Speaking pictures

Our everyday surroundings speak to us, but are we listening? What are we finally perceiving, as billboards and iPods battle for our sensory attention? Comment's series continues with an appeal for a little more awareness, a little more joy in seeing—and understanding—the visual narrative around us.

Appears in Spring 2007 Issue: Things we love
March 1st, 2007

The first pair of glasses I ever owned had lenses half the size of my face, and thick pink frames. Pale pink, in a hue only a little girl could pick out. I remember wearing them out of the optometrist's office and being completely riveted by everything that passed by during the car ride home. What really drew my attention were the front windows of people's houses. With my nearsightedness corrected, those big living room windows with their curtains wide open were just waiting for me to see what was hanging on the walls and showing on the television. The previously indistinguishable details of domestic trappings were laid out in all their mundane glory. I could see into other people's homes.

This memory represents two things for me—I love being able to see and I love being able to see into things. Popping in my contact lenses each morning, I'm still struck by what a gift it is to have my surroundings emerge out of the blurry mess of astigmatism and reappear in total clarity. But my delight in being able to see in detail and to see inside applies also to ideas and concepts. When a person thoroughly understands a concept, he or she is said to see and to have insight, regardless of how physically impossible it may be to see that concept. The language used to describe mental comprehension is positively rife with visual references and metaphors.

Among the many works of literature that forge a connection between human understanding and sight, one that sticks out for me is Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry, first published in 1595. In his treatise, Sidney praises the power of poetry and describes it in Aristotelian terms as a "speaking picture—with this end, to teach and delight." Sidney's words remind us that we cannot mentally comprehend the world without language—since words describe to us what we see—and that powerful language is often dependent on visual imagery and metaphor. I love poetry, and I wonder sometimes if we need a reminder that the physical world, the original speaking picture, is speaking to us all. And it isn't just speaking through a vista of the mountains or in the sun setting over a northern lake.

At the very least, the literary connections between vision and thought give me a sense of just how imaginative seeing is; how it is a mental exercise. I may be walking down an ugly street in a city, but when I look at something, be it a building or a stranger's face, and look to see what else is inside of it—what associations, memories, thoughts, or words appear before my mind's eye—then I am taking delight in my physical sense of sight. I love to stare at something, to pay attention to a thing as insignificant as the shapes and shades of the little stones in a patch of pavement. And when the physical surface, the intricacies of the pavement, traps my eye so that for a moment it is all I see, and all I think about is what those stones look like, my reward for looking is that for a time I forget about the cares of the day.

Although the phrase is cliché, the term mind's eye is fitting, for what could better sum up the individuality of the 'I' than the idea that each person has a unique visual perception and consciousness of the world? The more I see people walking around with ear buds plunged into their heads and cell phones attached to their ears, the more I wonder what effect relentless distraction from the physical world must have on their visual sense and ability to form a personal, visual narrative of life. Much has been said about the ever-increasing pace of life and the consequences thereof. For my own part, I think one of the impoverishing things about our rushing around in daily life is that we don't look at what's around us.

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