Seeing

My boyfriend Nate and I saw The Great Gatsby over the weekend at a theater where we could drink along with the flappers. I thought Luhrmann’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel was an absolute dream (heh.), except he went a little crazy with the symbols. Yes, yes, we know that the bespectacled billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg represents the eyes of God. The 17-year-old version of myself knew that just as well.

Despite my annoyance, though, I thought that overt image did a great job of capping my week, my first week of summer classes.

One of those classes, Spirituality and the Arts, taught by the wonderful Greg Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, focused its Friday class on seeing. How does literature help us see? And what, then, do we see?

My favorite piece we read for Friday was an essay by Robert Cording called “Finding the World’s Fullness.” In it Cording writes about art being a mediation between consciousness and the object. Art, and literary art, teaches us how to see the object. A lot of the time that object is God; it’s Truth. Sometimes that Truth is impossible to see without the intermediary art, helping us along.

Toward the end of the essay, Cording alludes to a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” which he believes exemplifies this well. Before I quote the poem, here’s Cording’s commentary:

[Stevens] is compelled to recognized that our experience tells us there is a reality outside our mind’s construction of it; and he is compelled to acknowledge that that reality, which lies outside the mind, can only be known inside the language the mind constructs for the reality. The truth of this poem and all poems that we value is not a proposition or judgement, not an insight that can be gained by simple transference, nor a message we can pass on to others, but rather an enactment of the bird’s cry.

Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry–It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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