The anatomy of perception (1)

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception


This begins a brief series on the anatomy and phenomenology of perception, using quotes from Blaise Pascal, Pensées: Thoughts on Religion and other subjects, translated by William Finlayson Trotter. The original suggestion to discuss the senses (which I refuse to try and enumerate, by the way) came from a post at Susan’s blog, so it seems only appropriate that I begin there, with all due apologies for this attempt to speak in her voice. (Susan has shown herself to be a quite competent poet in her own right.)

I expect the series to last the rest of the week. The final sections are at present still in a very rough state.


Let us imagine a body full of thinking members.

The uterus knew what I
& the doctor did not.
It threatened mutiny.

The mind is more than brain,
I’d say, the body’s
a net of nerves,

which makes the womb a net
within a net. Mine wasn’t
about to let its catch be killed

when the baby still sat
ass-downward & they talked
about turning it. Something,

everything said NO.
I chose the Caesarian.
When they went in, they found me

so deformed, they took
pictures. The baby had sat
the only way she could fit

& turning her would’ve killed her,
ruptured the uterus. Call it
instinct, sixth sense.

I opted for mild sedation,
& if they’d let me
I would’ve watched. I was

that detached. Only
the thought of the turning
made my insides flip.

The anatomy of perception (2)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception


For this section, I borrowed a story from Dale, who was responding in turn to Susan’s question about the senses. Once again, the epigraph is from Pascal, and the subject, as in Dale’s story, is the late critic Cleanth Brooks.

UPDATE: Lines 5-8 of second stanza rewritten (10/31) in response to an objection from Dale (see comments).


Having assurance only because we see with our whole sight, it puts us into surprise and suspense when another with his whole sight sees the opposite . . . For we must prefer our own lights to those of so many others, and that is bold and difficult.

When the scholar’s eyesight fades,
what good are his books?
His library turns as unreadable
as Lascaux: scriptless drama of shapes
on the walls of a cave, the artifice
unglossed within the viscera
where the quarry – tissue
of allusions
– still bristles
with bookmarks. That flux of the world
of becoming:
to capture is
to kill it. Decipherment leads to loss.
The dance must be primary, he wrote.

I acted briefly as amanuensis,
lent him my eyes for a paper he had to give.
Bending to my task, I felt
of little use, a cheap fiction.
My West Coast accent flattened
the words he loved, robbed them
of shadows – like trading embossed
leather covers for a paperback spine.
Perhaps he sensed, even then, the germ
I carried on my youthful breath,
insidious as any misty paraphrase,
corrosive as hope.

The anatomy of perception (4)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception


Barometric pressure was a novel idea in 1647 when the 24-year-old Blaise Pascal published his Nouvelles expériences sur le vide. Toricelli had invented the barometer only four years earlier. Pascal described how he climbed first a tower in Paris and then a mountain in the Auvergne carrying this new instrument, and watched as the column of quicksilver slowly dropped. He deduced that a vacuum must exist above the atmosphere – and thus, in a sense, became the discoverer of outer space.

Pascal recognized – and struggled against – the inadequacy of knowledge to ever encompass the universe. Though the logic of infinity could not be denied, he thought, its existence depressed him. This more than anything testifies to his greatness as a thinker: he was brave enough admit the existence of truths that caused him profound discomfort. While, on the one hand, “It is the heart that perceives God and not the reason,” reason still exerts a critical check on human pride: “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

Late in life, battling illness, Pascal made a study of the cycloid, a curve traced by a point on the circumference of a hoop traveling along a straight line. Using the “method of indivisibles” pioneered by Cavalieri, Pascal managed to solve a series of problems that had defeated Galileo and Descartes. In the process, he came within a hair’s breadth of discovering the infinitesimal calculus, decades before Leibnitz and Newton. Unable to sleep for pain, he stared up into the darkness and saw the solutions unfold.

Blaise Pascal was a slight man with a booming voice, and people found him pugnacious, even overbearing. Ill health and crushing headaches were his constant companions since childhood. He died of a malignant growth in his stomach that spread to his other organs. A post-mortem examination also revealed an ugly lesion on the brain – the source of his migraines. Apparently, as an infant his fontanelle had failed to close properly, and the bones in his skull had slipped and ground against each other like the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth. He died in great agony and convulsions on August 19, 1662, at the age of 39.

The anatomy of perception (5)

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception


Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us; too much light dazzles us; too great distance or proximity hinders our view. . . . We feel neither extreme heat nor extreme cold. Excessive qualities are prejudicial to us and not perceptible by the senses; we do not feel but suffer them. . . . Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not, and we are not within their notice. They escape us, and we them. (Pascal)

In his late eighties, my grandfather’s neck bone sprouted a spur that pressed against his throat.

Imagine it, to be slowly choked to death by your own spine!

It got to where he could barely swallow & all his meals had to be pureed – “like baby food,” he groused.

He had already lost almost all sense of taste; only very sweet and very salty foods had any appeal.

Eating now became onerous, with only the promise of mealtime sociability with the other residents of the old folks’ home to hold his interest.

He grew light as a bird.

Even so, a portion of every mouthful – a drop or two, perhaps – blocked by the bony growth, trickled down his windpipe.

And as Pascal observed, “a drop of water suffices to kill a man.”

He contracted pneumonia.

Starved for oxygen, his brain fed him lies.

Fear found expression in hatred.

The coma was a mercy.

Children and grandchildren filled the small hospital room to overflowing.

He lay with eyes shut & mouth agape below the beak of a nose, one tube in his left arm & another in his urethra, his skeletal frame naked under the bed sheet.

As the night wore on, the gaps between the slight movements of his chest grew longer and longer.

Finally, when several minutes had elapsed, someone felt for a pulse: no hint of motion.

Then a great sigh that caught in a dozen throats, a gasping sob.

As vision blurred we embraced & embraced, baffled to find each other so unfamiliar, ourselves so strange.

The anatomy of perception (conclusion)

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception



We only consult the ear because the heart is wanting. (Pascal)

But we are all fish
out of water,
giddy with oxygen.
Who can tell
the smell of ozone –
electric & wet – from
the taste of
their own fear
when the storm comes?

     the commercial fisherman:

     we entered the sound on a rough sea
     in pea-soup fog
     cut the motor & listened
     for the buoy clang

     the captain swears he can feel
     the change in the swells
     but that too could be
     a kind of listening

     men don’t talk about
     their instincts much
     we’re supposed to be impervious
     to gauge to ogle

     but looking makes everything
     smaller than it is
     the world

     & if something can kill you
     you need to find it
     magnify it
     keep it close

     every pore in my body listened
     for that buoy its dull echo
     sweeter than a church bell
     over the hiss of the waves

Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
I crave immersion in the medium of grace.

I think of whale song more alluring
than any Lorelei, seals & walruses

whose ancestors heard the surf
pounding in their temples. Otters,

already so much more playful than
their bloodthirsty cousins on dry land.

I think perhaps our destiny is not
to be sucked out among the stars – vacuum

without sound – but back in the water,
sonorous & shining. Like Jesus

inscribed in the cursive alpha:
shoal. Implausible feast.

The storm approaches.
As pressure drops,
the ears fill
& pop & the heart
works harder.
Just like
when kisses land
lightly as
a fisherman’s fly
on the skin – creek
or lover –
& the trout in
the bloodstream
takes the hook.


The least movement affects all nature; the entire sea changes because of a rock. . . . Impenetrability is a quality of bodies. (Pascal)

Yesterday morning, from the trees
up on the ridge, a cacophony of rusty hinges.
Startled by something, it stills, turns
into an immense rustle of wings.
A thousand blackbirds lift, pivot,
drift high across the field like
a cloud of smoke.

This morning, walking through the fog
on top of the same ridge, I am stopped
by a yellow sugar maple leaf
dangling from an invisible strand of silk
six feet off the ground.
The slight breeze is enough to make it
flip, flop, fly. The forest drips.

These are not metaphors for anything.
Science says, a body at rest,
a body in motion.
But only
such abstract bodies really make sense.
Ah, unreal body, home to an unreal sense!
Move one finger and the universe shifts: try it.
Let the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up.