are pleased to present the following
excerpt from the book
Notes on the Need
for Beauty: An Intimate Look at an
by J. Ruth Gendler
Marlowe & Company -
Who gave you your eyes?
This is one of my favorite questions.
As I take notes on the need for beauty I
want to consider how you and I see the
world. I can't know how you see the world,
so I ask you, "Who gave you your eyes?"
Inside this question are several other
questions. Who taught you to see? Who
taught you what to see? What not to see?
What are you paying attention to? What is
beautiful to you?
We see in the light and in the dark. We
see before we can speak. We see with our
eyes closed. We see in our dreams. We see
much more than we can ever say. I remember
someone showing me how to tie my
shoelaces, how to drive, how to tear paper
with a straight edge, but I can't remember
not seeing and someone showing me how to
We can't see ourselves.
We cant see ourselves whole. We can see
our hands stretched out in front of us, we
can bend our heads down and view the rest
of the front of our bodies; we can turn
our heads over a shoulder and see the line
of a leg. We need a mirror to look at our
own faces. We need a mirror to begin to
see our full selves, our bodies from head
to toe, all together, not just parts. We
need two mirrors to see what our backs
A traveler tells me that we live in
each other's gaze. We depend on each other
to see ourselves. And yet we must also
cultivate the courage to look at ourselves
as we are. It is a tremendous work to see
for ourselves, not just to accept what
others see, but to be who we really are,
to develop our own vision.
We are taught what to see, what not to
see, when we are so young we rarely
remember or investigate the choices
involved. I make lists of five things I
see, five things I don't see, five things
I want to see, trying to expand my
capacity to envision, visualize, to
observe more precisely, to imagine more
completely, to see with more awareness and
fewer ideas about what I am seeing. I see
how the pink-purple of the magnolia
flowers echoes the blue-violet of the
lilac. I don't see the way my shoulders
pull in when I'm asthmatic. I see the
early morning fog. I don't see the moon
during the day. I want to see the light
around your eyes.
When we are able to say what we see, do
we see it more clearly or do we stop
looking as carefully? When we are able to
say what we don't see, are we able to see
it, imagine it, wonder about it? To become
conscious of what we see is a beginning, a
way to acknowledge that we have learned to
see and can learn to see more. To become
more conscious of how we see is to know
our selves and our tendencies, our
prejudices, our outlooks. Driving in the
car one day I hear a report on the radio
about a British scientist who studied
people who had suffered strokes and were
only able to report seeing one thing at a
time -- a fork, or a spoon, or a plate.
Actually, when questioned further, they
"saw" more than they knew they had. How
often those of us with unimpaired sight
concentrate on only one thing and cant see
what's around it.
In Catching the Light, the physicist
Arthur Zajonc recounts the story of a boy,
blind from birth, whose eyes were operated
on by surgeons. After the bandages were
removed, his doctors waved a hand in front
of the child's eyes and asked him what he
saw. "He replied weakly, 'I don't know' .
. . The boy's eyes were clearly not
following the slowly moving hand. What he
saw was only a varying brightness in front
of him. He was then allowed to touch the
hand as it began to move; he cried out in
a voice of triumph: 'It's moving!' He
could feel it move, and even, as he said,
'hear it move,' but he still needed
laboriously to learn to see it move. Light
and eyes were not enough to grant him
sight. Passing through the now-clear black
pupil of the child's eye, that first light
called forth no echoing image from within.
The child's sight began as a hollow,
silent, dark, and frightening kind of
seeing. The light of day beckoned, but no
light of mind replied within the boy's
anxious, open eyes."
We learn to see in relationship to
ourselves, our loved ones, the world
around us. We learn to see, touch, taste
the world at the same time. Infants study
shadows, candle flames, faces. Mothers
note the infinite space in babies' eyes.
Fathers speak of the experience of loving
and being loved as their babies look at
them with open, adoring eyes, taking in
everything. A friend calls it "baby
gazing" -- the tender and compelling,
deeply generous exchange as parent and
child investigate each other's souls. In
babies' eyes nothing is absent or
The peekaboo of mother and baby becomes
the hide-and-seek of neighborhood
children, siblings. The little girl shouts
gleefully, "Look at me, don't look at me.
You can't see me." Throughout our lives we
negotiate between wanting to hide and
wanting to be seen. The experience of
seeing and being seen at the same time is
alternately terrifying and beautiful.
Often, in these moments, we know ourselves
both as whole and complete in ourselves
and wholly, completely part of the world.
We belong to ourselves and to each other.
We live in each other's gaze.
We hear the linking of our identity and
our vision in the very sounds of our
language. Who I am comes out of what "eye"
has seen. As that first-person singular
pronoun, I, the second eye seems to run up
from behind. The yes in eyes, the seeing
in the Spanish yes, si.
2007 by J. Ruth Gendler. Published with
Ruth Gendler is an artist, writer, and
teacher. She is the author of The Book
of Qualities and the editor of
Changing Light: The Eternal Cycle of
Night and Day. The Book of
Qualities, now in its fortieth
printing, has been adapted as a two-act
theater piece and translated into German,
Japanese, and Chinese. In addition to
personal essays and poems, Gendler writes
about the arts, education, health, and
books. Her artwork has been exhibited
nationally. Gendler has taught writing and
art in a variety of settings for twenty
years. She has been an artist in residence
with both California Poets in the Schools
and Young Audiences of the Bay Area, and
leads writing and creativity workshops.
She received her BA in English and
communications from Stanford University,
and she now resides in Berkley,
California. Her website is
Dr. Dolhenty's Review of this Book
at Amazon Books