Vanishing point

When I took art history in college, I was struck by the notion that there could be such a thing as laws of perspective. It seemed bogus to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. The rather sudden dominance of the perspective of a single viewer is one of those things historians use to divide Medieval from Renaissance – a rather bogus exercise in itself, shaped as it is by our desire to see history from the perspective of progress, all lines converging on some indefinable point in the near future. These days, the ideology of progress involves a constant invoking of the vague term development, which etymologically implies a stripping down, a reduction. History follows two tracks: one for us, the developed nations, and another for those slow pokes who need to be more like us – the developing world. In a feat of intellectual prestidigitation we have substituted ourselves for the vanishing point. Poof!

But what I was going to say before I got sidetracked is that the “discovery” of the Laws of Perspective is like the “discovery” of the wheel. Each unique application represents not a context-free achievement of some unitary position in time and space, but simply an invention. Have we yet come anywhere near exhausting the uses for wheels? What sorts of wheels might remain to be discovered, obscured by our blind arrogance as “discoverers”? We Westerners are given to marvel that the civilizations of the New World, so otherwise “advanced” – i.e. like us – were without the wheel. But that’s absurd. Wheels are everywhere! It would be more accurate to say that the profound reverence of New World civilizations for cyclic patterns in time and nature made the exploitation of wheels for quotidian purposes virtually unthinkable.

In a similar manner, East Asian cultures have always evinced a deep sensitivity to the problems and rewards of perspective – far deeper than in the West, where the truth was almost always sought through a metaphysics of oneness: a first principle, an efficient cause, a logos. For Chinese thinkers, whether of a Daoist, Confucian or Buddhist bent, truth was highly contingent and relational, and the sage was someone who mastered the art of shifting perspectives. A strong distinction between subject and object never emerged. As Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall put it in the introduction to their philosophical translation of the Daodejing,

The field of experience is always construed from one perspective or another. There is no view from nowhere, no external perspective, no decontextualized vantage point. We are all in the soup. The intrinsic, constitutive relations that obtain among all things make them reflexive and mutually implicating, residing together within the flux and the flow.

This description of the metaphysics of philosophical Daoism also captures quite accurately the Daoist-influenced mindset of the traditional East Asian landscape painter. The artist’s goal was not so much to develop an individual creative vision as to merge with, or become enveloped by, the larger creative flow. Thus the (to us) strange perspectives in a traditional Chinese landscape painting: the buildings that get larger as they get farther way from the viewer, a horizon that curves up rather than down. Often, the near distance is obscured by mist or clouds, as if to emphasize the challenge that heaven-and-earth everywhere present to the self-centered, discriminating vision. A landscape is something the viewer must walk into to fully appreciate. Therefore, there must be multiple vanishing points as one’s perspective continually changes position.

But in modern times we have, in theory, this thing called a vanishing point. Does it exist in fact? Who knows! Given the limits of ordinary vision and atmospheric haze, one reaches the point of diminishing returns much sooner. What really interests me, though, is how different kinds of seeing can shape what we see. For example, I wear the same boots, the same jeans, the same quilted shirt day after day without paying much heed to the need for maintenance, much less variety. Each year I think, “This pair of boots” – or whatever – “will last forever!” But of course a year later I’m saying the same thing about a new pair. I could definitely benefit from more regularly taking the long view about such things, instead of living always day to day. It’s almost paradoxical, isn’t it? By ignoring vanishing points, I may actually hasten the inevitable disintegration of things within my sphere of experience.

Once I met an ex-Marine Special Forces guy on Greyhound who told me that he wore the same pair of boots for twelve years, through mountains and jungles and several changes of the soles. His secret was simple: he oiled them down every night before going to sleep, he said. But over the course of a year, wouldn’t one spend enough on leather treatment products to buy a new pair of boots? To say nothing of the labor. But that wasn’t the point, I gathered. He disassembled and oiled his gun every night, too: an unchanging verity in an otherwise chaotic world. “I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. Nobody does. It doesn’t fit with what people think they know about this country,” he said when the discussion moved to U.S. policies in Columbia.

And speaking of vanishing points, I’ve looked through telescopic sights and pulled the trigger myself on occasion. It’s always such a surprise when one makes a clean miss and the animal doesn’t even react to the sound. Your ears are ringing, your arms are shaking with adrenaline and the damn thing is still feeding placidly a hundred feet away. It’s more fun to shoot beer cans – after first emptying them, of course. They lie where they fall – no unsightly flailing about – and the holes are nice and clean. You think you’ll feel this good forever. I mean, at some level you realize it’s only a temporary high, but it seems as if it ought to be possible to prolong it almost indefinitely, given the right drug or yoga-induced trigger. You strenuously ignore the sad and simple fact that heights and depths are solely a matter of perspective.

What I’m saying here, in a nutshell, is that there are two ways of looking at things: one that makes them appear smaller than oneself, and another that makes them appear larger and richer. One reduces, the other builds up or makes whole. Why should we have to see things as larger than they perhaps really are in order to see them accurately? Simply to correct for the limitations of our own points-of-view. As my father explained once, meeting someone half-way to resolve some difference tends to fail, because there’s almost inevitably some gap between what you and the other person each perceive as being half-way. For a true meeting in the middle, each party must be a little generous in their estimate. The heart needs to practice hospitality, to open up to multiple perspectives and possibilities.


Fairly superfluous afterthought. I don’t stand with those who want to see all beings merge into some kind of amorphous whole or godhead, and thus to arrive at some very limited idea of peace. To me, that’s another form of reductionism, as violent in its violation of the integrity of individual beings as any other. Just as without gravity a bullet could not reach its target, without vanishing points, without some inclination – however gradual – toward nullity, there could be no space for anything. If the analogy between seeing and shooting seems overly concrete, perhaps that’s because shooting has its origin in a very literalized form of seeing. (Remembering what the Bible says about the dangers of being overly literal: “The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.”) Violence and sorcery err in their attempt to foreshorten distances, to claim universal applicability for one vision, to foreclose on what must appear to the eye of an artist or a lover as the most radical Opening.

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For those who haven’t noticed, my dad has been updating his Peaceful Societies website with two new articles or reviews every Thursday morning. Recent additions include Piaroa Homegardens Provide Focus for Socializing; Batek Persuaded to Abandon Nomadic Lifestyle; Inuit Hunters Share Meat, But Not as Exchanges; and Reformers Win Tahitian Elections But Deadlock Remains. Today began Part I of a new series of articles, Violence Threatens the Peaceful Societies of North India, focusing on the armed Naxalite revolt of rural India, which has been virtually unreported in the West.

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