Discover more from Stories All the Way Down by G. M. Baker
On Seeing in Literature
Stories shape what we see the world and how we value it
When I look out of my bedroom window, I see a yellow phone case lying in the garden. It’s not a yellow phone case really. It is an illusion caused by the way some yellow stalks left over from when we cut back the hostas for the winter. They have fallen in such a way as to suggest a phone case when viewed from a certain angle. It is quite likely that if I went out into the garden, I would not be able to find the stalks in question, since they probably only look like a phone case when viewed looking down from a particular spot in the house.
But the interesting thing about this little optical illusion is, why a phone case? Twenty years ago, if I had seen those same stalks from that same angle, they would not have looked like a phone case. Twenty years ago, I had never seen a phone case. They might have looked like some other squarish yellow thing — a Walkman, perhaps. They would have looked like some object that my brain then knew about. If my brain did not know about an object that matched that pattern, I probably wouldn’t have noticed them at all. They only stood out from all the other bent stalks because they happened to look like a phone case. We don’t see shapes and colors; we see objects. And sometimes we see objects that aren’t there.
It’s a good thing, too, because if our brains did not instantly resolve the world into objects wherever we look, we would have a hard time moving around and getting things done. That the brain occasionally gets things wrong and sees objects that are not there is the price we pay for our ability to live and move rapidly in a world of intelligible objects rather than unintelligible patches of color and light.
Psychologists and neurologists study this phenomenon, and their results sometimes get translated in the funny papers into statements that we live in an illusion created by the brain. A less fanciful way of putting it is that meaning precedes vision. I see a yellow phone case in my garden because that is the meaning my brain has constructed from the patterns of shape and color hitting my retinas, and that is therefore what I see, and continue to see every time I look out that window. Even though reason tells me that I am looking at a chance arrangement of broken stems, I still see a phone case. Meaning precedes vision.
That meaning precedes vision is enormously important to storytellers. It is what keeps us in business. It is how the writer can, to use a hackneyed phrase, “paint a picture with words.” You can paint a picture with words because words convey meaning, and meaning precedes vision.
I raise this because while most of us storytellers are busy worrying about showing vs. telling, there is a new literary movement called Contemplative Realism that is primarily concerned with seeing. Contemplative Realism is a very academic movement, and its founding manifesto is a highly academic document. Don’t expect to see Writer’s Digest publishing “Six Tips to Improve Your Writing with Contemplative Realism” any day soon. Still, its emphasis on seeing is an interesting one that deserves some consideration.
Contemplative realism builds on the contention of the philosopher Joseph Pieper that the modern world has lost its ability to see. Contemplative Realism’s founder, Joshua Hren, writes:
That particular artist whom I wish to call the contemplative realist must, in Pieper’s words, “be endowed with the ability to see in an exceptionally intensive manner.” Meticulously, intensely, he stores up in his heart a fullness of perception which pours out on the page not what everybody sees but rather “what not everybody sees.”
What does Pieper mean by saying we have lost the ability to see? Clearly, he is not suggesting that we have all gone blind. Nor does Hren, I presume, mean by seeing in an exceptionally intense manner, that he is looking for writers who can read a newspaper from a mile away. So what are they saying? I presume them to mean that people are looking at the world but are not seeing — not apprehending or recognizing — the things that they should see. They are seeing yellow phone cases in the garden and not recognizing that they are really bent hosta stems. They are seeing the scenes of life pass before them, yet missing what is going on.
And this is true. We know very well that we don’t register or recognize everything that passes before our eyes as we walk down the street. Our attention is selective. There is much that passes through the frame of our vision that we simply don’t see at all.
The selectiveness of our attention is highlighted by a well-known experiment illustrated by this video:
[Spoiler alert: watch the video now before I give the game away.]
Subjects in this selective attention experiment are instructed to watch the video and count the number of times the team in white passes the basketball. The correct answer is 15, but half the subjects don’t notice the gorilla that walks through the frame and beats its chest in the middle of the video. Their attention is wholly occupied with counting the number of passes. If you watched the video and saw the gorilla, congratulations, you could be a Contemplative Realist. You see what not everybody sees.
But don’t get too full of yourself. There is nothing exceptional or unusual about one person seeing what not everybody sees. A plumber sees what not everybody sees when he contemplates a puddle on the floor. A race car driver sees what not everybody sees when he approaches a corner. A chef sees what not everybody sees when he examines a cut of beef on the butcher’s counter. We each see what our training and experience have prepared us to see. Seeing what not everybody sees is the rule, not the exception. Once you have seen the gorilla, or are told that there will be a gorilla, you can’t possibly miss the thing that not everybody sees.
In other words, when the brain sees objects, it sees objects that it knows and expects. It constructs meaning out of what it knows, and it is capable of recognizing objects it knows out of only a partial glimpse. The mechanism that makes me see a yellow phone case in my garden is the same one that allows me to recognize my car when all I can see is the back bumper poking out behind a minivan in the parking lot. The brain recognizes objects based on partial information. We would not be able to function — or to tell stories — if it didn’t. But that same jumping to conclusions based on partial information sometimes leads it to see things that aren’t there (like the phone case) and miss things that are there (like the gorilla).
The reason a surgeon sees what not everybody sees in an X-ray is not that they are “endowed with the ability to see in an exceptionally intensive manner.” The reason is that they are highly practiced and experienced in a particular field of endeavor. That is just the ordinary way brains work. They rewire themselves to be sensitive to the information that they process frequently when someone works intensively at a particular endeavor. Brains trained in each particular field see meaning in details that are meaningless to the layperson, and thus the detail is fully delineated to them while it is just noise to the layperson. Thus the surgeon who looks at an X-ray sees a cancer where the rest of us just see vague spots and lines of grey and white.
Clearly, then, we don’t all see the same scene in the same way. While we may all notice common objects, we will miss objects others see, or perceive some objects less precisely or in less detail. Some will miss the stray cat peeking out from behind the tree. Some will register a generic cat. And some will see a Kurilian Bobtail with a notch in its right ear. We are all receiving the same photons on our retinas, but we are not all identifying the same objects in the same way, and therefore we are seeing the same scene differently.
Is this the kind of seeing that Pieper and Hren are talking about? Is Pieper’s claim that what we have lost is the ability to identify a Kurilian Bobtail with a notch in its right ear? Unless Pieper was a fanatical cat fancier, I doubt it is that specific. But at one level, at least, I think that part of the sought “fullness of perception” is paying the kind of attention that leads to noticing the difference between a generic moggie and a Kurilian Bobtail with a notch in its right ear.
But there is a problem with this interpretation. It is manifestly impossible to pay that kind of attention to everything. While your attention is fixed on the Kurilian Bobtail with a notch in its right ear, you are missing the Exploding Bombardier Beetle crawling on the branch above it, for the very same reason that people miss the gorilla in the basketball game. The brain has to be selective. There are not enough neurons available to see and identify every object in a scene in infinite detail. The marvel of the brain is that it is so proficient at directing its limited attention to the things that matter most in a scene. Because, again, we could not function if it didn’t.
The question is, on what basis is the brain choosing where to direct its limited capacity for attention? I think it is fair to say that the answer is stories. The reason subjects don’t see the gorilla is because they are counting the passes. Their mind is engaged in that story. It filters out information it does not perceive as relevant to that story. If that same person were in on the gag, if the gorilla was part of the story their mind was engaged with, they would always see the gorilla, though they would probably not notice the number of times the white team passed the ball. Gorillas are trivialities when we are counting passes, and basketballs are trivialities when we are waiting for gorillas. We see the scene according to the story we are told or are telling ourselves.
But there are many different stories that we can tell about each scene, and if the story that we tell determines what we see, how does the brain select the story that will shape its perception at any given moment?
Suppose you are driving down a street. You are not paying rapt attention to every apple or acorn of every tree by the roadside. You are not taking in the precise architectural details of the houses that line the street. But if a ball bounces out into the street in front of your car, you see it at once, and you slam on your brakes.
Why? The first reason is that when you are moving, your brain is attuned to anything that might cross your path. This is how we manage to move through the world without bumping into things. But a bouncing ball engages another, more specific, and more urgent story. You recognize the ball instantly as an incident in a story already in progress, the story of a child losing control of a ball and running out into the street to retrieve it. In that moment when the ball first appears, you see already in your mind’s eye the child running out into the path of your car. Even if no child ever appears, you have already seen them. In your mind, you have already heard the terrible thump of metal meeting flesh and bone. Not only will selective attention make you miss a gorilla that was there, it will make you see a child that never was.
What this shows us is that our brain apportions attention according to the moral weight of objects. The moral weight of an object is determined by the story you tell about it. Your brain will note a littered food wrapper that the wind blows across the path of your car, but it will not attach any moral weight to it. You will not slam on your breaks to avoid hitting a food wrapper. A pothole in the street will receive more attention. The pothole has more moral weight than the food wrapper because it could damage your car. But a ball has the most moral weight, not because it is more dangerous to your car, but because your driving instructor drummed into your head the story about children chasing stray balls into the street and being killed by cars.
Why does one person see a Kurilian Bobtail with a notch in its right ear, the next see a generic moggie, and the third miss the cat entirely? Because those three people attach different moral weights to cats. To some, cats have the moral weight of children. To others, they have the moral weight of cockroaches. The greater moral weight you assign to them, the more of your attention is devoted to them, and the more you will see. We pick the faces of friends out of a crowd because our friends have greater moral weight for us than strangers.
The way in which moral weight shapes our perception can be quite local and driven by a particular story of the moment. We see passes of the basketball rather than gorillas because the story we have been told places a temporary and immediate moral weight on counting the number of passes correctly. (We place significant moral weight on performing tasks correctly, for what I assume are obvious evolutionary reasons.) When we know that this is an experiment designed to make us miss the gorilla, we then place significant moral weight on not missing the gorilla. (We place significant moral weight on not being fooled by the trickery of others, for what I assume are obvious evolutionary reasons.)
Notice also that moral weight can be transitive. The pothole has moral weight because of the damage it can do to your car. The moral weight of your car transfers to the pothole. The moral weight of the child who you have not even seen transfers to the ball bouncing into the street.
These habits of the brain give us the fundamental tools of storytelling. We can evoke images by creating meaning, and we can direct attention, and therefore vision, by assigning moral weight to things, both directly and transitively, through the role they play in a story.
Let’s go back now to Pieper’s contention that the modern world has lost its ability to see. It cannot reasonably mean that people have gone blind, nor that people have lost the ability to see in more detail the things they specialize in. What I take it to mean is that Pieper believes that the modern world is not seeing the things that matter with sufficient clarity because it does not assign sufficient moral weight to them, and therefore does not attend to them sufficiently to see their details.
The phrase “see in an exceptionally intensive manner” therefore seems a little wide of the mark to me. It is not about intensity, it is about where your attention is focused. Our attention is focused on those objects that have the greatest moral weight for us. And the more moral weight we attach to an object, the more intensely we attend to it. Intensity is not a general property of vision; it is a byproduct of the moral weight we attach to particular objects.
So when Joshua Hren says of a writer, “Meticulously, intensely, he stores up in his heart a fullness of perception which pours out on the page not what everybody sees but rather ‘what not everybody sees.’” I reply that fullness of perception is impossible; what matters is the correct direction of our inherently selective attention. And if we are to train our own vision, or to direct the vision of the reader, it must be by the careful consideration of the moral weight that we attach to things and to actions. Attach moral weight to a thing, and meticulous intense attention follows necessarily. Remove moral weight from it, and it fades into the background.
This is why I think there is a real obligation to try to write serious popular fiction. All the word serious in serious popular fiction needs to mean is, try to tell stories that give due moral weight to their objects and events.
In many ways, genre fiction can be thought of as fiction that deliberately makes its entertainment light by removing the full moral weight from objects and actions. For instance, a cozy mystery is more or less defined as a mystery story that does not give the full moral weight of humanity to its required corpse, or acknowledge the full moral weight of the act of murder in its mystery. A romance novel does not give full moral weight to courtship and marriage. A military novel does not give full moral weight to deaths in battle, or to the effect of dealing such deaths can have on soldiers. There is nothing wrong with such stories, providing that we are not misled by them into ceasing to see the moral weight of these objects and actions in the real world.
There is some danger of that, though, if one reads nothing else. Works of serious popular fiction serve to remind us of the true moral weight of things and actions. They don’t have to be dour or pedantic about it. The point of the word popular in serious popular fiction is that if telling such stories is important, they should be stories that many people might actually want to read.
Stories can change how we see the world. They can change the moral weight we attach to things, which in turn affects both how we see and how we act. Popular fiction influences the moral weight that people attach to objects and actions, and when it does so falsely, the consequences can be serious and far-reaching. On the other hand, when it corrects the moral weight that people attach to things, it can help heal a culture in trouble.
Cultures are built out of stories. When we meet people from other cultures, we often find that they see the world quite differently from us. And this is because the stories they tell, the stories that constitute their culture, attach different moral weights to objects and actions. Culture is no minor or secondary thing. It is not a form of decoration worn by people who, underneath, are just uniform economic actors. The stories that make up a culture change how it attaches moral weight to objects and actions, and therefore how its people see the world, and whether, for instance, they devote their energies to material success or to conquest or some other end. It determines how they live together and what they expect of each other and of strangers. What seems barbaric to one culture can seem heroic to another, and the difference is in the stories they tell.
This is the reason that when great cultural movements arise, they tell different stories and find different ways of telling them. It is why, in many cases, they pour scorn upon the old stories and sometimes try to suppress them. The old stories assign moral weights to things that the new culture denies. To say that a culture has forgotten how to see means that its people no longer see the things that used to matter because they no longer attach moral weight to them. Of course, if you are a partisan of the new culture, you will take the opposite stance. You will say that people have finally learned how to see.
If you think that modern works attribute moral weight to objects and actions correctly, you will be happy as things are, and happy to keep telling the same stories in the same way. If you think that modern works attribute moral weight to objects incorrectly, then you will be concerned to tell different stories and perhaps to tell them in different ways. I assume you can guess which of these camps I fall into, but for the specifics of where I think moral weight should fall in literature, you will have to wait for another essay on another day. Or read my novels. Actually, do that: read my novels.
Whichever side of that argument you fall on, though, I think there is something to take away from Contemplative Realism’s emphasis on seeing. Whether our method is showing or telling, our aim is to enable the reader to see, and to do that we must work to direct their attention by means of the moral weight we attach to objects and actions in our stories. That is our method. In the end, it is the only method, because that is how brains work. It therefore behooves all storytellers to give due thought to what they are seeing and to treat the objects and actions that they depict with both serious attention and exacting self-criticism. Take the plank out of your own eye, in other words, before you concoct a story to take a mote out of the reader’s eye. All good writing starts with seeing. All fruitful reading ends in seeing.