One of my regular routes for running takes me along the banks of the Indianapolis Central Canal and the White River in Indianapolis. Even in the coldest weather, a portion of the canal will not freeze. Some of the city’s steam lines spill into the canal and by the time the slow current reaches the river (roughly a half mile down stream) the water is still warm. The canal water entering the river makes an attractive winter-time micro-culture for fish and birds seeking a warm place to meet, greet and eat. This warm-water spot is also very close to the Indianapolis Zoo (local runners call this route the “zoo loop”); so, I wonder, sometimes, if the critters I’ve seen on my runs have actually made a quick stop in honor of those caged and penned nearby. In five winters I have seen carp, coots, cormorants, foxes, grebes, hawks, and shrews—all within the high-traffic heart of a major urban city.
I know that I am not alone in enjoying these sightings. (There are plenty of runners on the zoo loop.) Likewise, I’m probably not alone in lamenting the fact that eye sight dulls with age. I can not see these creatures as well as I once could. For a couple of weeks now, I have seen some ducks, and while I can tell that they are not Mallards, what are they? Divers, yes … but Scaups? Mergansers? Buffleheads? Ring-necks? The seeing-and-not-knowing really kills curiosity … or maybe makes it more desperate. Perhaps the fact that I would probably know, if I could see, makes the desperation worse.
This slow fading of the senses and (even more so) the frustration that accompanies them has really stumped me. I keep wondering why I care. What is it about seeing and knowing that seems so important? Plenty of people fail to identify ducks at fifty meters distance without glasses or binoculars. Plenty of people see Scaup or Ring-neck, but know only “duck”. I am sure these folks live richly–days just as full of meaning.
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Now that I have started thinking about seeing and knowing and why they should matter, the questions bob to the surface and refuse to stay down. Recently, John Latta (in Williams’s seeing. Isola di Rifiuti, February 5, 2010) pointed to William Carlos Williams’s comments on the topic. (Williams being only one of an endless list of writers with failing eyesight; I’ve also been reading a lot of Milton lately.) Williams, in a comment to the poet Marianne Moore, noted: “I don’t like not being able to see dust flecks quite so distinctly as formerly—and the grains of pollen in the flowers” (To Marianne Moore, June 2, 1932. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1984. pg. 124). Latta, however, juxtaposes this with a quotation from the “Prologue” to Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations:
But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn” (William Carlos Williams. Kora in Hell: improvisations. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1920. pg 17)
Thus, Williams would seem to argue against the necessity of “seeing” … because it stifles the imagination? Any five year old in a crowd at the annual city parade, would probably disagree. If we’re merely going to imagine the parade, let’s all stay home. Williams’s mother might have said to him: “Dust flecks? Grains of pollen? You’re a poet, just use your imagination.”
The imagination (whatever that is) is a good thing, and seeing too literally can be a disability. Williams associates overly literal seeing with a kind of hyper-materialism, one that strips a culture of its aesthetic wisdom, if not of its moral and ethical foundations. (I think he would also condemn cliche seeing: “true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false” (16). From the Prologue again:
It is to the inventive imagination we look for deliverance from every other misfortune as from the desolation of a flat Hellenic perfection of style. What good then to turn to art from the atavistic religionists, from a science doing slavey service upon gas engines, from a philosophy tangled in a miserable sort of dialect that means nothing if the full power of initiative be denied at the beginning by a lot of baying and snapping scholiasts? (16)
When it comes to rescuing a culture from ignorance and slavery, I have no more faith in the imagination than I do in the senses. Therefore, I’ll beg for both of them, but to what end?