On Seeing Things
Most of us have the capacity to see, but we are so used to what we see that we rarely are able to really appreciate it. In a recent video report, a ten-year-old boy who had been colour blind since birth was, with the aid of special glasses, enabled to see colour for the first time. The expression on his face was stunning. He was undergoing an entirely new experience, simply by being able to observe what had been there all along. Aldous Huxley’s description of examining simple things around him after taking the drug Mescaline was similar. “This is how one ought to see…" he wrote, "...how things really are."*
I have never taken hallucinogenic drugs, partly because the opportunity never came up, partly because I am a fairly responsible person, but mostly, if I am to be perfectly honest, because I am not very brave. I mark it down in my list of missed life experiences, for better or worse. But the ability to observe simple things truly and profoundly, to observe them as if for the first time, is something that can be experienced by anyone, without the use of drugs or special glasses. It is a matter of decision. We can choose to acutely observe anything around us just by deciding to do so. It is what great artists do, and what we all can, but generally don't do. And this ability is true of any of our senses: taste, smell, touch. Put a raisin on your tongue, a single raisin, and suck the sweetness out of it. There is no taste more intense.
I recall my eldest son, as a new-born baby observing his hand for the first time, his arm raised above his head, his tiny hand inches from his face and his eyes and mouth open in incredulity. That sort of experience decreases as we grow older, and as the world and all its strangeness becomes more and more familiar to us. With the degree of exposure that we experience today, with the explosion in technology, shops and markets filled with goods from all over the globe, with media exposing us to other cultures, and science breaking all boundaries, and with the ease today of foreign travel, our ability to experience enchantment in the world around us has been dulled.
In the past it was easier to come by that sense of amazement. Crusaders, pilgrims and settlers arriving in the East were often astonished by the strange and new things that they encountered. Their written descriptions give an insight into the wonderment that they experienced, a wonderment so profound that in recording it, like children, they sometimes allowed themselves to slip into a space somewhere between reality and imagination, often leaning much more towards the latter. And so we read about a cave near Bethlehem where the Virgin's milk dripped from the walls, an image (icon?) of the Virgin Mary that when it was moved caused the rain to fall, a river that observed the Sabbath by ceasing its flow (or, in some descriptions flowed only on the Sabbath), another that was so considerate towards the Christian faithful that it would supply multitudes of fish three days before Palm Sunday, three days after, and on the feast day itself. We hear of a strange sea "always smoking and dark, like the furnace of hell"** in the waters of which one could still observe ancient cities destroyed in a Biblical cataclysm, and which on the anniversary of their destruction still discharged stones, wood and other remains. We discover a burial place outside the walls of Jerusalem, a pit in which the disposed bodies of the dead discomposed within a mere three days without giving off any foul smells. We read of a strange fruit that exploded into ash when offended, or another, called Adam's apple, on which the marks of Adam's teeth could be plainly seen, and an oblong fruit that grew on the trees of Paradise, a hundred touching one another on one bough, and tasting like honey (a banana, of course). The sense of the miraculous is there even when the descriptions are entirely realistic. The chronicler knight, John of Joinville, attending the French king Louis IX when crusading in the East, describes a fossil shown to the king which had probably come from the Late Cretaceous limestone of Sahel Alma north of Beirut, or Hajula (Hjoula) or Hakel north-east of Jubail (Giblet) -
"During the king's stay at Saida someone brought him a stone that split into flakes. It was the most marvellous in the world, for when you lifted one of the flakes you found the form of a sea-fish between the two pieces of stone. This fish was entirely of stone, but there was nothing lacking in its shape, eyes, bones, or colour to make it seem otherwise than if it had been alive."***
*Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, London, 2004, p. 19. **Burchard of Mount Sion, in Denys Pringle, Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, 1187-1291, Farnham and Burlington, 2012, p. 283. ***Joinville and Villehardoun, Chronicles of the Crusades, trans. M.R.B. Shaw, New York, 1963, p. 315.