Wednesday, June 22, 2011

`They Are Strange Because They Are Solid'

“The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision.”

“Vision” fills a vast human need. We get it from the Latin videre, “to see,” a word that mutates across dozens of languages and shares roots with words meaning “to know.” In Polish, widzieć is “to see,” wiedzieć “to know.” By implication, to truly know something we must see it.

I fly to Houston in a week and I’ve resolved to consciously pack memories specific to the Pacific Northwest – shredding cedar bark, scrambled-egg slime mold, dark-eyed juncos, lawns of moss, wooden fences rotting but still upright. We took the boys to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and watched sailboats drop in their concrete troughs. The walls and water are dazzlingly green with algae. The scent of the water is briny but not strongly so – a mingling of fresh and salt water. In the fish ladder viewing room we stood inches from migrating salmon – chinook, coho, sockeye and steelhead. They looked strangely impassive in the green murk.

Adjoining the Ballard locks is the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, named for the Army Corps of Engineers horticulturalist who created it. The rhododendrons and magnolias are in blossom. So are the thistles and roses. The flowers reminded me of the extended riff, part rhapsody, part metaphysics, that constitutes the third paragraph in Chapter 8 of G.K. Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas (1923). That’s the source of the sentence quoted at the top of this post. Read the whole thing but here’s the context for the quote:

“That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrary of that false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream. This is for the poet the strangeness of stones and trees and solid things; they are strange because they are solid.”

To see, to know: “things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind.”

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