18. The Open Frame
In January, I went with Vaughn and Doris (Vaughn’s mother) to Italy; we spent a week in Florence, where we saw as much art as a person can take in – or more – ate well, drank great coffee, and narrowly avoided being hit by motorini in the medieval streets. I went there with an attempted thought lodged in my head, or wherever thoughts lodge: somehow there must be a way to connect art with the point made so forcefully by M&V about human perception, namely, that we don’t really know the world around us, we experience the result of our own internal neural processing. Bateson drives the same point home by talking about a series of bewildering experiments, invented by Adalbert Ames, Jr., which maddeningly demonstrated that we see and believe in a “reality” created by unconscious processes, in which we “use a whole range of presuppositions which become built into the finished image.” (Mind & Nature p. 29) Ames’s demonstrations essentially manipulated those unconscious presuppositions to create disorienting illusions in the viewer. It seemed to me I could somehow tease out an interesting idea if I put visual art side by side with this understanding of human perception. At first I wanted to take the shortest route from point A to point B and say that art shows us how our minds work, visually. But on second thought, that couldn’t be right; we can no more detect the actual neural processing when we’re looking at a painting than when we’re encountering anything else.
I kept turning this over in the back of my mind as we went to the Uffizi, the Museo di San Marco, Santa Maria Novella . . . why do we like looking at art? There is no shortage of people willing to travel long distances to Florence to visit the Uffizi. Why do we like these representations of the visible world so much? The world out there has been translated into paint on a wall, or a canvas, and we are fascinated by the result. It seemed to me that even if a painting by Titian or Botticelli can’t show us the invisible mental processing that is creating our human version of the world, it definitely shows that there is processing going on. We may not know how mind is always intervening between ourselves and the world out there, the unreachable thing-in-itself, but in a painting we can definitely see that the painter’s mind and hand is intervening. The mind of the painter can make the viewer’s mind see Venus arriving on some blessèd, mythical shore by applying paint to a flat surface, in other words by doing something that is nothing like what the world does to cause our perceptions. When two raccoons amble along the top of my back fence at 6:15 a.m. on their way to wherever they sleep, they do not do anything of a humanly intended sort to cause my perception of them. But if I look out there at the right moment, I’ll see them go by. When Botticelli paints Venus, he does something totally in human terms, for the human mind. In this completely different way, he creates an experience of seeing Venus that is – leaving the aesthetic dimension out of it – like seeing the raccoons. It seems to me that we find this difference-yet-similarity intriguing in all representational art, independent of the question of beauty. Why is Impressionism popular? I think much of its appeal is separable from the content – we’re attracted to Impressionist paintings because in them, the act of representing is readily visible. We see the brush strokes of juxtaposed colors, the pointillist dots; we see the performance happen. We can see the human doing of it, and we’re supposed to see it. Impressionism is the opposite of “the art that conceals art.” I started thinking that pleasure in art arises, at least in part, because the mind of the viewer sees what a human mind is capable of, because the viewer participates in the making in a way that she can be aware of – unlike regular experience – which gives a sense of . . . heightened competence? We momentarily “become” the artist?
So, if all this hangs together, in visual art we see that a “world,” an “experience” can be made by a human being. We see what is always the case anyway, since we are always unconsciously making the world we encounter, but in the art work we are conscious first and foremost that the experience is humanly made.
In the middle of the night I thought, not for the first time: isn’t it somewhat peculiar that we take a wonderful painting and put it in an elaborately carved, gilded frame that could be thought of as one big distraction from the painting itself? Why do we do this and, for that matter, why do we take it for granted? What is the frame all about?
I tried to think of other frames that are not picture frames, but have something to do with art. There’s the proscenium arch that frames a stage. What about writing? There’s the margin surrounding the text – is that a frame? How about the Piazza San Marco (we had spent a couple of nights in Venice), where the buildings frame the space that one walks across, in a way that is for some reason exhilarating?
These two thoughts came together: the frame announces, it glorifies the fact that within this frame, experience happens in a way that human beings constructed it to happen. The frame is a way of putting humanness on a pedestal. The frame signs the work “human.”
I bring this thought home with me, and carry it around with me as I work on this project, trying to figure out how it applies. When I go out in search of something I can’t define in advance, and then try to photograph it, it seems to me I’m looking for the opposite: something that is not framed. Something that is not labeled “nature” – or, for that matter, “not nature.” Once again, I’m hanging out in the between. The most interesting is exactly that which exists, but has not yet been framed. Of course, I’m inevitably framing it by documenting it and reflecting on it, but my job or goal seems to be to create a frame of a different kind, one that has a different meaning from either the frame around a Titian in the Uffizi, or the “Blair Pond” sign erected by the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation. It’s not that I don’t want to frame things; I do – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. But I believe I want to frame them in a way that escapes the dichotomy of either saying “Within this frame is humanly made experience,” or “Within this frame is nature.” What needs to be said somehow is a third thing, that I can only seem to say awkwardly: “Within this frame is humanly-naturally made experience.” Is that even understandable? I’d like to be able to say “humanly” and “naturally” in one word that would somehow convey both the utter constructedness of human experience, peculiar to our physiology and anatomy, and the irreducible otherness of the world-out-there that we can never directly apprehend, and which would say that both are operating hand in glove. There isn’t a word like that.
But let’s say that there is, nonetheless, this third kind of frame. Then I try to imagine myself putting it around an experience, and I see that I mustn’t put too much of it there. I see that this frame isn’t a frame of the kind I intuitively think of, because that kind would create a hard boundary. And that won’t do. The boundary must be permeable. I can frame something in this third way only by creating a juxtaposition, a relationship – I suddenly see a perfect example: the plastic fox at Hill Estates. We humans make the fox, we put it there, but when we put it there, the frame is open on the nature side. The plastic creature is a representation, totally in human terms (even to the extent that it is not exactly either a fox or a dog), but putting it there is not representation. It’s an act, a statement, an instigation. The plastic fox’s presence on the lawn next to Little Pond is open to interactions we don’t control. By putting the fox there we create a narrative that is ongoing and undetermined; we don’t know how our co-authors, the geese, are going to play their part. They have just as much freedom to choose how to react as we have freedom to put it there. This event is a true collaboration.
There must be that element of the other NOT being under our control, for me to believe I’ve found what I’m looking for, and for there to be collaboration. So, when Mill Brook is made to run between perpendicular stone walls or under pavement, that’s a closed frame. When there is (next to a parking lot) this muddy edge of the stream whose exact shape and location is not entirely up to us – because the water may rise or fall, because the bank may erode or silt up, because of unpredictable events that we don’t control – that is what I’m looking for. When the sumac grows in front of the graffiti because it did so, not because anyone put it there, that is what I’m looking for. When I find tufts of fur on a rock, suggesting that animals fought there, next to the culvert carrying Wellington Brook under the railroad tracks, that is what I’m looking for. When I go from the tow lot, to the arbor, to the marshy edge of Sickle Brook, at some undefinable point between the arbor and the water the frame opens. The tow lot is hard frame, humanly determined to the nth degree; the arbor is us working with nature for our reasons, shaping it according to our decisions; the marshy edge is what it is. When those yellowish birds (“Wilson’s warbler” would be the name we frame them by) show up and hang around while I am down by the stream in the middle of the Bangor Mall, when the cormorant lands on the neck of water below Wendy’s, that is what I’m looking for. We put the human frame there, but the rectangle is not closed, the fourth side is missing; it’s open on the nature side.
I realize I’ve photographed a lot of marshy edge, enjoyed more of it. The marshy edge of a stream reflects the sky, and is like the sky: open, indeterminate, priceless. But unlike the sky, we can touch it, it is right here at our scale of being. The marshy edge of Sickle Brook has no obvious function; it is unmarked, it has no designated role. By not being labeled nature, it is nature. And it is already there. It is not something we preserve, exactly, just as we don’t “preserve” the people we love; they are, and we’re glad that they are, but they don’t exist because of us. We are just lucky enough to be on the earth at the same time they are.
I’m saying, I realize, that the open frame also defines a good relationship with another person. We come into it with our own intentions and our understandings of what love is, but we don’t enclose the other person within our own frame, or if we do try to, it never works. And since the analogy is that clear, why not say that the open frame is intrinsically an I-thou situation? Which is the same as asserting that “I and thou” is what we’re having, or could be having, with the natural world.
This suggests to me that all these novels I’ve been writing about I and thou, all the reflection and meditation and feeling I’ve poured into writing them over the past thirty years, might have a direct application after all in what I am trying to understand here. Of course, the novels themselves are stories, entertainments (“the entertainment of the soul,” as John Gardner said) – not a series of ideas about relationship. Novels are dramas or dreams, not messages. But they are driven by ideas, beliefs, understandings that I arrive at in the course of writing and living. Before I can finish one, I have to know what it’s trying to mean, and figuring that out takes place in the notes for the novels, rather than the novels themselves. Which is where I decide to look for thoughts that might become unexpected contributions to this project.
This search is unexpectedly disquieting. I find myself tasting the different air of writing novels, and it isn’t all pleasant. The emotional or spiritual struggle of it is quite plain in the notes; all the difficulty that isn’t supposed to appear in the novel itself appears there. In the notes there are many ideas about writing, not so many about relationship – or I should say, not many generalizations, which is what I went looking for. This is a good thing from the novelistic point of view; nearly all the ideas about relationship are couched in the working-out of specific stories about specific characters, in groping my way toward what they would truly do, being who they are and in their situation. I’ve always said that my approach to writing novels is not thematic, and it seems to be true.
But I do find one fundamental idea, in the notes for my revision of the novel Over the Fence, that I believe applies here. That novel’s story, I finally decided, rested on a basic distinction between two things that are both called by the name of love but are crucially different: desire plus power, and desire plus trust. In the beginning of that book, the protagonist is left by his girlfriend, with whom he has been in a relationship of the first kind: shared desire, plus power – hers over him. At the end, after a complicated spiritual journey which is the book’s story, there is reason to hope that he is entering into a love of the second kind. In short, if a novel existed to convey a message (in which case it would be one sentence long), Over the Fence would say something like: “If ‘I love you’ doesn’t mean ‘I trust you,’ then in the end it isn’t love.” I have not seen any reason to change my mind about that.
The notes go on to say this: “Fear is the root. If fear is not overcome, it gives rise to fury and to power relations. If fear is put aside, it gives rise to trust and to giving oneself.” And this does seem relevant to our relationship with nature. We have, as a species, put in many millennia living in well-justified fear of nature – fear of predators, diseases, storms, famines, parasites, venomous creatures . . . a world of threats to human existence which we have always had to live with and against which we had to somehow prevail. Nor has this situation changed today. It’s not exactly surprising that we – or at least some of us – dedicated ourselves to seizing power over nature, to dominating it totally. In a fight for survival one tries to get the upper hand.
Understandable. But the more control we got, the more we seemed to need. The history of our relationship with water seems to be that we got the power to control it – or so we believed – and then in some places we carried that control too far or bet too much on the totality of our control. We created untenable situations and unsustainable consequences like those in the American West. It turns out we also have to fear the consequences of the things we do to make ourselves safer from Nature – which only amps up the intensity of the need to control . . . it’s a positive feedback loop, a runaway system.
As Bateson or his daughter said in his final book, Angels Fear, “reassurance is the food of anxiety” (132). As we finally got to the point of being able to run the show here on planet Earth – or so it appeared – we likewise ended up with an ever more powerful need to do so. It’s as much a psychological problem as it is one of engineering. My novelist mind of “I and thou” frames the situation this way: in our relationship with nature, we (as a culture) went too far down the way of power. We forgot what relationship was all about. When you have an “I and thou” with someone, you don’t set out to dominate and control them and turn them into whatever you think is to your advantage. We must have recognized this on some level, with a certain amount of guilty conscience, but we didn’t actually try to alter our relationship with nature on a day-to-day basis. Instead we set aside reservations for nature, where it presumably could go about its natural life free from our interference, and we could now and then visit it; but subtracting yourself is not relationship, and neither is the occasional vacation.
If the fundamental idea of Over the Fence applies here, the implication is that what we have to try, risky as it feels, is a relationship of trust.
On a listserv for the discussion of Robert Rosen’s ideas, I find a post by Daniel Fiscus (the author of “The Ecosystemic Life Hypothesis”) that I think indirectly addresses what trust means in this context. The ongoing discussion is about “synthetic life”; Fiscus says for him this means the opposite of artificial. He illustrates it by imagining a self-sustaining spaceship on which humans could take a 10,000-year journey to a planet in some other star system:
We’d be on equal footing with the microbes and plants and other species we take along. It would be more like dialogue and co-evolution than control, engineering or purely human design. The “humans” . . . that arrived at the destination after 10,000 years would not be the same species that left Earth. And the new human-derived sentient life form that arrives to start a new colony would owe its existence to the microbes that recycled waste or provided food or medicines on the epic voyage. The “humans” or their progeny species would really not be separable from the microbes in the sense of defining the boundaries of the living system. . . . to make this happen would be truly “synthetic” to me.
To achieve sustainability on Earth would too . . .
Imagine making up your mind to take the irreversible step of boarding that spacecraft. You’d have to trust your life, and the life of your potential offspring – basically, trust the entire meaning of your existence – to the integrity of the ecosystem on board. The “spaceship Earth” metaphor isn’t a new one, but somehow this refreshes it for me. We are, of course, already on such a ship, but do we trust it?
I don’t believe we do. But what other choices do we have? We’re not going anywhere else, unless and until we figure out the sustainability that would enable us to stay right here.