Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Loss of the Creature

I'm working on a big new project for a possible paying job that involves reading lots of essays, and I was going back through one of my favorites by Walker Percy, from The Message in the Bottle, entitled "The Loss of the Creature." This is the essay I refer to when trying to defend my parental inability to get to any of my kids' events with a camera and remember to use it while I'm there. This is the essay I was thinking of this weekend when I packed a camera for a visit with some friends-- bisected by a chess tournament--and finally remembered (with a reminder from FreshHell, who also has trouble remembering to use a camera) to get it out when we came back to their house. This is an essay everyone in the world should read, because it's about how we are able to see things:

"A man in Boston decides to spend his vacation at the Grand Canyon. He visits his travel bureau, looks at the folder, signs up for a two-week tour. He and his family take the tour, see the Grand Canyon, and return to Boston. May we say that this man has seen the Grand Canyon? Possibly he has. But it is more likely that what he has done is the one sure way not to see the canyon.

Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is--as one picks up a strange object from one's back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on.... if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, "Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!" He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time. The highest point, the term of the sightseer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years."

Percy suggests a number of ways that a sightseer could actually see the Grand Canyon, "all sharing in common the stratagem of avoiding the approved confrontation of the tour and the Park Service."

My family needs stratagies like that to see more in an art museum. Usually we try to see only one or two rooms, lest we find ourselves standing in front of one of the wonders of the world yawning and thinking about how much our feet hurt and where the next water fountain might be. Often we try to pose like the sculptures, in order to see how close we can get to what each particular one feels like.

For years we've tried getting into an elevator and facing the back. It's interesting to see peoples' reactions when you get in and do that. What kinds of strategies have you tried for seeing something in a new way?


FreshHell said...

What I find is that the camera never captures what I saw - it's a diminished picture of the real thing. Hawaii looked exactly like every image you've ever seen of it. I took some photos of Maui and Hilo mainly to record the fact that I'd been there but I carry in my head the actual experience of being there that no camera (and this may have a lot to do with my lousy cameras and not having the photographer's eye) can fully record.

People take pictures to help them remember, to prove "I did this, I was here". Like Kilroy.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I love Percy. And this is exactly why I so seldom photograph the important stuff. Memory is better than any picture.

Trapunto said...

What a fascinating post!

Sadly, unlike FreshHell, I don't carry the experiences in my head (Europe--poof!), and yet I have a pathological hatred of taking pictures. It's not something I would frame as a virtue, as it is in the Grand Canyon example, because my motives are different. For me it boils down to a perverse urge to preserve (perversely since it's the *opposite* of preservation) the transitory nature of visual perception, not its immediacy. Not liking to have my own picture taken is related; I want to be gone when I'm dead.

Jenny said...

I have this terrible tendency to go to famous places, and it's meant to be this exciting moment, ta-da, here's the thing you've always seen on postcards! But the real thing always ends up looking just like the postcard. When I am on vacation taking pictures, I try not to let myself take pictures of anything I can get a picture of on the internet. So I'll do pictures of small things, or pictures at different angles, but never a postcard picture. (I try. Sometimes things are pretty and I can't resist.) It makes looking back through pictures feel much more like MY vacation, rather than just SOME vacation.

Oh, and I also try not to find out what items museums have before I visit them. That way I will always be surprised.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, the funny thing is, I love photos because they help me remember events. But yes, my brother--who was at one time a professional photographer--took a photo in Hawaii that looks like every other sunset palm tree photo you've seen on a postcard!

Harriet, I agree, but it helps to have a good memory. My daughter goes over her memories to retain them.

Trapunto, that's what I've always said to myself about not bringing the camera--unlike the mom next to me who is filming it to watch later, I'm really watching this Christmas program right now.

But I don't really understand people who don't like to have their picture taken. My husband isn't wild about it, particularly those photos they take when you enter a tourist place and then you can buy them later--it drives him crazy that I often buy them. The last time we were confronted by such a photographer--at the zoo--he stood there and muttered "steal my soul" which made me laugh and made a good photo. If only Walker hadn't been making a Calvin face.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, I like the idea of not finding out what the museum has, although a decade of living near Washington D.C. made me get over the feeling I ever have to see an entire museum at one time, so I'm known for looking at the postcards in the gift shop at an art museum and dragging everyone back upstairs to see something we missed.

Care said...

This reminds me of a bit of advice I was given before we took a trip to Europe. "Just buy the postcard collections - they are always so much better than any you can take anyway and then when you see the things you can really SEE them and BE there rather than hide behind a camera.."

Jeanne said...

Care, I found that particularly true at Versailles. The postcards show the opulence, and you won't see the details unless you get out from behind a camera.