Seeing Is Believing

What Flannery O'Connor Meant by 'Vision'
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Long before functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging showed how much of vision takes place in the brain—and where, exactly, in the visual cortex this process occurs—people knew that sight had to do with more than just our eyes. In fact, for the first two hundred years of its existence, the word “vision” referred exclusively to sight with the mind’s eye, whether in the form of a prophetic or mystical revelation, or simply the contemplation of a thing not actually present. Only later, in the late 1400s, did it come to mean bodily sight.

Today what springs to mind when we—as twenty-first-century Americans—hear the word “vision” is more likely to be an eye chart than Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus or Julian of Norwich’s shewings, or even the curious process by which a set of carefully chosen words can set synapses to firing in such a way that one is ever afterwards forced to see the physical world with new eyes. Critic and editor Christopher Ricks suggests that this process is actually a good litmus test for determining the literary quality of a sentence, image, or phrase: if the words come to you, unbidden, as you are driving down the road or drinking a glass of water, then the writer has succeeded. Personally, after reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I cannot look at a bare tree on a bright winter day and not admire the play of light through branches: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” So, too, Saul Bellow’s description of a water glass in his novel Seize the Day is now firmly etched in my mind, and I find it true of even bottled water when the sun hits just right: “And a glass of water is only an ornament; it makes a hoop of brightness on the cloth; it is an angel’s mouth.”

This spring I reread “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” with students in an introductory literature course at the United States Military Academy, where I teach. To my great surprise, only two plebes—as freshmen at West Point are called—out of maybe fifty or so had encountered O’Connor in high school. The jury was out on her stories: many of those who liked “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (a violent and funny story) disliked “The River” (a violent and sad story), and vice versa. Some cadets saw the stories’ significance come into focus when we looked for religious themes; others lacked a frame of reference to understand what is at stake in baptism, say, or redemption at the eleventh hour. But they did, almost to a cadet, admire O’Connor’s descriptions: the mean trees sparkling, a woman’s face “as broad and innocent as a cabbage,” the oversize peppermint stick that unnervingly cues us into the demonic and pedophilic nature of the piglike Mr. Paradise.

“I see it,” said one cadet, a football player, about the cabbage face, as I recall.

“Good,” I replied. “That’s exactly what O’Connor wanted you to do.”

And it’s true. Her vivid descriptions are carefully crafted to pull off exactly that magic trick of fiction: to replicate or recreate an image originating in one person’s mind (the writer’s) in the mind of another person (the reader). In her fiction, O’Connor deliberately tried to alter her readers’ perception, to get them to notice what she called the “distortions” of modern life and to look at the created world closely enough that they might perceive in its depths proof of a creator. For secular audiences, she saw little point in subtlety, famously explaining her grotesque style in this way: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

In her nonfiction—including the essays and occasional pieces collected in Mystery and Manners, as well as unpublished drafts and manuscripts housed at the Ina Russell Dillard Library at Georgia College and State University, which Louise Florencourt and the O’Connor estate have graciously permitted me to quote from here—O’Connor took a more subdued and oblique approach to vision. She felt that the contemporary use of vision to mean mere visual acuity—an exclusively physiological, optical process of seeing—belied a paucity of understanding.

“It might seem at first glance that the best way to make anyone see a thing is to reproduce it exactly as it appears,” she wrote, in one draft of a talk about what it means to be a Georgia author:

But the eye is a very peculiar instrument. Not long ago I was reading the work of a European writer named Romano Guardini and I came across the sentence, “The roots of the eye are in the heart,” and I was struck again with the complication of the act of seeing. We live in a world where people believe that if you have 20-20 vision, you can see all there is to see. But this is not a civilized attitude and no matter how far we may go in such a direction, we’ll always be haunted by the promise that the people who see God will be the pure in heart.

For O’Connor, human vision necessarily involves depth, interpretation, and charity. You may perhaps already surmise what the greatest of these is. Her insights into the nature and ethics of vision in a Christian context are worth recounting here, not least because it seems more critical than ever today to be cognizant of the prescient distinctions she drew between human vision and mechanical vision.

O’Connor’s aim in rehabilitating the word vision was twofold. First, she wanted to restore the earlier concept of inner vision—sight with the mind’s eye—to Catholic writers and readers alike, since “the Lord doesn’t speak to the novelist as he did to his servant, Moses, mouth to mouth. He speaks to him as he did those two complainers, Aaron and Aaron’s sister, Mary: through dreams and visions, in fits and starts, and by all the lesser and limited ways of the imagination” (Mystery and Manners). Second, she tried to push back against the ways in which technology—whether in the form of film, photography, television, or even microscopes—threatens to further narrow and distort our understanding of vision, by stripping it not only of an imaginative component, but of embodiment, coherence, and any sense of reciprocity between viewer and viewed. “The human eye is not the camera eye,” one manuscript reads. “Vision takes place in the depths of the mind, with the assistance of emotion, knowledge, and belief.”

 

HUMAN VISION, FOR O’Connor, is unlike mechanical vision in several ways. First, it necessarily involves interpretation. As a Catholic, O’Connor believed that the physical, perceptible, photo-graphable world is always pointing toward a larger and more enduring metaphysical reality. “To the medieval mind,” she writes, approvingly, “every created thing was a reflection of the Creator and the world was symbol.” Such symbolism requires an ability to “see” on several levels. In her story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she describes a red sun setting close to the horizon as “an elevated Host drenched in blood.” (Try to unsee that, the next time you catch a similar sunset.) A camera pointed at the scene will discern the presence of a red circle. A human being must see those same shapes and colors, and also comprehend that they both show the sun and point to God the Son. Human vision thus requires time and effort, in order to connect the physical act of seeing with the analogical imagination. Mechanical vision, by contrast, is instantaneous, needing only the click of a shutter, or whatever it is that happens with a digital camera.

Mechanical vision is also disembodied and homogenized vision. Human beings encounter the world through a particular body at a particular moment in space and time. As a result, human vision is frequently an experience of limitation—as when one is stuck sitting behind a support beam, say, or in the front row at a movie theater. Part of the appeal of mechanical vision is that it frequently seems to transcend limits. You can see above or below, near or far—sometimes quite near or quite far, into a cell or a distant galaxy, even, if desired. But one catch to this seeming transcendence is that mechanical vision flattens the individual idiosyncrasies of embodied human vision. Think of a football game. Spectators at a stadium will each have different vantage points, while fans watching on TV will see—or not see—the same things from the same highly mediated point of view. Much would be lost, O’Connor suggests in another manuscript, if we were to succumb entirely to this kind of “canned vision.”

Swap the image of a football game for the image of an “elevated Host drenched in blood.” Presumably, what appears in my mind’s eye is different from what will appear in yours. How high or low is the sun over the horizon? How large? What’s the exact shade of red? And so on. If we were to watch a film adaptation of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (an interesting mental image in itself), this variety would be lost. As it stands, the picture that my mind draws from words is informed by the particular sunsets I’ve encountered before, in real life and art—and I suppose by particular communion wafers, too—as well as how much attention I’ve paid to each. Having previously read O’Connor’s stories, I’m perhaps more apt to notice and attribute meaning to a red sunset than the average person, and thus to increase the selection of images stored in my memory; I’m sure there are others more apt than I.

Given these idiosyncrasies of sight with the mind’s eye, and the way it is shaped by past experiences, human vision is also inherently subjective. The camera eye presents objectivity as a virtue, but we err in trying to recreate that objectivity with human vision. “It is often supposed,” O’Connor writes, “that since what one sees is colored by what one believes, it is necessary to believe nothing in order to see clearly. This may work well enough if you are observing cells under a microscope. It will not work if you are writing a story, because a story requires a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

There are two problems with aspiring to objective, mechanical vision in this way. For one thing, any attempt to achieve the objectivity of a camera is bound to fail, because—despite Emerson’s pipe dream of the self as transparent eyeball: “I am nothing; I see all”—the human mind devoid of belief is not neutral. “When the inner world is sentiment, impure, or simply barren,” O’Connor writes, “it will not reflect an outer world that is different from itself, no matter how rich the life outside may be.” Instead, the barren inner state will project its own barrenness onto the world around it. If you have ever been angry, depressed, or selfish—or around someone in such a mood—you will recognize the truth of this statement. For such people, the mean trees do not sparkle, and perhaps in their anger or depression or selfishness they do not even see the trees at all. They would see nothing to laugh about in a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage, nothing breathtaking in the dance of light on water.

Such individuals, O’Connor laments, similarly tend to look inward rather than outward as they read. Instead of seeing the image generated by a novel, they see the backs of their own eyelids, thereby reinforcing the picture of the world they had before they began the book. A doctor, for instance, might look for diseases in fiction, and therefore find them; a minister for sermons; the poor for riches; the rich for justification—and “if they find what they want, or at least what they can recognize, then they judge the piece of fiction to be superior.” But that, according to O’Connor, is a misuse of art and a waste of its prophetic potential (recall the Lord speaking to novelists in dreams and visions, and through the imagination). If readers only ever want to become more of what they already are, O’Connor writes, “then Dr. Kinsey and Dr. Gallup are sufficient for the day thereof.” The statistician sees things as they are; the artist sees things as they should be. The Christian artist’s concern, then, must remain with “the clarity of his own vision and not with what his audience wishes to see.”

From this we may discern that clear vision for O’Connor needs to begin with a clear mind—not an empty mind, as we shall see in a moment, but an ordered one. That is, one that isn’t so obstructed by vanity or lust or some all-consuming hobbyhorse that it’s no longer capable of looking outward. A corollary to this statement is that human vision requires some degree of self-knowledge and self-awareness, in order to achieve a proper calibration between inner and outer worlds.

 

THE SECOND PROBLEM with aspiring to objective, mechanical vision is that mechanical vision is only ever partial. Whatever is outside the frame is outside the frame, and that’s that. Human vision, by contrast—and particularly if it’s informed by a comprehensive, catholic (or Catholic) worldview—can use its imaginative and interpretive capabilities to supply the whole picture. A microscope shows us a few cells at a time. It does not provide any context, nor a sense of how the cells could give rise to a living creature, and certainly not a sense of why the creature might exist at all or the end to which his or her life ought to be directed. “To believe nothing is to see nothing,” O’Connor writes, “or at most to see one thing at a time and not be able to connect it with the next thing.”

In this way, mechanical vision may be eroding our ability to form and maintain a coherent, comprehensive worldview. “To see one thing at a time and not be able to connect it with the next thing” is a pretty good description of how to move through the newest manifestations of mechanical vision. When a novel or short story asks you to keep track of what happened in the beginning, it tacitly promises that it will be worth your while to do so—that the relationship between the beginning, middle, and end will be revealed, and resolved, in a satisfying way. Television and especially the internet do not. Viewers can jump from discrete image to discrete image to discrete image. They can move from one disembodied vantage point to the next and the next, and discern no apparent connections along the way—no sense of how the pieces might fit together into an intelligible whole, nor of how the images could connect to you as a human viewer, and potentially implicate you as a moral agent.

This aspect of mass media and social media—its disinterestedness—is unexpectedly foreshadowed in O’Connor’s final, unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage?, whose manuscript I was able to examine. Walter, the protagonist, is a young man who returns to the South after living as a poet in New York. He is described as having “the eyes of a born observer—someone who delights in any scene and never connects it with himself.” He watches his mother work, but never contributes his own labor. He sees others taking care of his father, Tilden, who has had a stroke, but does not help. For fun, he writes letters under an assumed name to strangers and crackpots, and “whatever their fantastic viewpoint or occupation, he professed himself enthusiastic about it.” Walter’s correspondence, which predicts social media in odd ways, meant that “he had more friends he had never seen than friends he had,” for “the heart can move like the wind in letters where it is not tied to the body.”

Walter, O’Connor concludes, “observed everything without being touched.” But to really see another person clearly, she suggests, involves reciprocity and risk. And in fact her depiction of normative sight in the novel actually brings to mind Aquinas’s views on the primacy of touch, and its symmetry. It is possible to see without being seen, and to hear without being heard, but one cannot touch without also being touched. There’s a moment in the manuscripts where Tilden first meets Roosevelt, an African-American man who will become his loyal valet. (It’s Roosevelt and not Walter who takes care of the ailing Tilden.) The scene is set decades earlier, when both are young men. Although Tilden initially approaches Roosevelt intending to chastise him for laziness, he instead finds himself—almost against his will—whittling a set of eyeglasses out of bark, and handing them to the young black man. Roosevelt obediently puts them on, at which point Tilden’s “gaze penetrated the negro’s and he had a moment’s sensation—forgotten now and barely perceptible then—of looking at a negative image of himself and of seeing the boy’s captivity reversed. It vanished even before he could achieve positive recognition.” In that instant, Tilden catches a glimpse of some larger whole in which he and Roosevelt are equals, and possibly even kin. Although the glasses in this scene don’t have any lenses, they constitute a gesture of genuine goodwill, however gruff and absurd, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship. It is an inner vision, and a moral vision, that allows them to see clearly, and face to face.

Cassandra Nelson's work on O’Connor’s manuscripts has been generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Collegeville Institute. Copyright for unpublished manuscripts by Flannery O’Connor; renewed by Regina Cline O’Connor; permission granted by Harold Matson Co., Inc. on behalf of Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust, Copyright owner. All rights reserved.

Published in the November 11, 2016 issue: 

Cassandra Nelson is a Bradley Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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