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We are pleased to present the following excerpt from the book

Notes on the Need for Beauty: An Intimate Look at an Essential Quality

by J. Ruth Gendler

Marlowe & Company - May 2007

 

Aphrodite's Gift

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 see.

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 look like.

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 hidden.

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.

Copyright 2007 by J. Ruth Gendler. Published with permission.

J. 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 www.ruthgendler.com.

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