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