By Leigh Melander
“I see, said the blind man, and he picked up his hammer and saw.”
For most of us, vision drives our experience of the world. When we are awake, we see. Even our blinking doesn’t interfere with our seeing; most of the time we are unaware of the movement of our eyelids. And we see in our dreams.
But for all of that vision time, how much of it do we really see? How many moments between blinks and REMs are we present for? We walk through our days preoccupied and do not notice what is around us. When we wake in the morning, we generally remember very little of the visions spun in our heads. As Sherlock Holmes said to the immutably dense Dr. Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.”
Our eyeballs, through a complex system of rods and cones, corneas and pupils, expansion and contraction, send us remarkable messages of size and shape and color and depth, light and shadow. We can see the eye of a needle, the expanse of a mountain rising in front of us, and a turkey vulture, spiraling effortlessly upwards into the sun, until he becomes no more than a speck of black and then is gone.
We employ all sorts of tools to help us see better, farther, closer, more clearly. We wear glasses, use binoculars and telescopes, peer into microscopes. We place little bits of plastic on our naked eyeballs; we endure surgery. And still, we really do not see clearly.
That is, we do not see through.
We use X-ray machines, CAT scans, and MRIs to peer through tissue and bone to see the structures underneath. In many ways, these are the same tools that artists and scholars use: to see the steps underneath the dance, the scansion underneath the poem, the “bones” of a good garden, a good painting, a good story.
But still, we are not seeing through. We have taken a step forward, cleaned off our lenses a little, and are “looking into it,” but we are still seeing only the structures. The X-ray can tell us that a bone is broken, but not how it broke, or why. The same is true for understanding the structure underlying a piece of art; we can see the elements that make it “good,” and still not really understand why it is.
But somehow, we understand intuitively that there’s more to this seeing stuff than, if you will, meets the eye. We understand that this “seeing” is important. We go on vision quests to seek answers about our own gifts and limitations. Wise women and men who see the future (or the “big picture,” in modern corporate lingo) are called visionaries. Communities “vision” themselves into the future, using a verb that suggests a more active role than looking ahead. In this case, to vision becomes a making of something. When someone explains a difficult concept or tough emotional stance in conversation, we reply, “I see,” when there is nothing for our eyeballs to do in the situation. We see – we comprehend. An image is an idea is its most basic form. We think, and imagine, deeply, in pictures.
Accordingly, vision can play an important role in myth and story. We can – like Medusa – see the wrong thing and lose our wits or our life. Or we can be like Tiresias, a blind “seer” of the future who can perceive our destiny but not his own hand in front of his face. His greatest weakness becomes his greatest gift: he can see what is important because he can’t see what is physically in front of him. He sees through, into the essence.
As Tiresies’ abilities suggest, to see through something suggests that there is some barrier to seeing: some opacity. In some ways, this intersection of opacity and transparency spurs our imagination. The dance of the seven veils, where we strain to see through the wispy fabric, is far more of a turn-on than just staring at a naked body.
But in American culture, we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We want straight clarity, and are often uncomfortable with opacity of any sort. We want to see only those things that stand obviously in front of us, even if they are not really there. We can miss the essence of ideas, of who we are, of what matters, so quickly when we do this.
How, then, do we frame our view? What are the windows we look through?
We all gaze through literal windows during our day. We used to see through wavy hand-blown glass, distorting the world outside the window into a gentle funhouse. And we looked through small panes, up to 20 in a window, fracturing the view and repeating it as series of pieces, each linked, similar but unique. We saw through this glass in a particular way, being reminded that our vision is always fractal.
But now, in our need to stand analytically without bias, secure in the belief that we can look at the world empirically, we love our big, plate glass windows. Huge, unbroken expanses of glass in front of us (most of which no longer open, ensuring that we will never have any direct contact with that which we see – we can’t hear it, smell it, or touch it), we gaze upon the world thinking that we see it in its totality, without interference, without distortion.
And we are wrong. We forget that to see through a window, we are looking through something that instantly puts limitations on what we are seeing and how we see it. Stand in one corner of a window and look out, and you will see one part of the landscape, the rest hidden by sill and wall.
Somehow, when we knew that what we were looking through wasn’t perfect, we were reminded of our own inimitable perspective and our limitations, and through that, we could be visited by the gift of seeing the world a little differently. But now we see literally.
How different that is than Macbeth, who saw the dagger before him, and glimpsed in an instant the path to claiming the throne. In his moment of imagination, or illusion, he allows the audience to see even further than he: we know at that moment that he and his wife are damned. We have seen through.
Or when we join Tiresias, and we see through Oedipus’ ravings to know that he has done and will do all of the things he has spent a lifetime trying to avoid. We see his downfall coming, and we see the horror and despair that will accompany it. And even, if we are really seeing through, we will see our own moments as Oedipus, when we destroy the things and people that we love the most, even if in much smaller ways. And of course, Oedipus blinds himself when he cannot bear to see what he has done, and what he is.
So, let us touch our eyes with the magic ointment of the Celtic fairies, so we may see what wonders are around us. Take a moment and close your eyes, and choose your lens – be it a window, a pair of binoculars, or a kaleidoscope. How can you intuit the essence, and how does your lens change that intuition?
What is it that you see?
Leigh Melander has a doctorate in cultural mythology and psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and wrote her dissertation on frivolity as an entry into imagination. She has published articles in a variety of publications, including Spring Journal and the upcoming Routledge International Handbook of Jungian Film Studies, and has appeared in various media outlets, including the History Channel, as a mythology expert. She hosts a weekly radio show on an NPR affiliate and podcast, Myth America, an exploration into how myth shapes our sense of identity, and serves as the vice president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Board of Directors and editor of their MythBlast series. She is the co-founder of and partner in Spillian, a Catskills, NY, historic lodge and retreat center offering world-class workshops and events that inspire imagination. Her first book, Just That Side of Crazy: Soul Rules to Guide Your Wild Idea to Life, is scheduled for release in 2018.