“A sidewalk?” said almost everybody.
I think they were frankly surprised I would show them such a dull picture. What a waste of time! An ordinary, boring sidewalk, such as we see every day! What’s the point of that? We hurry along such sidewalks on our way somewhere else, and we don’t usually notice anything much about them, unless a tree root creates enough unevenness to catch our hurrying feet and trip us up.
Or unless the sun does something strange above our heads. Then everything changes!
Here’s a picture of some other shadows, this time from the partial solar eclipse of May 2012: It happened on a weekend when I had just been through quite a lot (and that’s another story, told here: “Out of the Blue: Embracing the Unexpected, in Writing and in Life”), but I staggered outside anyway to see what I could see. And I saw–not the usual leaf shadows cast against the neighbors’ garage, but instead a thousand crescent suns.
And suddenly the world was defamiliarized! Made strange!
These are terms coined about a hundred years ago by a Russian writer named Viktor Shklovsky. He was fretting about the way that modern people rush mindlessly from place to place, never really seeing the world it passes by. He diagnosed us as suffering from “automatization,” from the tendency to recognize things, without ever seeing them. His point was that when we fail to see, we short-circuit the glorious detour that is life: we live our lives as if we were already more than half dead, “as if this life had never been.”
(In Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, young Milo suffers from a similar problem: “When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d even bothered.”)
This business of not seeing the world isn’t a small problem. This is an EMERGENCY! We are NOT FULLY ALIVE! What can be done? Well, Shklovsky had a thought about that, too: “And so [says Shklovsky, as translated by Benjamin Sher], in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of ART.”
Art can save us by helping us see. A painting, a poem, a novel can “make things strange,” and that strangeness slows us down, forces us to see the world in a new way, and saves us from our zombie-like rush toward death. Yay, art!
So here’s another picture:
This one comes from Shaun Tan’s book, THE ARRIVAL, which tells, without words, the story of a man who travels from a shadowed homeland to a different place, a city where everything is unfamiliar, many things are beautiful, and some things very, very odd indeed.
The shadow of the dragon’s tail in the picture above is mysterious. We see that shadow, and we’re not sure whether it’s literal or a metaphor, whether there are actual dragons oppressing the people of his hometown, or whether his family is “living under the shadow” of political oppression, of want, of prejudice, and this shadowy dragon-tail staining the walls of the city is just there to give us a feeling for what it’s like, to live in fear. But the very beauty of the picture slows us down. We don’t jump to an Answer (“oh, metaphor!”) and race on. We pause, linger, wonder. Tan’s pictures are art: they make us see, and in so doing, in some small way, they save us.
Art, like a solar eclipse or a run-in with cancer, can forever change the way we see the world. A novel like an eclipse! That’s a worthy goal.
Because I do perceive the shadows differently these days. Where once I might only have thought there was “nothing”–just that boring old sidewalk–I now can’t but help but notice, post-eclipse, the wonders hiding there: the bright, round traces of a thousand tiny suns.