The Eye of the Beholder

I have on a number of occasions referred to the following quote by Anais Nin:

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

It is such an insightful observation about how our minds shape our perception of the world. It suggests poignantly that there is no reality other than what we manufacture in our minds.

That we can communicate reasonably with each other suggests that we share many of our perceptions of reality. Without some common perceptions about the world it would be almost impossible to have discourse about it with others.

But often we are challenged by the perceived realities of others which startle us because they are so different from ours.. The marvellous neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor (who survived a stroke, learnt from it and then shared her experiences with the world,) related that she was motivated to study the human brain because her brother was schizophrenic and she could not reconcile how he could view the world so differently to her.

You might remember that I have in the past quoted the renowned Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who believed the worldview of depressed people contained these beliefs:

• No matter how good and acceptable I appear to be, I am really bad, evil, valueless, unacceptable to myself and other people
• Other people are such that I must fear, hate and envy them
• Life is terrible and death is worse
• Only bad things have happened to me in the past and only bad things will happen to me in the future
• I must never forgive anyone, least of all myself.”

Such a worldview would be greatly at odds with most of us.

It is a wondrous thing that seemingly minor differences between people can have such huge effects. The minuscule scale of our genetic differences belie their dramatic impacts. We, for example, share 99.4% of our DNA sequence with chimpanzees. But if we look at the human species itself, its members share all but 0.01% of identical genetic sequences. It is truly amazing that all our physical, physiological and much or our psychological differences emanate from this.

But our worldviews differ not only because of the genetic differences between us but our differences in socialisation. At a gross level this is manifested in our cultures.

In a previous essay I provided this example of how cultural impacts modify our perception of reality. It was exemplified by a radio interview that I heard some years ago. The interview involved a lady from a city environment being guided around the Australian outback by a lady with indigenous origins. They arrived at a vantage point overlooking a large tract of a typical outback landscape. The lady from the city began to describe the vista in front of her.

“We are on top of a sand ridge, looking down on a dried up lake bed. In front of us is a thicket of native plants, mainly Melaleucas. Beyond that there is a flat area, largely devoid of vegetation leading down towards the dry lake bed.”

The indigenous lady was then asked what she saw.

She responded, “I see native food and medicine.” Obviously pointing, she said, “There is a place we can dig for yams. Over to the right is a shrub which has berries which are good to eat. They will be in season in a month or so. That tree there has leaves we chew to help when we have a belly-ache.”

Two women viewing the same landscape largely saw different things due to their different cultures and acculturisation.

Donald Keene previously of Columbia University is a renowned scholar of Japan, Japanese history and Japanese culture. Keene observed that the Japanese sense of beauty differs markedly from its Western counterpart. Keene records that the Japanese sense of beauty has been dominated by a love of irregularity rather than symmetry, the impermanent rather than the eternal and the simple rather than the ornate. (Japanese art is often characterised by simple little pictures that seem to capture the essence of a flower, a bird or a bamboo shoot in a few deft brushstrokes.) The reason, asserts Keene has nothing to do with climate or genetics, “but is the result of the actions of, writers, painters and theorists who have actively shaped the sense of beauty of their nation”.

In his lovely book “The Architecture of Happiness” Alain De Botton takes up the theme.

“In medieval Japan, poets and Zen priests directed the Japanese to aspects of the world to which Westerners have seldom accorded more than negligible or casual attention: cherry blossoms, deformed pieces of pottery, raked gravel, moss, rain falling on leaves, autumn skies, roof tiles and unvarnished wood. A word emerged, “wabi”, of which no Western language has an equivalent, which identified beauty with unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things. There was “wabi” to be enjoyed in an evening spent alone in a cottage in the woods hearing the rain fall. There was “wabi” in old ill-matching sets of crockery, in plain buckets, in walls with blemishes, and in rough weathered stones covered in moss and lichen. The most “wabi” colours were grey, black and brown.”

Natsume Soseki was reputedly the foremost Japanese novelist of the Meiji period(1868–1912). In 1900 he travelled to London and was surprised at how the things he found beautiful seemed to have no impact on the Londoners. He recounted, “I was once laughed at because I invited someone for a snow-viewing. At another time I described how deeply the feelings of Japanese are affected by the moon, and my listeners were only puzzled. One day when the master and I took a walk in the garden, I noted that the paths between the rows of trees were all thickly covered with moss. I offered a compliment, saying that these paths had magnificently acquired a look of age. Whereupon my host replied that he soon intended to get a gardener to scrape all the moss away.”

Our culture shapes our view of the world just as much as our genetics might. It often determines what we pay attention to. Oscar Wilde, as perceptive and amusing as ever, quipped that there was no fog in London before Whistler started painting the Thames! Mossy paths hold no interest to most of us accept those who through their acculturisation have been led to believe that such things are beautiful! Such acculturisation is what determines fashion. How was it otherwise that only Chinese women believed that binding their feet made them beautiful or women in various African cultures thought that extending their necks with metal rings or distorting their lips with the insertion of clay saucers had the same effect.

David Hume in his “Essays, Moral and Political,” (1742) put it this way: “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”

4 Replies to “The Eye of the Beholder”

  1. Good stuff Ted….Plato said much the same thing many ages ago of course, as you know. And some Latin scholar was on about De Gustibus non est Disptandem. And Keats was strong on a Thing of Beauty being a Joy forever…… The amazing thing is not so much that there’s nothing new but that we have each to discover these eternal truths anew, ourselves, and in our own time….if the Gods are kind (many of our fellows, indeed most, never discover them al all).

  2. Congratulations Ted on your 150th! That’s a great achievement. I can sense another book coming out of all of these – Reflections and Revelations in a Quiet Revolution! Just seeing the world as I am rather than as it is! Maybe the quiet revolution is that people are Waking Up and understanding their commonality and oneness through their diversity.

  3. The economies of the Western world are kept in a permanent state of positive growth due largely to this phenomenon of beauty being a subjective thing. The industry I am referring to is the fashion industry. This is not just clothing though, it includes the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the sports we watch and play and pretty much every aspect of our lives. Some group of people some where decide what is fashionable and then market this via advertisement and popular media until we all agree that we can’t live without it. If you want proof that these industries decide what beauty is take a look at the fashions of the past. Who wants to wear a safari suit? You can be sure that what we are buying today will appear to some future generations as ugly and in extreme bad taste.

    There are some things though that seem to have always been beautiful which I think implies that they are somehow programmed into us genetically. The ratio of a woman’s hips to waste measurement has always been an indicator of beauty in all cultures. Symmetry in humans is another attribute that has always been associated with beauty although periodically we intentionally break it up by adding a mole or jewellery that is not symmetrical. Aside from humans though the other area of beauty is the natural world or even more importantly the living world. Bodies of water, forests, mountains, reefs are all considered beautiful and I expect they always have been. These natural beauties though are often not noticed in a busy material world. I expect that if you took the time and had someone assist you with a snow viewing it may well be a very beautiful thing.

    Perhaps there are 2 different forces at play here. Beauty driven by our consciousness or our ego and beauty coming from our more basal primitive brain. The first is ever changing the second more constant and enduring but it has to be let through our filters so that we can appreciate it. For my money I like beauty which endures.

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