Of seeing and forgetting…
26 March 2010
Last August I wrote about the possibly apocryphal quote from Paul Valéry: to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. I mentioned then that I am fascinated by this quote and often return to it. I found myself thinking about it again recently and find that I have more to say on it. A good aphorism is pregnant with meaning and can always be the point of departure for another meditation, as a text of scripture can always be the point of departure for another sermon.
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. What is meant by “seeing” in this context?
Seeing — true seeing, genuine seeing — is seeing that transcends the ordinary experience of seeing. The ordinary experience of seeing gets lost in conventions. People scarcely notice the things around them. As soon as a thing is seen, it is immediately assigned to some familiar category and no more attention is paid to. In this way, seeing becomes an exercise in identification, and identification draws upon a familiar conceptual scheme, a Weltanschauung in which there is a place for everything and everything is to be found in its place. Such “seeing” is little more than an excuse to dismiss things with a glance, to ignore the world.
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. This encapsulation of an extraordinary kind of seeing immediately suggests another kind of seeing, the kind of seeing that is ordinary seeing. What is ordinary experience? What defines the mundane? There is a passage from a posthumously published fragment of Wittgenstein that comes to mind:
“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”
Wittgenstein here observes an unexpected coincidence of ordinary and extraordinary experience. For Wittgenstein, extraordinary seeing is simply a shift in perspective away from ordinary seeing. And ordinary seeing is not an excuse to ignore the world, as I wrote above, but is an immersion in the world. The Wittgensteinian conception of extraordinary experience is immanent; Wittgenstein rejects the transcendent as a source of the extraordinary.
I can imagine someone not getting the point of Wittgenstein’s example; it is more in the nature of a parable than an argument. And like most parables, it is inherently ambiguous. Wittgenstein was, after all, from Vienna: a crucible of modernity in which thoroughly modern ideas were no sooner given their initial formulation than they were dialectically confronted with their opposite number. As I have noted elsewhere, reflexivity is of the essence of modernity.
Should we seek the extraordinary variety of seeing invoked in the possibly apocryphal Valéry quote in ordinary experience? Is there a dialectic of ordinary and the extraordinary experience that would reveal seeing as the seeing the forgets itself as seeing? For Wittgenstein, it is a change of one’s point of view that renders the ordinary extraordinary. Presumably, also, there is a change in point of view that would render the extraordinary ordinary.
Is there a changed point of view that would give us extraordinary experience from our ordinary experience? Can we find an unexpected coincidence of the two through a shift in perspective? Can a change within oneself make one see as one has not seen before? What is true seeing, genuine seeing? Vision. Thus the seeing with which the quote is concerned is visionary seeing. How does one attain a vision?
The ordinary might converge upon the extraordinary through repetition. Repetitive rituals — essentially, iterations of ordinary experience — have long been employed to induce altered states of consciousness, that is to say, extraordinary experience. I wrote about this in Algorithms of Ecstasy.
But Valéry would not likely have been sympathetic to this. In his famous essay, “Man and the Sea Shell,” Valéry wrote, “…it is the nature of the intelligence to do away with the infinite and to abolish repetitions.” It is perhaps unreasonable to take this line from Valéry out of context, for it is a line that means something in its context. But it is not entirely unreasonable. Elsewhere Valéry makes explicit criticisms of Cantorianism and the Cantorian conception of the infinite, and the simplest way to the infinite is the endless iteration of anything.
There is also, in Valéry, an implicit criticism of the extraordinary, and this criticism could well be of a piece with his rejection of Cantor. If the quote that concerns us is indeed from Valéry, it is not a paean to outlandishness for the sake of outlandishness. For Valéry, Cantor is too outlandish. For Valéry, even extraordinary vision would be ordinary in a sense, finite to be sure, not the excrescence of an altered state of mind. And thus we find ourselves back at the coincidence and convertibility of ordinary and extraordinary experience, of mundane seeing and visionary seeing.
In the difference between the approaches to the extraordinary by way of the transcendent or the immanent, Valéry and Wittgenstein represent the immanent. Cantor perhaps represents the transcendent, though he had little to say regarding experience, whether ordinary or extraordinary. But perhaps a theory of extraordinary experience, hence visionary seeing, might be derived from Cantor, and, once derived, placed in transcendental contrast to the immanence of Valéry and Wittgenstein.
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