Saturday, June 02, 2007

Thinking and Seeing

Sitting in one of my quiet nooks in the college library I notice opposite me five shelves of thick red books. Curious, I look to see what they are. The collected works of the Victorian critic John Ruskin.

Now I must admit that what I've read of Ruskin, long ago, would fit in a quarter of just one of these volumes, little snatches of Modern Painters. It was in Modern Painters that I came across the following statement, which I wrote down in my journal and have quoted several times in my writing: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

With the help of Google, I track the quote to its lair, Volume V, page 333. Ruskin is musing on the painter J. M. W. Turner and the novelist Walter Scott. Among artists and writers Ruskin discerned two kinds: Thinkers and Seers. Of these, he deemed the latter the "greater race."

Our first instinct is to value thinkers more than those who simply see and describe. But I think I agree with Ruskin. Thinking is idle unless it is based on careful observation of what is. That's why science is a source of reliable knowledge. Behind every Kepler there's a Tycho Brahe. Behind every Maxwell there's a Faraday. Behind every Darwin there's a -- a Darwin.

I love ideas that are transparent, ideas that you can see through to the things behind. Metaphysics bores me. Theology is pie in the sky. Give me anytime the poet, the artist or the scientist who has grass stains on her knees, who has been there, kneeling in the grass, observing the world up close and dirty. Give me the poet, the artist or the scientist who knows how to see. Seeing clearly, said Ruskin, is poetry, prophecy and religion rolled into one.