Thursday, 17 December 2015

To See or Not to See

 “Jack can see he sees
       what he can see Jill can’t see
and he can see
       that Jill can’t see that she can’t see
but he can’t see why
       Jill can’t see that Jill can’t see.”
– R. D. Laing, ‘Knots’

‘Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?’
– Grucho Marx, ‘Duck Soup’

It is spring. I am considering the Bigleaf Magnolia, quietly and as unobtrusively as I can. Or so I think. Yet, my being still and looking at a flower has caused an unintended ripple. For this is a much visited tourist spot. Many determined people solemnly, briskly walk the highline, only stopping to take photographs. As expected a few stop next to me, click a quick picture and move on, others shrug their shoulders (probably thinking ‘what’s she looking at’) and the more mindful people (concentrating on one thing at a time) quickly estimate a way to bypass me without slacking their pace.

An elderly woman asks, ‘what flower is that?’ I reply, ‘Magnolia, a bigleaf magnolia.’ She, ‘It looks nothing like the magnolia in my garden’ and shaking her head walks away.

(Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest simple leaf and single flower among all native North American plants.)
A season of birds in NYC. Some prominent ones missing because there was no camera on hand.
“Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
–Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘Psychological Observation (Studies in Pessimism)

It is summer. In Chelsea, a robin is singing (Cheer up; cheer-ee-o). The song can be discerned among the human noises, only if you listen very hard.

Yesterday at lunch someone said that the only birds you see in New York are pigeons. Perhaps she belonged to that category of Americans who according to a Cornell Lab poll thought that house sparrows grew up to become pigeons.

Meanwhile on this summer day, by listening very hard I heard more than a handful of birds call out to the morning. And all before lunchtime. (The birds were: White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, House Sparrow, Starling and Northern Mockingbird.)

“Seeing is a neglected enterprise.”

–Saul Leiter (quote from his obituary in New York Times)

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.”
– Goethe

It is autumn. We are walking on 20 some street, right next to the public housing projects (that is low-cost housing for the working classes– nurses, policemen, teachers and such like) when she suddenly blurts out, “You don’t see any black people in New York, how surprising.” I am speechless for a split second. To start some of our neighbors are “black people”, the four concierges in our building are “black people” and right now we are walking besides towers that house mostly “people of color”. How blinkered has our vision become? What is the function of the human eye?

But then most people from India who visit us in New York are people of a certain educational and class background, who like people of their kind all around the globe throw around their biases and ignorance as unselfconsciously and as loudly as their voices (especially in public places)– they are unapologetic about flaunting their privilege because for the most part they have chosen to be willfully ignorant.

And no, just because you’ve watched Friends, it doesn’t mean you ‘know’ life in New York City.

(The part of Chelsea we were walking through is the subject of a new documentary on income inequality “Class Divide”: )
“Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent”
– William Shakespeare, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

“One hundred tellings are not as good as one seeing.”
–Chinese proverb

It is winter, a freakishly warm winter. I am contemplating the parable about a student in search of a renowned teacher. Every culture has some version of the story. A student seeks a great teacher. But to get to the sought after teacher, the student has to go through certain hardships– ford unruly rivers and climb steep mountains, or else, solve tricky puzzles– to prove to be worthy of the wisdom being desired. Often wisdom is found during the course of the search itself, even before the student sets sight on the teacher. Because knowledge though arguable free, does not come to those who wait passively.

And sometimes, even the best of teachers can’t help you. For as the German proverb goes, if the eye does not want to see it, neither light nor glasses will help.

And then there are those other times:
“(What do you see when you turn out the light?) I can’t tell you, but I know it is mine.”
– Lennon–McCartney, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’

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