass' (1960) from Berenice Abbott's 'Documenting Science.' Click image for more.

The darkness, indeed, suits us — too much illumination can be paralyzing. (This happened quite literally when electric light was first introduced, but it is also part of our spiritual pathology as we spend much of our lives almost completely opaque to ourselves.) Citing one of Van Gogh’s stirring letters to his brother“Still,” he wrote, “a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Dillard reflects on the counterpoints that define our existence:

If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.

Dillard illustrates this in the most visceral of ways imaginable. Referencing a wonderful and wonderfully obscure 1960 book called Space and Light by a surgeon named Marius von Senden, she relays the numerous case studies of the first generation of patients on whom safe cataract surgeries were performed, and the extraordinary ways in which the restoration of vision — especially for those who had been unseeing since birth — fully disoriented people’s sense perceptions and ideas of space.

The Bowery in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

The notion of shadow and light was particularly incomprehensible, for shadow is evidence of depth and dimension — something the patients had never experienced and thus something that made no sense at all, that presented them with “the world unraveled from reason.” The newly sighted were suddenly so overwhelmed by the world of light, form, and space that many retreated into their old ways of navigation and sensemaking, choosing to keep their eyes shut and to orient themselves via their familiar senses.

This, of course, is a metaphor at once incredibly elegant and incredibly jarring for how we all react to overwhelming new knowledge — especially knowledge about ourselves and ourselves in relation to our formerly familiar surroundings, our suddenly confusing inner world in relation to the suddenly nonsensical outer. It produces, in the words of one doctor Dillard cites, “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” She writes:

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.

And yet there is a light — a gloriously breathtaking light — at the end of that tunnel of confusion, as much for the patients as for our spiritual blindnesses. Quoting another physician’s clinical case, Dillard captures this beautifully:

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!'”

Dillard returns to the elusive art of seeing in our everyday lives. In a sentiment that calls to mind what cognitive scientists now know about attention and Mary Oliver’s piercing assertion that “attention without feeling is only a report,” she considers the two ways of seeing:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.

[…]

If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present… Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

Manhattan in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

Indeed, the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag accused photography easily befalls the mind’s eye as well, if we aren’t careful. But when we allow ourselves this letting go, when we let shadow and light permeate our willful blindness, the warmth of illumination washes over us and leaves us transformed. “Something broke and something opened,” Dillard writes of one such transcendent moment in which she let herself experience this second kind of seeing. And something must always break in order for something to open within us — especially when it comes to seeing our interior worlds in their full dimensionality. Dillard writes:

When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses. I am the man who watches the baseball game in silence in an empty stadium. I see the game purely; I’m abstracted and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suited players lope off the green field to their shadowed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.

What John Steinbeck advised his teenage son about the secret of falling in love Dillard parallels in her counsel on the secret of seeing:

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an infinitely enlightening read in its totality, itself belonging to this canon of “the literature of illumination.” Complement it with Dillard on the life of sensation versus the life of presence, her enduring advice on writing, and an illuminating conversation with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the everyday wonderland of life, then revisit astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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David the Dreamer: Extraordinary Philosophical 1922 Children’s Book Illustrated by Freud’s Cross-Dressing Niece Named Tom

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The kind of book that reads you as you read it.

“The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary before our nocturnal fancies became the subject of science — an inquiry catalyzed by the publication of Freud’s seminal 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams, which the legendary psychoanalyst considered in part his “own self-analysis” and in which he declared that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

Two decades later, humorist, essayist, and children’s poet Ralph Bergengren wrote David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams (public library). This most unusual 1922 book is doubly notable for the absolutely striking illustrations by Austrian artist and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s eccentric niece Martha, who at the age of fifteen took on a male name and began wearing men’s clothes, and who went on to be a visionary and exceptionally talented artist of the German Art Nouveau movement before committing suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

Several years before Seidmann-Freud authored her own visionary “interactive” picture-book, she illustrated Bergengren’s whimsical tale of an androgynous-looking little boy’s dream about his dog’s third birthday party — a choice especially curious given her famous uncle’s classic treatise, which paved the way for the contemporary study of the psychology of dreams.

David knew he was dreaming because he had on the white suit, very much like the Clown’s in the Circus, that he often wore in dreams, and never anywhere else. Fido was also dressed in a white suit, with neat ruffles around his legs, and the neatest ruffle of all around his tail. Fido always spoke doggerel in dreams, and David was not at all surprised when he said, jumping up and down and wagging his ruffled tail,

“This is a great day for me.
This is my birthday, you see.
Last year I was two,
And this year I am three.
And so what say you
To a birthday partee?”

Playful and whimsical as the story may be, running through it are also darker undercurrents of subtle philosophical lamentation — perhaps something that drew Seidmann-Freud to the story. Take, for instance, this passage touching on the various dimensions of losing control in life:

There is something very disorienting about being out of sight of land in a small boat, especially when you find out, with a sinking heart, that you don’t know which way to row to get home again. It is like getting lost anywhere else, only much worse; for there isn’t any Policeman or Kind Lady to help you, and, although a lot of people you don’t know all looking at you at once is bad enough, nobody at all looking at you makes you feel even more serious. Very-Little-David felt serious indeed… He told himself sensibly that it would do no good to cry, but he did cry. So there you are.

David the Dreamer is, alas, deeply out of print — a fact at once sad and unsurprising, for it is the kind of book you simply don’t see today: fabric-bound and kissed by gold leaf, utterly experimental and rather dark in sensibility, the kind of unclassifiable children’s-book-for-grownups for which contemporary commercial publishers seem to neither allocate the proper budget nor muster the proper bravery.

Perhaps Bergengren intuited this. In the third chapter of the book, titled “How a Book Read David,” the little boy comes to pear tree under which he finds “two very fine pears and a book.” But it isn’t any ordinary book — it’s responsive and alive:

The odd thing about this book was that when David began reading the book, the book began reading David… The letters ran around, and changed places, and many of them jumped off the book out of sight… It was a queer book. And another odd thing about it was the way the leaves left as soon as you had read them. When you started to turn a leaf over, it just disappeared. But there were always plenty of new leaves, so that it was the kind of book that would easily last you to read as long as you lived.

A century later, this gem of a book is as alive as ever to the private reader, even if commercially dead. It would take a rare and courageous publisher to reinstate its cultural aliveness with a reprint — here’s to hoping there are other bastions of books out there besides “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” (I, for one, believe there are.)

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Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

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“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

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Special Delivery: A Mischievous Illustrated Reminder that Nothing Is Insurmountable in the Conveyance of a Loving Gesture

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A sweet story starring a heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart.

Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll saw in it an invitation to be more civil to one another. There is, indeed, something deeply humanizing and civilizing not only about the act of setting contemplative thought down to paper for another mind to contemplate in turn, but also about the chain of human touch relaying that message, heart to hand to heart, from sender to receiver via postal worker. And yet we live in an age where such correspondence has fallen out of favor as we co-react with the click of a Send button — so much so, that the very prospect of sending a real letter seems like a gargantuan task that few care to undertake.

In Special Delivery (public library), Caldecott-winning author Philip C. Stead and illustrator Matthew Cordell wink at our relationship with correspondence by making that seemingly gargantuan task literally so. They tell the story of little Sadie — a brave, single-minded, will-do-whatever-it-takes heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart — who decides to mail her beloved Great-Aunt Josephine an elephant, because Josephine “lives almost completely alone” and “could really use the company.”

When Sadie discovers that stuffing the elephant in a mailbox wouldn’t work, she heads to the post office to mail him as an oversized package.

“Please be gentle with him. So do not bend him, or drop him, or shake him much at all. He is fragile and very easily might break,” she instructs the postmaster, who proceeds to inform her that she’d need to buy an impossible number of stamps to mail such a large package.

Determined to get the elephant to her Great-Aunt, Sadie decides to borrow her neighbor Mary’s plane. (In a culture where only 31% of children’s books feature female protagonists, one can’t help but be heartened by Stead’s cast of courageous women.)

But the plan crashes as the plane does, and Sadie and her elephant land in the middle of the jungle.

Unperturbed, Sadie asks the Alligator for a ride down the river, promising to someday mail him a real letter with “a giant stick of bubble gum” inside, as a token of gratitude.

With her large friend in tow, Sadie hops on a train and imagines braving bandits.

A train will get us there quickly, and anyway it’s nice to see new things.

Finally, she gets a lift from the ice cream truck and makes it to Josephine, who awaits her surrounded by other mysterious packages and fanciful wild animals.

As the two embrace, Josephine offers her great-niece a cup of restorative hot chocolate, but Sadie insists on getting one urgent matter out of the way first. Squatting on the ground, with a box of gum by her side, she pens a “real letter” — a young woman of her word.

Special Delivery is an absolute delight, emanating Charlotte Zolotow’s quietly mischievous storytelling and Jules Feiffer’s expressive sensibility, and yet entirely original. Complement it with a very different but at least as touching tale of bravery and friendship starring alligators.

Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan; photographs my own

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