Beneath the surface

leaf in water 3
Yesterday, I kept looking at leaves in shallow water (slideshow). I was entranced by the play of sunlight on patterns in the surface. Floating leaves reminded me of sealed-up windows; sunken leaves were like sealed-up doors.

ghost windows

It was a quick trip to town that had gotten me thinking that way.

red wall

In standard Western dualistic thinking, it’s commonplace to scorn the surface in favor of what lies beneath. Deep is good; shallow is bad. “Beauty is only skin deep,” we say, which of course is utter nonsense. But supposing that superficial prettiness were the whole of beauty — wouldn’t that constitute a pretty strong argument for superficiality?

lichen on birch stump 2

“Only a facade,” we say, as if there’s such a thing as a true face underneath all the masks. And as if one doesn’t have a perfect right to choose which face one wants to show the world, and to keep the rest private.

beech face

If seeing were the whole of knowing, we would have nothing but surfaces to go on. Fortunately, though, there’s also hearing. When something emits a sound, relative pitch and quality of tone suggest things about its internal structure that the unaided eye could discover only through dissection. Hearing respects the wholeness and integrity of the other in a way that looking never can.

black locust face

It’s in our nature to see faces everywhere, and to impute personality even to the most impersonal forces of nature. The encounter with the face of another may be, as Levinas suggests, the very origin of ethical behavior. But there is also something that resists our looking, along with any and all attempts to domesticate it. We know it by the music that appears when, to our limited way of thinking, a mere cacophony should prevail. Go crouch beside the stream sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

24 Comments


  1. “there is also something that resists our looking, along with any and all attempts to domesticate it”

    Thank god for that. Great photos, Dave. The floating leaf ones are fascinating – the curlicue water lines around the leaf edges look like doodles (speaking of anthropomorphizing), and the light is wonderful – even in these still photos you can almost see the light moving on the surfaces.

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  2. Beautiful images, Dave. This is a nice follow-up to your troglodyte poem. I looked long at those curlicue edges, too, and the “twisting streamers” of light over the submerged leaves. I seem to be fascinated by what passes over and through, whether that be sound or light.

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  3. Yes, as Leslee and MB wrote, great photos of leaves in water. Water does magical things, hmm?

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  4. Beautiful images and words. Surfaces, textures, light, reflection, and sound all appeal to me. Fortunately, nature abounds in all.

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  5. as if one doesn’t have a perfect right to choose which face one wants to show the world, and to keep the rest private
    I’m not sure I understand how hearing takes us beyond seeing, but I do understand this desire to guard privacy and not be accused of masking the real me.

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  6. But supposing that superficial prettiness were the whole of beauty — wouldn’t that constitute a pretty strong argument for superficiality?

    No, but it would constitute a pretty strong argument against beauty.

    Great photos!

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  7. Very nice integration of image and text, Dave! Interesting thoughts; I especially enjoyed the window/door/leaf trope and the meditation upon surface and beauty.

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  8. Hey y’all, thanks for stopping by. Sorry I’m a little late to respond.

    leslee – Thanks. You’re right about the curlicues — I used to draw doodles just like that when I was in high school!

    MB –

    I seem to be fascinated by what passes over and through, whether that be sound or light.

    Me too. Well said.

    marja-leena – I’m flattered that you like them.

    bev – As Berndt Heinrich says in one of books, nature is the standard for all beauty. (Well, it was more eloquent than that, but that was the gist.)

    Brett – Glad some of this resonated with you. Resonance was in fact what I had in mind, but I admit that my treatment of the theme was much too brief and cryptic. Let me try and fill things out in a subsequent comment.

    Bismarck Bette – Welcome to the Via Negativa comment threads! Always nice to “see” new “faces.” Glad you liked the photos.

    Larry – Thanks. Most if not all of these ideas were ones I’ve worked over here before, but I thought they could stand repeating. Now to elaborate just a bit…

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  9. When something emits a sound, relative pitch and quality of tone suggest things about its internal structure that the unaided eye could discover only through dissection. Hearing respects the wholeness and integrity of the other in a way that looking never can.

    Though I barely realized it when I wrote it down yesterday, this was more or less a paraphrase of some of the observations of psycholinguist Walter J. Ong, whose book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word I’ve quoted from in the past (see here and here). In Chapter 3, “Some Psychodynamics of Orality,” Ong writes (p. 72):

    To test the physical interior of an object as interior, no sense works so directly as sound. The human sense of sight is adapted best to light diffusely reflected from surfaces. (Diffuse reflection, as from a printed page or landscape, contrasts with specular reflection, as from a mirror.) A source of light, such as a fire, may be intriguing but it is optically baffling: the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on anything in the fire, Similarly, a translucent object, such as alabaster, is intriguing because, although it is not a source of light, the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on it either. Depth can be perceived by the eye, but most satisfactorily as a series of surfaces: the trunks of trees in a grove, for example, or chairs in an auditorium. The eye does not perceive an interior strictly as an interior: inside a room, the walls it perceives are still surfaces, outsides.

    Taste and smell are not much help in registering interiority or exteriority. Touch is. But touch partially destroys interiority in the process of perceiving it. If I wish to discover by touch whether a box is empty or full, I have to make a hole in the box to insert a hand or a finger […]

    Hearing can register interiority without violating it. I can rap [on] a box to find whether it is empty or full or a wall to find whether it is hollow or solid inside. Or I can ring a coin to find whether it is silver or lead.

    Sounds all register the interior structures of whatever it is that produces them […]

    Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed.

    Ong goes on to point out that self-consciousness is totally interiorized, and thus the phenomenology of sound has a momentous influence on psychic life.

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  10. Thanks so much for the stuff from Ong. I’m at home today waiting for the plumber to come because we have a hot water leak in the cement foundation of our house. He will be using a sonar device to find the leak itself since no water has managed to make it to the surface. We discovered the leak because we heard running water and felt heat in the tile floor. Without the leak-finding device, he would have to “partially destroy interiority in the process of perceiving it.”

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  11. wow dave…thanks!

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  12. Cathy – Thanks, and welcome to Via Negativa. Hope you find some toher things you like.

    Brett – I didn’t know plumbers used sonar. Must be why they make the big bucks.

    Ong spends a lot of time on texts that arise from oral or mostly oral cultures, which of course includes the Bible. But with your interest in comparative religion generally, I’m sure you’d find Orality and Literacy a worthwhile read.

    q.r.r. – Glad you liked.

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  13. Interesting musings, especialy the aspects of sound as penetrative. I will note that touch can also learn a lot about interiors non-destructively — ever hefted a milk-carton (or other box) to test its fullness, or given someone a massage? Certainly when I “scritch” my cat, I can feel through her fur to skin, fat, muscle, and even bone. (And Gremlin’s a pretty fat cat!)

    And too, the surface is *also* part of the object, especially for living things. Skin, fur, feathers, are all important organs., but plants especially put a lot of work into surfaces — cacti minimizing their area to retain water, other plants spreading out leaves for light, some hanging out flowers for bees and other pollinators, trees fending off burrowers with bark, and so on.

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  14. Delightful post, all the more so for the shots of the town mixed in.

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  15. I’m completely entranced by your leaves in shallow water. Love the town shots, too.

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  16. Patry pointed me here. Your photos are wonderful and I will be back to see more.

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  17. The photo of the beech face is great – like a piece of aboriginal art.

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  18. I am creating my myspace page (which my son has been driving me crazy for about a year to do) and love you photo Leaves in Shallow Water and would like to use it as my background. This is a great picture. I did not want to use it without your permission. I would of course give credit where credit was due.
    Thank you and hope to hear from you soon,
    Mary

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