Friday, May 7, 2010

Observation and Sight

As I looked back over the texts that we have read this semester, I decided to focus on the differences between two methods of vision – observation and sight. Tracing the theme through the rest of the blog revealed that it was present, in one form or another, throughout most of our assigned texts. The discussion became even more pertinent when I discovered that the relationship between imagination and reality, two differing visions of life, became extremely important during the Age of Sensibility, which coincides with the publication of the earliest works we studied. Contemporary authors negotiated the relationship between imagination and reality by investigating the role of vision in an individual’s understanding of life, so I am going to look at the effects of observation vs. the effects of sight in some of my favorite works from the semester: Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Wordsworth’s “The Thorn,” Keat’s “Lamia,” Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” and Doyle’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” I think the overarching relationship between these texts is that observation—close analysis and inspection of an object—reveals the concrete facts of life while sight—a glancing, surface level look at one’s surroundings—allows an individual’s imagination to construct reality. When I use these terms, observation and sight, throughout the remainder of my post, these are the definitions to which I am referring. Although this theme manifests in each texts, the authors have modified the effects of the two methods of vision to produce unique commentaries on the relationship between imagination and reality.

My initial interest in vision was sparked by our class discussion of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and the differing capacities of Holmes and Watson to solve mysteries. Although Holmes and Watson hear each case together, Watson is only able to assess the victim on the surface level while Holmes observes each minute detail to gain insight into the victim’s life. Holmes is described as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine” as a “sensitive instrument, or...[a] high power [lens]” (Doyle 1). Thus, reason and observation are inherently related in Holmes, allowing him to solve cases in a scientific manner, which is alluded to by Doyle’s metaphor between the detective and technical instruments. Holmes implies that observation is a learned ability when he critiques Watson: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear” (4). The verb, “do,” gives Watson agency; it is his choice to see but not observe rather than a natural inability. Yet, when Watson correctly observes the evidence, for instance the stationary of the Bohemian king, he is unable to come to the correct conclusion, assuming that the imprinted letters are the initials of an individual rather than the symbol of a paper company. As the narrator of the short stories, Watson’s inability to solve a mystery effectively engages the audience by placing them in suspense; although they can observe all that Watson does, they must wait for Holmes to reveal the solution.

Doyle withholds information from the audience in an appeal to the Victorian interest in visual illusions, which pervaded the scientific sphere as well as domestic households during the era. Just like Doyle demonstrates, Helen Groth notes, in her article “Domestic Phantasmagoria: The Victorian Literary Domestic and Experimental Visuality,” that authors began to use optical metaphors to convey “perceptual and psychological phenomena.” She argues that these literary techniques reflect a Victorian skepticism of visual perception and their increasing engagement with illusions in order to test their rationality. Thus, Doyle’s mysteries provide an opportunity for the audience to engage in detective work, as Watson, and practice their rationality. Because Watson, and thus the reader, is Holmes confidant and usually the first to learn the truth behind the mystery, Peter notes that Victorian audiences felt as if they were part of an inside joke, which added to the pleasure and entertainment of gaining Holmes’ insight. Groth also references Crary’s argument that the Victorian era is “an exemplary moment in the history of vision’s transition from “a privileged form of knowing” into an embodied ‘object of knowledge’ housed within an individual nervous and cognitive system,” which is reflected by the ability of the masses to engage in unraveling a mystery with Holmes.

Through Holme’s engagement with the audience and his ability to solve mysteries through rational observation, Doyle seems to argue for a realistic vision of life that is moderated by observation, yet Holmes must use his imagination to solve the crime because, as Alec notes, he collects evidence through observation and then deduces the solution with his imagination. This creates instability in Doyle’s take on the theme of observation vs. sight. The reliance on imagination is furthered by the eccentricity of each criminal, for example: the bank robber John Clay with a “white splash of acid upon his forehead” or the professional beggar with “a shock of orange hair” (64, 141). Although Doyle supports Victorian interest in visual illusions and rationality, his unique masterminds contradict another scientific theory at the time: Galton’s depiction of the criminal type through composites.

These superimposed photographs were supposed to give common people the ability to observe others and identify those who were criminals, but Sherlock Holmes proves that there is not a criminal type, invalidating simple observation and, perhaps, denying Crary’s notion of widely accessible observational skills. Holmes’ successful method of initial observation and subsequent theorizing implies that the relationship between methods of vision and imagination or reality are more complex than sight allowing for imagination and observation calling for reality; Doyle argues that both observation and imagination must be used to understand reality—one does not exclude the other—because “life always far more daring than any efforts of the imagination" (51).

Swift also employs detective work in his narration of the relationship between observation vs. sight and it’s moderation of imagination and reality, but in “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” the detective, Strephon, is punished by his careful observation. The narrator’s initial description of Celia as a “Goddess” implies that she is seen as an ideal who is worshiped by men, specifically Strephon (3). In an effort to gain intimacy with Celia and to understand her privately, Strephon voyeuristically sneaks into her rooms. Swift’s scientific diction indicates that Strephon is observing rather than glancing, awe-struck, at Celia’s room as he “[takes] a strict Survey” and provides an “Inventory” of her wardrobe and powder room (Swift 7, 10). His observations uncover a disgusting reality of bodily fluids, putrid odors, and artificial disguises, which destroy his ideal image of women. In her article “Seeing and the Difference it Makes: Occularity, Gender, and Space in Swift and Montagu’s ‘Dressing Room’ Satires,” Wendy Weise argues that Strephon “defames and punishes Celia for failing to produce a body-image, even in her absence, of ideal femininity: exposing her public persona as farce, as anything but “sweet and clean” (18), he turns her, through the powers of his “imagination” (121), into the abject.” I think Weise is absolutely correct in her assessment of Strephon’s imagination, but she fails to consider the effect it has on him. He is also punished “for his Peeping...blind / to all the charms of Female Kind” (120, 129-30). Figuratively, Strephon’s violation of Celia’s privacy causes him to lose his vision, both for observation and sight, and he is stuck in a jaded reality where women have lost any appeal. The narrator provides an objective view of both Celia’s façade and Strephon’s voyeurism when he encourages Strephon to “think like me, / And bless his ravisht Sight to see / Such Order from Confusion sprung” (141-43). Thus, the narrator depicts Swift’s interpretation of the relationship between vision and imagination vs. reality; Swift cautions against the observation of forbidden realms because one may not like the reality they discover, and he exposes the duality of imagination: it can deceptively improve one’s life, but it can also taint one’s perception. He encourages his audience to accept reality for what it is and appreciate that not everything is visible to sight.

The structure of Swift’s satire, with a narrator who observes Strephon who then observes Celia, removes the privacy of both Strephon and Celia, and establishes observation as a method of control. Strephon can expose Celia just like the narrator can publicize Strephon’s violation of her privacy, but if either knew they were being observed, they would alter their actions. Strephon only enters her chambers when he “found the room was void,” and Celia left her chamber pot in plain sight, but she might have hidden it if some “Creature [warned] her” (5, 71). The power of observation is reflected in Foucault’s Panopticism, which was discussed in one of Professor Porter’s presentations. Foucault’s theory was applied to the design of orderly, prisons in which prisoners were invisible to each other but always visible to the guards. This system “induces in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power;” the inmates will behave according to social custom whether or not there are actually guards because they imagine that they are being observed. This theory is not only applicable to prisons; Strephon’s sly voyeurism proves that it also functions in society. Foucault asserts that constant observation and the removal of sight twists an individual’s imagination against them, forcing them to obey their observer’s rules and standards.

Foucauldian theories of observational control are also present in Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” as Martha Ray is constantly discussed in society yet unable to respond, but they are slightly twisted; society’s intense fascination with her crime, but unwillingness to truly observe her and discover her story, forces Martha Ray to remain apart, alone in nature. While Panopticism advocates for omnipresent observation, a lack of observation in “The Thorn” exerts control over Martha Ray. The narrator encourages the reader to observe the “aged thorn, / [the] pond and beauteous hill of moss” where Martha Ray’s child is rumored to be buried (Wordsworth 56-7); he “[wishes] that you would go: / Perhaps when you are at the place / You something of her tale may trace” (108-10). The narrator is interested in detective work just like Strephon and Holmes, but he is unwilling to observe the true mystery: Martha Ray’s continual sorrow and communion with nature. The juxtaposition of the narrator’s observation of nature with a telescope and his subsequent encounter with Martha Ray, in which he takes one glance at her face -- “it was enough for [him]” – turns around and walks away, indicates that the narrator, and the society with which he gossips, is unwilling to observe the woman’s sorrow (200). They prefer to speculate upon her past and gain entertainment from the gossip rather than listen to her story. Her cry, “Oh misery! / Oh woe is me!” is a plea for help that society refuses to answer. Wordsworth condemns this behavior through the metaphor between Martha Ray and the thorn, both of which preside near the baby’s grave; the thorn actually lacks thorns, or a defense, and “up from the earth [mosses] creep, / and this poor thorn they clasp it round / so close, you’d say that they were bent with plain and manifest intent, / to drag it to the ground” (16-20). Society strangles Martha Ray and forces her to become a part of nature, rather than society, as she blends into the forest, undistinguishable from a “jutting crag” (193). Wordsworth’s sympathetic diction towards the thorn and the malicious agency conferred upon the moss, or society, casts a negative light on society’s refusal to observe Martha Ray. Their decision to simply look at her from afar and wonder about her past confines her to a life of sorrow and “misery”. Wordsworth criticizes sight as a selfish, voyeuristic method of vision that allows society to use their imagination for gossip and entertainment, neglecting the needs of suffering individuals. In “The Thorn” he advocates for observation, which can provide true insight into an individual’s life and allow the observer to empathize with them.

Like Wordsworth, Keats seeks an empathetic understanding of all individuals, but Appollonius’ cold, scientific destruction of “Lamia” suggests that observation removes the magic of life and destroys an individual’s ability to love irrationally and trust their emotions. At the same time, Keats uses Lamia’s initial pursuit of womanhood to argue that an individual should not strive for an imagined world, maintaining the wonder of life, at the cost of others. As a mythical being, initially half woman and half snake, who has been transformed in a woman, Lamia represents the magic in life, especially for Lycius; she has appeared from a field, enchanted him, and taken him to a never before seen mansion Corinth. Despite the irrationality of the situation, Lycius is completely in love with Lamia and intent on marrying her. When his mentor, Apollonius, appears at the wedding, Lycius allows the philosopher to sit near his bride. But, as Apollonius “[fixes] his eye, without a twinkle or stir / full on the alarmed beauty of the bride, / brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride,” Lamia fades into a “deadly white” and dies (Keats 247-49). Keats’ intense, visual diction implies that Apollonius is observing Lamia, and Lycius recognizes this when he commands Apollonius to “Shut, shut those [deceitful] eyes” (277). Lycius diction suggests that while observation reveals reality, because Lamia is a mythical being, it does not reveal the truth of emotion and love, dying “empty of delight” (307). Through Lycius’ grief, Keats implies that observation cannot be fully relied upon or trusted; it is blind to emotion and the magic of life.

Although Keats’ condemns Apollonius’ destruction of Lamia through observation, Lamia’s inherently contradictory nature as a woman trapped in a serpent’s body and her unethical attainment of womanhood asserts that one’s imagination should not be followed at the cost of others. Before her transformation, Lamia is described as “some penanced lady elf, / some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self” (55-6). She is at once a victim and a perpetrator, and if she is being punished, what was her crime? She commits another transgression in exchange for the woman’s body she has been lusting after when she allows Apollo to rape a young nymph in return for a wish. Thus, Lamia’s attainment of humanity is tainted by the beautiful nymph’s “fearful sobs” as Apollo approaches her. So, while Keats disdains observation for its ability to “unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made / the tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade,” he warns against ethical pitfalls in the pursuit of imaginative ideals.

Tennyson mirrors this message of imaginative downfall in “The Lady of Shallot” because the Lady allows herself to die when her vision of Camelot transforms from sight into observation, destroying her artistic, imaginative depiction of life. The Lady “[weaves] the mirror’s magic sights” as she observes Camelot; life seems vibrant and beautiful, and Tennyson’s depiction of Lancelot reflects this with lush imagery, blazoning his appearance for four stanzas. Yet, as soon as the Lady turns to observe Camelot from the mirror, truly seeing what life is like without weaving it through her imagination, Lancelot’s portrayal collapses into two lines composed solely of nouns: “She saw the helmet and the plume: / She looked down to Camelot.” The absence of descriptive adjectives implies that observation has destroyed her imagination as her weaving floats out the window, and “with a glassy countenance -- / she looked down to Camelot.” The disparity between the Lady’s imagination and reality figuratively kills her; her eyes are glassed over in disinterest and shock but, also, in death. She loses the desire to see and imagine, which fueled her previous interest in life. Through the Lady’s death, Tennyson depicts the imagination’s ability to cloud reality and attests to the power of observation as a force that can strongly alter an individual’s perception of life.

“The Lady of Shallot” also raises the issue of an artistic, or imaginative, representation of life, which parallels ekphrasis, in which one work of art is translated into another mode of art through the lens of the artist. For our class, the transformation of literary works into visual art becomes particularly important. Take for instance, Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shallot”:

Waterhouse must have first read Tennyson’s poem and, then, painted the picture that he saw in his imagination. Insert Painting here. You can see that he chose to focus on the moments before the Lady’s death rather than her view from the tower, which Tennyson focused on, and Waterhouse also included the Lady’s tapestry in the boat as if she has not abandoned or forsaken her imagination. Waterhouse has taken artistic liberties with the original poem, which effects the audience’s interpretation and understanding of both Tennyson’s poem and the painting. Waterhouse’s ekphrasis allows us to literally observe the poem, and the painting imposes a perspective on our analysis of the original work, influencing our own imaginative interpretation of Tennyson’s poem. This relationship holds importance for all art forms, including literature, which provide a lens through which the audience views life. Just as differing methods of vision, observation vs. sight, affect the way we negotiate the relationship between imagination and reality, authors must carefully construct their opinions to affect our vision of their work and the world. Simply by tracking observation and sight across the semester, I have found at least five different opinions on the relationship between vision and reality, all of which interact with and rework each other in a modified form of ekphrasis.

No comments:

Post a Comment