In praise of the long sentence
Learning to be bad

Seeing a hundred colours

I was reminded today of something my great-aunt, the artist Gwen Raverat, once wrote which is just the kind of counter-intuitive idea which I love:

The whole of a long life is spent learning to see, to know what one is looking at with one’s inner mind: not in gaining experience, but in losing it.

It is counter-intuitive, isn't it, the idea that experience makes you see less well, but I think there's something in it. I know that to take photographs well I need to clear my head out, shed preconceptions, words and analysis. Really seeing the way light falls and finding the way to show it means letting go of your preconception of what shape a house is or what's important about it, and you can't see the play of a hundred colours across a rippling surface if you're thinking, 'nasty, rusty corrugated iron'. My experience of people and writing is working flat out when I'm working, but perhaps the writerly equivalent of having my photography head on is more in the receptiveness which - at my best - I try to have to everything that's going on around me. I don't use an iPod, I don't usually read on buses or trains, I listen, and look. If I can do it discreetly I might make a note or six, but mostly it's just seeing, touching, smelling, hearing: unfiltered and unmediated. Filtering and mediation comes later.

What reminded me about this was seeing again the talk I gave at Birmingham University's Darwin Day last year. I think it's not irrelevant that Gwen was the granddaughter of the rather well-known scientist who said that scepticism was the enemy of real scientific thought. That's not what you'd expect either, is it? Especially given the real damage that's done by pseudo-science, even in those days. Of course we need experience to operate in the world without doing damage to ourselves and others, we need scepticism to judge well about everything from credit card offers to alternative medicine. But the risk is that experience, let alone scepticism, closes off too many possibilities too soon: that it filters out things we might want or use or benefit from. We also need open-mindedness.

Perhaps it's a case of knowing when to put experience and scepticism on hold. It's not unlike the way that, unless life is really oppressive, you can put your daily anxieties and pressures on hold while you go round an exhibition, or spend the day on a beach or up a hill, or celebrate a birthday. It's not mere escapism, a desire for blissful oblivion as Freud would have it, it's something much more active and positive than that. It's about allowing your faculties to do what they've evolved to do best. It's not just a nice rest, it's necessary, because only then will you absorb new things in their full possibilites, and it's only those full, new things, that can fuel the creative thinking which turns craft into art - or real science.

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