Seeing Things

Lionel Trilling was primarily a critic though he wrote one novel which is quite remarkable and makes the reader wish he had written more. It is a political novel about the 1930s when intellectuals around the country and the world were flirting with Communism — the idealistic version that demanded that private property be eliminated and all are treated truly equally (a truly Christian ideal, surely). It was hardly the view that soon became a harsh reality and Trilling is dealing with the clash between ideas and reality. It is a stunning piece of work and reveals to us the writer’s acute grasp of the nuances of human behavior and his astonishing awareness of the things around him. It is in this latter regard that I want to take a peek at one small passage midway through the novel that reveals what I m talking about.

The hero, John Laskell, is visiting some friends in Connecticut after a near-death experience, trying to recover in the peace and quiet of the Connecticut countryside. He is staying at the home of a Mrs. Folger and while sitting and admiring her collection of tea cups the narrator tells us:

“Laskell looked again at the cups. Sitting with Mrs. Folger over her precious pieces of china, taking pleasure in the objects and seeing life in them, Laskell was happy in the mild relationship with this worn, elderly women who was so far removed from his usual existence. As he sat in the dim, damp dining room he had a strong emotion about the life in objects, the shapes that people make and admire, the life in the pauses in activity in which nothing is said but in which the commonplace speaks out with a mild, reassuring force.”

In itself, this passage is not remarkable. But in its way it shows how the author is in tune with his surroundings, how much he sees of what he is living with, and how this makes him happy. Note how Laskell’s attention is directed outwards, away from himself. This is not about Laskell; it is about the tea-cup and what it “means.” It’s the world around him, the little things that make him happy. I find this remarkable because, with the exception perhaps of an occasional artist hiding out in Ecuador, we seem to have lost this ability, the ability to see things around us. And we don’t appear to be terribly happy.

I was reminded of the incident recounted by Nathaniel Shaler regarding his initial encounter with the naturalist Louis Aggassiz who “taught him how to see.” Aggassiz handed him a fish and told him to look at it and write down what he saw. After week of studying the specimen Shaler came up with a list of a dozen or so properties and handed the list to Aggassiz who handed the list back to him and told him, to look again.  “. . . in another week of ten hours a day labor” Aggassiz was finally satisfied.

The point is that there is so much around us that we miss in our preoccupation with ourselves and our petty lives — and our electronic toys. So many of us simply don’t see.

I am also reminded of the truly remarkable descriptions written by Edith Wharton who lived in the early part of the last century and loved to travel. This was the age of the early cameras when things had to be standing still to be photographed and she preferred to write down what she saw. She wrote several travelogues that are extraordinary in their detail and liveliness. Her descriptive powers were well beyond the ordinary — so far beyond that they would stand alone as testimony of her exceptional writing skills if it were not for her novels which are filled with similar descriptions as well as profound observations of those around her and the ideas and practices that were found by her to be worthy of comment. It is her novels that folks connect with her name, though another great writer, Wallace Stegner, later paid tribute to Wharton’s exceptional descriptive abilities.

But one would have to journey far to find better lyrical qualities and descriptive powers that Trilling himself as we can see from this brief passage:

“The air was filled with the perpetual sound of crickets, the sound of summer that speaks of summer’s end. It spoke of this now to Laskell, as it always had, ever since boyhood, with its pleasant melancholy of things ending, a conscious and noble melancholy leading to hope and the promise of things to come, of things beginning, all the liveliness of autumn, of new starts, the renewed expectation that, this year, one’s personal character would learn the perfect simplicity one wished it to have.”

But that was then, 1945 and before. This is now, and as I have suggested we seem to have lost the ability to see and to reflect on what we see means in the grand scheme of things. Granted, these were exceptional people with exceptional skills, but where do we find such people today (outside of Ecuador)? And how many of us look around us and see the beauty and weigh the details of an ordinary tea-cup or the sounds of the crickets and think about what they mean and how many things they suggest to the careful observer? It is precisely those things, those seemingly trivial things, that may be the secret to human happiness if only we bothered to take the time to look.

In the end I am reminded, once again, of the group of teenagers sitting in the museum before Rembrandt’s Night Watch staring at the iPhones clutched in their hands, totally unaware of the beauty just a few feet away. It says so much about us and about how much of the world we are blind to.