“The Magic of Images”

Author Camille Paglia vividly describes, and makes the case for, three areas of disconnect in the modern visual environment, and the generation growing up in it: between contemporary culture and history; between image and language; and between the multiplicity of images and the ability to really see them.

“Young people today,” she says, “are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them.”

The solution she proposes is the historical and cultural grounding of the basic education of today’s students, whom she portrays in bold strokes as “unmoored from the mother ship of culture” and “riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.” Truly an artist with words, Paglia advocates the use of “exemplary images” from the canon of Western art to help students develop their visual, analytical, and verbal skills, which she says have been degraded by their usage of modern media, in particular the television and computer.

It is interesting to note that half a century ago, the German philosopher Josef Pieper already observed that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” In “Learning to See Again,” an essay he wrote in 1952, he notes, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see…(the) visual noise of daily inanities makes clear perception impossible.”

Paglia’s concluding paragraph, however, gives me pause – particularly her last sentence: “The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.” I agree with her on the importance of having solid cultural and educational formation so that we are able to analyze data, think critically, form our own ideas, and articulate them effectively. I find it ironic, though, that she devotes a good part of the article on the merits – indeed, the necessity – of educating students on Western art, then wraps up by saying that that images need an “antidote.” Why would they need an antidote? Isn’t it true that even in – especially in – today’s fragmented world, there are still some things that just cannot be expressed in words?

To turn again to another of Pieper’s essays (“Thoughts on Music,” 1952) we can name certain constants of the human condition: joy, hope, yearning, grief, despair… “To articulate such intimate realities,” Pieper says, “the dynamism of human existence itself, the spoken word proves utterly inadequate. Such realities, by their very nature (and also because of the spirit’s nature) exist before as well as beyond all speech.” These intimate and inexpressible realities are precisely why we can and do find pleasure and catharsis in music and visual art.

A logical argument, a well-organized essay, a finely crafted piece of literature – all of these of have their own undeniable value. But there are moments when a picture is still worth a thousand words.

The man in the wheelchair

Every evening as I leave the office I walk by a little man sitting in a wheelchair parked on the sidewalk, just out of the way of passersby. He has long scraggly hair, a long scraggly beard, and only one leg. It’s hard to tell his age – he’s no longer young, but he’s not terribly old either. What seems obvious is that he’s not altogether there, as he sits, cap in hand, turning his head from side to side, muttering to no one in particular and looking no one in the eye.

At least, that’s what I thought, until one day I stopped to offer him a blueberry muffin, and I looked into his face. He seemed startled, maybe because for once someone looked at him and saw a person. I know I was startled, because looking into his eyes I saw a soul.

He took the muffin, nodded and said, “Thank you, dear.” He has deep-set, dark blue eyes. I smiled into them for a moment longer and moved on. From that day I’ve tried to catch his eye every time I pass. One time he recognized me and said, “Nice to see you, ma’am.” Most times he’s too busy turning his head this way and that – a funny habit of his.

I started to wish that there was something more I could do to help him. And then today as I passed by him I noticed his glove had fallen onto the sidewalk by his wheelchair. I stepped near to him and stooped to pick it up. Again that startled expression, followed by a quick little nod and a thank you.

And it was then that it struck me. As much as we would like to get rid of all the suffering in the world, often this is all we can do for each other. A little treat. A smile. A small act of service. A prayer that the other person has a warm place to go at night. Or – the simplest and yet probably the most important thing – just looking into people’s eyes to let them know that you see them, that you know they exist, and are glad that they do.

Home

Last November my parents made what is hopefully the last big move of their married life, and left Vancouver for Montreal.

After a tearful goodbye at the airport, I got on the bus that would take me to a Skytrain station, and so on to Surrey, where I had been living for the past year – during the week, anyway. I still went “home” to Aldergrove most weekends – even if they consisted mostly of cleaning up and clearing out while the realtor brought around prospective buyers. As long as my parents still lived in Aldergrove, that was home to me, no matter where I laid my head during the week.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be eternally grateful to this good friend of mine who had offered me not only the extra bedroom and bathroom in her spacious townhouse, but also the space on the landing for my reading lamp, chair, and books; half her linen closet and kitchen storage; and the entire back end of her garage for all my extra stuff. Not to mention the fact that she herself is quiet, orderly, undemanding, and eats anything I cook for her (even the weirdest Pinoy food). I knew that when I got back to “our place” all would be clean, tidy, and peaceful. But as I made my way back to Surrey on that November day, feeling like an abandoned orphan, I was amazed to find that I was also homesick. I wanted to get on the bus that would take me over Langley’s long green hills to Aldergrove. I wanted to walk down the street from the bus stop and see the yellow siding and gray shingle roof peeking through the trees that separated our yard from the neighbour’s. I wanted to open the front door and find everything and everyone still there where they belonged – including the dog (and she had been dead for a year).

When you live someplace for a long time, you tend to put down roots, and it’s a wrench to pull them back up. Or worse, leave them behind: the neighbours whose children grew up along with your siblings, all the wonderful folks at church, the cashiers at the supermarket who know you by name, your fellow regulars at the gym, the waitress at the corner Japanese restaurant who doesn’t have to give you a menu because she already knows exactly what you’re going to order. The roses and peonies you set out in the garden; the cotoneaster, now running riot, that started out as seven small plants; the lilac bush that over the years became a tree. In the garden outside and in the empty rooms within are the ghosts of small children now grown up and gone, laughter over long-forgotten jokes, and echoes of conversations around a dining table that’s been packed up and moved away.

You know you will always remember them, and wonder if they will remember you.

And after a while you realize that the only cure for homesickness is to put down new roots and start being happy where you are.

To me, the word home will always bring to mind a picture of our happy little yellow house. Fortunately, my parents gave me the blueprints and tools to duplicate it, wherever I happen to be.