The most exacting philosophical task that I have set myself, for the last number of years, has been little more than to question what we really think and feel about things; and the simplest observations have persuaded me of this course.
Some time ago, a customer asked me to design and make a stove, a whimsical idea based on the shape of a bull (for this is what I do, make stoves for a living). I mentioned to him that another customer had just asked me to include some ‘MacIntosh-like’ features, where upon this fellow chuckled, and said, ‘everyone THINKS they like MacIntosh’. I was amused by this comment at the time; it had a certain casual wisdom about it, and it stayed with me; that we ‘think’ we like something might not be the same as actually liking it.
It accorded well with other observations that I was making at the time. Having moved not long before into rural SW Scotland, I was struck by the number of other incomers who had moved here to ‘get away from it all’, and professed a yearning for solitude. Since I had arrived for practical reasons (being an unemployed welder with a young family during the early Thatcher years made for lean pickings in the North of England at the time), I didn’t necessarily share that isolationist view. But I understood it well enough to have some sympathy with it. Some incomers lasted longer than others, and we came to notice that often those who professed the most ardour for the lonely moors and the wind-swept coastline were often those least suited to the solitary life. True hermits are few and far between … certainly, I’ve never met one, but then that might be due to secrecy rather than scarcity. But in general conversation, when it comes to designing our ideal way of life, perhaps half the proponents would wistfully describe a lonely cottage with a sea view, with the remainder either enamoured with all the city has to offer, or shrugging the shoulders and being happy where life might land them. I confess this is guess work, and I would be interested to see surveys undertaken to see if that proportion is near the truth, and also how an urban sample might differ from a rural one. As guess work, it cannot form the basis of an argument, but we might at least agree that there is a romantic element in how we see our ideal life, and it is this ‘romantic’ element that I wish to look at. We are social animals, and like other pack animals we wither outside of the group, yet we seem to have some compulsion to resist our tribal nature. We can explore this later, but for now I just offer it as an obvious contender for our disconnection, of how easy it is for us to be mistaken in what we really want or like.
It is not difficult to show how easily our senses can be fooled, such as with visual puzzles and trompes l’oueil, and with the mapping of the human brain how even our most consciously determined decisions are actually formed subconsciously. Our capacity for free will is called into question. Interesting as such lines of enquiry may be however, it is the fields of social and cultural persuasion that are relevant to this essay, and how the unconscious biases of our group thought affect us. Apart from Charles Renee McIntosh and wilderness, what else do we think we like? And, more importantly, how can we be sure of what we genuinely want? As with the wannabe hermit, we like to think of ourselves as independently minded, and resistant to advertising and other sales pressures. We might admit to being political animals, but it is always others who are too weak to form their own opinions; the other driver is always to blame. We are all independent of the herd.
One, if not the most important of lessons an art education affords, is the rigorous challenge to our presumptions. I resisted this lesson strongly during my time at college, my presumptions being essential to my opinion of myself as the next Michelangelo; my love of art was approximately equivalent to the exalted opinion of my worth. I realise the dangers of using my personal history as an argument for humility, and how easily the aim of unbiased opinion may be deflected by self interest. But there is a line of technical argument that proceeds to the intention of this essay, and the reasoning goes something like this:
If you set out to paint what is before you, say a portrait, still life, or – as in my case – a landscape, the surest way to disappointment is to follow the dictates of what you reckon a good painting should be. If you set out in the morning, full of confident inspiration, the colours already mixing themselves in your mind’s eye, it is not long before you are confounded by what is in front of you. As John Constable said, to be a landscape painter you must walk through nature and be humble. I don’t think he intended spiritual advice here, but meant that if you are not prepared to paint with an open mind, unprejudiced by expectation, you are bound to come a cropper. It is not easy to paint what you actually and truly see (though I’m sure others find it easier than I), but if you persevere you are likely to be pleasantly surprised by what emerges on the canvas, and the thrill of being part of something bigger than yourself compensates for any personal disappointment in your talent. It also becomes easier to spot hubris – or bullshit – in the work of others. Many years ago there was a very popular exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, called ‘the Post Impressionists’. I shuffled round in the queue, knocked out by the vibrancy and daring of the work on the walls … such colour and abandon, so daring! … by the end, I was quite shell shocked, but so heavily impressed with it all that I was none the wiser. So I decided to go round again, whizz round really quickly, telling every painting to ‘fuck off’ (I was a student, so with my student card it was free). It didn’t take long, and was quite liberating; I was in charge! The pointillistes. Italian futurists, German expressionists, the Fauves, even Gaugin, Braque and Picasso fell without a murmur. But when I came to a painting by Cezanne of his gardener, all dressed in black and painted rough as you like, I just couldn’t swear at it; it was just too strong and honest. Also a painting of cliffs by Monet, and a Van Gogh (I can’t remember what it was, I’m ashamed to say) survived the test.
Now, I realise this is not conclusive proof of anything … how do I know that I was not influenced by my reverence for these particular painters? All I can say is, if that is so it is so; there must come a point when critical faculties break down, and the visceral response cannot be gainsaid. I still find the ‘fuck off’ test useful in a number of situations, though if used too much can turn you into a misanthrope and curmudgeon. But when overwhelmed by a technical display, whether in art, film or music (especially live music, where the moment can impair judgement), it has its place. The great art historian E.H.Gombrich says, in an introduction to his History of Art, which was aimed at the younger reader, but is full of adult wisdom, ‘there are no bad reasons to like art …. but plenty of bad reasons to DISlike art’. And this spirit of generosity is highly commendable, and one I try to adhere to. I have thought though, that the only bad art is that which pretends to be something it is not. And we generally recognise honesty as being the first virtue in any form of artistic expression. Most forms of ‘high’ art are generally now so esoteric, that unless you are familiar with the nuances and recent history of a genre, we are not equipped to judge, so tend to the ‘what a load of rubbish’ response, just because it is easier than learning all about it.
And why should we? I don’t mean to get stuck in arguments about art. But the process of art can help dispel prejudice. In learning to draw, for example, it is surprising how the eye can be persuaded to see what it expects. We are familiar, for example, with the way perspective converges the lines of a road to a point, but only by measuring with a pencil do we accept the same with vertical lines. Perhaps, unless you live in New York, or the middle of a redwood forest, most of our observation is based on the horizontal lines which dominate our landscape and our lives. So we might draw the floor and ceiling of the room we are sitting in converging to the far wall, but are generally surprised by how that far wall is narrower at the top than the bottom … try measuring it off with a pencil at arm’s length! And as a child, can you remember the initial reluctance to accept that the eyes should be drawn in the middle of the head, rather than at the top of the face, the obvious position for young reason? After all, we are disposed as tiny babies to recognise the eyes and mouth as of pre-eminent importance, not as features of a head. I don’t necessarily confer quality with accurate representation, incidentally … I just use it for illustration. That accurate representation itself might actually NOT equal truth has been the main challenge of visual art for well over a century. But the whole process of art persuades us to question the obvious, what we take for granted.
And the humanities have been trying to apply the rigours of scientific, objective analysis to how we see ourselves for as long. History, and the relatively new disciplines of her multiplying offspring of economics, sociology, anthropology and political philosophy, attempt to plot the course of populations, and attempt to apply the true scale of our tiny selves to the multitude (and more recently, to the physical world that supports us), and to do all this without prejudice. But there has been a dichotomy, since the renaissance, between the individual as the centre of everything, Leonardo’s Man, and the ever expanding universe that envelops and describes him. To me, the boldest attempts to understand the experience of self within the vastness of all that surrounds us were made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Descartes’ reduction of everything to nothing but his thought, Bishop Berkeley’s attempts to separate perceived and actual reality, David Hume’s questioning of causality … perhaps the power of these insights are common place within our modern seats of learning – perhaps they are surpassed on a daily basis … and perhaps it is just that the language that they are expressed in has become too esoteric for the common man to understand. I would hate to be the ignoramus at a modern art exhibition shouting ‘bollocks’, but so far I’ve come across very little that survives the ‘fuck off’ test when it comes to explanations of who or how we are. I doubt I can do any better, but I can at least probe away at some of the discrepancies I find within our assumed world, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity. If we are not satisfied with explanations of how the world works, it is up to us to re-frame the questions, and dig for our own answers.
This question, for instance, of the relationship between the individual and society, or, more grandly, Leonardo’s Man and the universe. An observation, to do with aforementioned ‘proportion’: how very numerous, and similar we are, yet how determined we are of our uniqueness! I’ve used this next observation in another essay, but repeat and expand it a bit here, as it’s relevant to the issue of what we take for granted. I live in Scotland, at present one of 66 million Britons. I am one member of this community of nations, and I am continually persuaded by all I see and hear over the media that we are a tribe that shares a certain intimacy; ‘we are all in this together’, as our current chancellor describes us in our economic predicament. Quite apart from the political presumption involved, I’d question who this ‘we’ is. Lots of ‘us ‘we’ and ‘ours’. 66 million of ‘us’. Let’s consider for a moment 66 million people. I say consider, because I’m not sure we can actually imagine that many people. That’s over a thousand full national football stadiums. Another way to try and imagine that many people is to imagine them spread out on the living room floor; so many tiny dots they’d be lost in the weave of the carpet. Shoulder to shoulder, you could pack in perhaps 4 people per square metre. To pack them all in, from where you are sitting, look down at the floor … you’d get about 6 people per square millimetre. You would not be able to see an individual person, though perhaps a hawk might. …and even then, just a sea of dots. Now, how many people do we individually know? I’m reasonably sociable, and of quite a large family, but if I actually start to count them up, I’d get to two or three hundred that I could actually name. If I include people who I’d recognise, even if unsure of their names, for example well enough to nod to if we met in another town, I could perhaps double that number. So we’re up to 500. I’m talking about people I might know on a personal basis. Let’s put a bright red hat on them all, so we can see them from above, on the living room floor. They would occupy about the head of a drawing pin’s worth …. a red drawing pin on the sitting room floor. Now let’s think about how many ‘celebrities’ we can think of: all those people on the telly, presenters, actors, showbiz folk we’d recognise, even if not name; politicians, pundits, writers; musicians, sportsmen and women … I’ll bet not as numerous as you’d think …. but if I’m feeling generous I’d maybe allow you another 500 folk. Let’s give them yellow hats, for definition. Another drawing pin’s worth. As celebrities, they would perhaps float above the crowd a couple of inches …. suitable, because plenty of other ‘drawing pins’ would need to be able to see them from wherever they may be on the floor. If I’m being too cautious, double the numbers … two drawing pins worth
The reason why I mention celebrities as well as personal acquaintances is because I suspect that we imagine we know more people than we do, and that through celebrities we feel connected to all the other tiny dots on the floor… a sort of multiplier effect, whereby shared acquaintance leads to familiarity.
Another way to check how many celebs we know is to note the number of obituaries, or deaths of ‘famous’ people occur in any given month, then to compare that to the number that must be alive (famous people are always worth a mention on the radio, or at least an obituary) … perhaps five a month that we recognise? I realise there are a few factors involved, such as our own age, and the fact that on the whole dying celebs tend to be elderly, so not an easy sum … but I get to around 4 or 500 alive we’d personally know of. Or on the other hand, how rare it is to meet, see, or even know someone distantly connected to a celebrity (unless you happen to be one of course, or move in those sort of circles). I’m discussing statistics here by the way, not judging on the merits or shame of being famous
This is all a long winded way of saying there are an awful lot of people …. shed loads more than we think or casually imagine; and that’s just in the UK … for the whole world, multiply by 120 (a living room floor area of about 100 metres square). The human race, all our brothers and sisters! Perhaps it’s easier, paradoxically, to imagine the vastness of the whole human race than of a particular nation, for nationhood fosters a certain familiarity. But the whole human race? How many are we? We are often reminded to marvel at the amount of stars in our galaxy … approximately 200 billion. This means that if all the stars in our galaxy were equally shared between us we’d only have about 20 each. It’s tempting to get lost in the surprises of multitudes here, but I’ll resist … except for this one I just came across: there are more stars in the whole universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of earth, BUT, even more molecules than that in just a teaspoon of water. Good grief!
Of course it is not just celebrities that bind us together. Of all the cultural ties that make us what we are, history, language, science and religion, all the arts, ‘celebrityhood’ would be well down the list. I just want to emphasise how small we are in relation to everyone else, what tiny particles. But I believe, and the point of this enquiry is to investigate how, the relationship of our individual selves to the whole is crucial to our underlying happiness, and to look at our sense of identity. How accurate are the presumptions of what makes us what we are?
An immediate way to look at what concerns us is to look at the news, an obvious step for an observing alien race for example. And an alien observer could be forgiven for thinking that, at whatever news broadcast that they’d come in on, humanity was in crisis, even the brink of destruction, whether it be through war, economic meltdown or natural disaster. But it does not take much inspection of the evidence to wonder what all the fuss is about. Last year (2013), military conflict accounted for 55,000 deaths … there were about 8 times as many homicides, and six THOUSAND as many road accident deaths. Of our carpet of humanity, spread out over a good part of a football field, we’re talking about a few square inches. World War 2, the heaviest culling ever by our own species of ourselves, did for 3% of the global population. Natural disasters and disease epidemics– even mass killers such as TB and malaria – account for no more. In fact there’s nothing really to compare with road accidents … but it always seems much worse. I don’t know how many folk take their own lives in despair at the gravity of life on earth, but I hope it’s not as many as I fear, because, really, things are not that bad. Bearing in mind that the news is constructed to our demand, why would we appear to relish disaster? I don’t mean the voyeuristic fascination of a car crash, but the equally atavistic fascination with death of the species. It would seem to be a constant of human culture; our gods have always had an appetite for death … imminent destruction has always hovered over us. Science might have freed us from superstition, but not from fear.
For that is what it is. Even within my life time, I have lived under a more or less steady level of alert: mutually assured nuclear destruction has gradually turned into impending environmental disaster. As hunter gatherer animals we are programmed for anxiety, to anticipate threat. And our culture is no more than an extension of the personal and tribal instincts that were essential to survival in our early days in Africa as exposed and hairless bipeds.
As far as individual death goes, life is not too risky a business these days, and in a western democracy such as the UK, it would generally be deemed bad luck not to reach the biblical standard of three score and ten. And I would say the same about economic despair. As the world recovers from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, our alien observer might again conclude that our very survival was under threat. Now I know that there are genuine victims of disaster, and usually those on the fringes of society suffer most, such as those perched on the crest of a breaking wave, but for most of us the pulse of change is almost imperceptible, and the wave passes through or over us. So what if the GDP changes by a fraction of a percentage point, and tips us into recession? I grant it may trigger changes in bank lending policy for example, or dissuade us from going shopping, but these secondary, depressing effects are caused by perception. Too much wringing of hands can cause a rash.
Terrorism is often quoted as being one of the major threats to western democracy. The actual physical threat to safety is imperceptibly small, not much greater than the likelihood of winning the lottery, which itself is not dissimilar to being struck by lightning. The inconvenience of countermeasures, such as queuing at airport security, might be measurable, but again is a secondary effect, a political response to ‘perceived threat’.
How do we measure the damage caused? 2,996 people died in the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. In that same year, 15,980 Americans intentionally killed each other, 30,622 died by their own hand, and 42,196 people died in road accidents. The actual mortality rate of even such a major terrorist event, however regrettable – even appalling – is insignificant. As an ideological event however, it becomes something else. What did George W Bush mean when he declared his ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11? Al Quaeda, after years of ineffectually flicking pebbles at the window of the Whitehouse one day threw a brick through, and finally got his attention. America, and the dumber of her allies, have been lumbering around the playground ever since, causing no end of problems to everyone but the fundamental Islamists. ‘Terror’ is the means, not the cause. It is a pea-shooter by which the idealogues of extreme Islam attack the slumbering beast that is humanity, and it is the pea-shooter that Bush declared war upon. No wonder he had trouble finding the enemy. Again, a secondary, ‘perceived’ effect, and an excellent example of how erroneous such a perception can be.
(as I write this, 17 civilians have been killed by three Islamic extremists in Paris, and the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is echoing round the world. Millions of demonstrators have been on the streets, including heads of state … moving and impressive. Vigorous debates are arising from the event, and engage with global issues of freedom of expression and respect for religious conviction … essential arguments of value. It also brings into focus the imbalance of power in our global civilisation … a few days later, Boku Haram have razed the town of … , Nigeria, and slaughtered over two thousand men women and children. These are testing events for the objective tone of an essay like this … how is it possible to be detached in the face of such wanton savagery?)
The News emanates from that same platform the celebs inhabit, that we have floating above the carpet of humanity. As with celebrities though, I do not mean to accord greater intelligence (witness presidents and prime ministers)… the news might be broadcast from the platform, but it is created by the various minions, reporters and pundits, academics and experts scurrying around the planet’s surface, gathering scraps of information, then collated by various editors according to what they think might be of interest to the public. This loop is now also fed by the internet, amplifying the feedback process.
None of these observations are new, but it is the scale of it all that I wish to emphasise. I’m as keen as the next man to turn on the news and find out ‘what is happening’, but is that driven by a thirst for knowledge, or is it a way of keeping in touch with my human family? I prefer to think of it as a lens of our own creation, and the act of watching the news as a bonding activity. Reporters, editors and proprietors gather and frame the news to feed the channels with information. Thinkers and scientists are busy polishing and improving the lens, and we can play our own part in framing the questions, testing the framework itself.
We might refer to this shared lens through which we view the world as our ‘Culture’. It is informed not just by the media, but by our education and our history, our religious, political and scientific understanding, our nationalistic or tribal biases. We all confer on ourselves a certain independence of thought. We need only look at our opinions of the independence of others, to question our own. The lens through which we view the world is the same through which we look at ourselves, contrived by our shared culture. We think we know what we like, but how accurate are we in this presumption?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ‘THE VIEW’
A priority in buying a house – at least in the UK and parts of Europe that I know even vaguely – is the view, and much vaunted in the estate agent’s literature. I look around the cottages and houses in the Machars of SW Scotland where I live, and am surprised at what little consideration must have gone in to the siting of dwellings when they were built. There are so many marvellous views here to be had … of the sea, both east and west, of the mountains to the north; winding rivers and moorland. But unless it was a large and prosperous dwelling, the considerations of where to build seemed to have been determined by more practical concerns, such as siting near a farm steading, near a road or shielded from prevailing weather (which coincides with shielding from most views). There is a line of houses in the village of Sorbie, facing south, and with larger windows than usual for cottages around here … built for the view perhaps? … no, merely to admit more light for the ladies who engaged in sewing lace there. Properties built after the war – or thereabouts – started to consider the view; plenty of bungalow building to support that, such as Monreith and various village outskirts. So it occurred to me that perhaps views didn’t exist until fairly recently; it just was not a consideration in house building … and then only because the idea was adopted from middle class properties, which in turn had evolved from country houses, or fine urban dwellings such as Edinburgh New Town .. and these in turn derived from the classically constructed artificial views of landscaped gardens from the grand houses from renaissance times onwards. And these fine gardens were constructed from the renaissance painters’ classical ideals. By the 17th century Inigo Jones was designing houses and gardens with the sort of classical vistas painted by Claud Lorrain and Poussin; in the 18th, Capability Brown was foremost in making the contrived view real for grand houses. The Romantic idea of the sublime, where the wildness of nature was admitted to challenge the Mannered vision, and the tempestuous landscapes of Friedrich and Courbet popularised the idea of a changing view, driven by the elements. But the idea of the view as accessible to all was taking root, and with the rise of the middle classes, this idea gradually filtered through society.
There is enough material for a full thesis on the subject; ‘How Views were Invented’, from the first placement of religious characters in a ‘real’ background by Giotto, through the high renaissance and Leonardo, through the idealists such as Bellini and Giorgione in Venice, the classical romance of Lorrain, through the Sublime, to Courbet, to Daubigny and thence to Monet’s water garden. … But another time.
Was the farm worker as happy by his hearth, with no notion of a view, as the retired accountant might be today in his cottage by the sea? Impossible to say, though we could suppose that the accountant would feel impoverished if his view is taken from him, or altered outwith his notion of what a view should consist of. I am baffled by the number of otherwise sensible people who feel their freedom threatened by the prospect of a wind farm anywhere nearby … sometimes not even within view; the very idea is enough to cause distress.
I have often heard the same said about electricity pylons, which don’t even have the grace of a modern wind turbine. But I’ve always found a rather grim majesty in the way they stalk the hills and the wilderness; in fact I’m confident that some honest paintings of pylons could change how we view them. (The pylons that attempt to follow human form, or that of a deer, just seem ridiculous to me). In fact, nature unadulterated by man’s influence I find to be rather dull, and I suspect that it is only through mistaken romance that this is not generally recognised. Is anyone else moved by the equal luminosity of man-made and natural light? Street lights at dusk? The appealing effect was caught in a number of urban paintings by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Or the prosaic grandeur of Lowry’s industrial paintings?
There are not many views of raw nature that can’t be improved by an old ruin. I was working in a house in Tongland a few years ago … a wee village up the river from Kirkcudbright on the Galloway coast. Across the small wooded valley facing me I saw what looked like an old brick factory peeking through the trees. I asked about it, and was told it had once been the Galloway Car Factory … a part of Britain’s industrial heritage that i’d never heard of, buried in the woods by the River Dee! Ok, so this might appeal more to myself than most because of my trade, but I work in a similar old factory (the Bladnoch Creamery), and just about every customer who visits the workshop is intrigued by the history of the place. There are innumerable websites devoted to photos of abandoned and ruined buildings, testifying to their appeal; emblems of the past, redolent with the atmosphere of actual history. And this is understandable: man’s influence on the landscape must be considered as a part of nature, and one that excites our interest for reasons of cultural affinity. Wild and untamed nature is alarming, unless moderated for us. A raging storm can be exhilerating, as long as viewed from a position of safety, much as a horror film might pique our fearful instincts, even if we have to hide behind the sofa at the scary bits.
Music, if stripped of its tribal associations, can be flat and dull. I have various friends who subject me to their own tastes, from raw blues and be-bop to anarcho-punk, hip-hop, reggae and even glam rock. My own tastes were formed by the music that my father loved and was always playing in the house – classical greats like Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, and the first pop music I came across, Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, Dylan, Chicago blues men like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf … I cannot imagine anyone arguing with these. But people do … they might hear classical music as the sentimental reinforcement of class prejudice; the blues as rough shouting, pop as ephemeral. Our taste seems to be on the whole formed early, childhood associations giving way to the courting music of adolescence. And these are especially strong influences on our tribal allegiances.
How to divide our intrinsic attraction to harmony and melody from the tribal colourings that clothe different genres? Is it even possible? Just as our sense of smell waned as our eyesight developed, so western music lost the subtleties of single note division as we revelled in the new possibilities that modulation gave us (that is, forming whole new chords from the dominant harmonics of a particular root note). Compare the nuanced music of classical Eastern forms with the rich but direct melody and harmony of Western music. Once chordal music was invented, it spread quickly, through North America via church and folk music, back to Africa, down through South America and now globally. The echoes of the various cultures it has passed through has enriched our palette, from Celtic intricacy into American country, the Moorish hints of flamenco that travelled to South America to blend with Andean pipes into tango and salsa. The emotional power of courtship (witness dance and romance) is evidenced by the creativity of youth; new forms continue to proliferate, as the tribes evolve … jazz, bosa nova, hip-hop, reggae and rock spawn new movements with scarcely a note being written down or taught. What is there to rival the vitality of music’s ambassadorial role in global culture? With video and film it has used technology to spread far, fast and wide. But if it was merely the sonic quality we prized, would we not share a homogeneous sound that we found most agreeable? My friend the anarcho-punk fan goes into a trance of pleasure when he listens to Spunkwallah Nightmare … there’s nothing that he finds quite as soothing as angry teenagers frothing at the mouth. He finds a sweet harmony painful. When we are persuaded to listen to a new genre of music, it is not usually the sounds that captivate us, but the persuasion of the new tribe.
The animal effect of light and dark is of course an issue. I’m reminded of an evening when I was once driving down here to the Machars of Galloway from Glasgow. When I reached Ayr I had a choice: either to go the last 50 miles over the hills by Dalmellington, or by the slower but well lit coast road by Girvan. It was dark, and a wild night, and I chose, without thinking the Girvan road. Why? I had no intention of stopping, and every confidence in my car (not always the case I have to say) … because, I presume, the well lit road suggested company and safety.
I admit there must be some residual love of nature within us, inherited from our wild past. Warmth, light, water … these are prerequisites of life, in reasonable quantities. The scent of earth and woodland, the feel of fresh breeze upon the face, the sparkle of a distant body of water or the sound of a babbling brook; the appeal of birdsong, the colour of ripening fruit … all evidences of nature that might be of biological benefit to us. The smell of freshly baked bread promises nutrition, while putrescence warns us of possible disease. If we can remember our earliest impressions of the world as children, we will find correlation through what we appreciate as adults. And within these earliest impressions we might well detect evidence of animal response. But before Monet painted snow in shadow as purple, we never experienced it as such. It is only when the world is narrated to us in story form (or we tell the story ourselves) that it means anything to us. We need the stories to trigger our primeval appreciation of nature. I remember as a boy of 14, seeing a handsome sunset, and being frustrated that I was not moved as I felt I should be. Some months later I happened to do a drawing of the same view in oil pastels, and felt all the excitement that the original view should have afforded me. It was only a good time later that I worked out why that should be. After many years of going out painting the landscape, I have found that it can afford the same intimate and powerful association, on re-visiting it, that childhood memory can conjure up. This is partly for the concentrated looking involved, but primarily for the story that you have to tell to make sense of what you see. Perhaps this is why I have so little patience with those who claim a view to be their own. By it being there in front of you does not make it your own … paint it, write about it, work in it, then it can really mean something to you … and paradoxically, you lose interest in owning it. It is yours to the degree and for the moment of your appreciation; it is transitory, but might reside in your memory. That one might ‘own’ a view … ridiculous. I admit to enjoying a house with a good view as much as the next man, but it is not for the pleasure of looking out of the window; it is because I am pleased by the ‘story’ in my mind of living in such a place. It might be important for us to dwell in a house that is pretty or handsome on the outside, but the only times we get to appreciate it directly are as we approach it … our continuing appreciation is of the ‘story’ of us in our dream house.
The relevance of the observation is in how we see the world, how even our perception is moulded by history and convention. … we think we know what we like! For our own self-esteem we might think we reject the advertised image or jingle, but these, like opinions, become part of us. When the communists wished to expand their influence to another country, they would target the intelligentsia, not just as potential opinion formers, but because they are the most impressionable. The more vehemently we reject our received culture, the more likely it is that we are beholden to it.
In trying to come to some conclusion to this essay, I’m more than aware of my limitations, not just as a writer, but a thinker as well; that this is more a collection of musings than a reasoned essay or argument. Such are the limitations of the part timer! How can I link these musings into some coherence?
I suppose the one thing that excites me here is how beholden we are to artifice, and how little we are prepared to admit this. Is this due to something in our animal make-up, that makes us prone to delusion, or our culture, whereby history has gradually clad our eyes, trained our vision? I suspect the latter, or else this exercise has been wasted. Sure, there might be an effect of our tribal disposition that evolved over millions of years, that persuades us to view our enormous societies as extended families; of our bodies to recognize light and water as beneficial, and darkness and decay as bad; of the major triad as harmonious, and dissonance as disturbing. But it is the story that we tell which fashions our happiness, and how much we accept of the telling, and whether we merely listen, or question the truth of that story. And the best way to question it is to be part of the telling, to add to the narration. Our ideas are formed, but not necessarily governed by the language we have learned.