George, George, what do you see?

Author George Saunders

“If you go back to Tristram Shandy, Gogol, even Shakespeare, there’s the same move, which is to say, I would say it this way: that the pre-conceptual world, you know, when we walk out on the street and all that beautiful energy hits us, there’s a split second there where we’re really perceiving it. We haven’t labeled it and thereby reduced it yet. We’re just in it. And I think that’s somehow the moment you’re trying to recreate or simulate in that instant where the reader first reads your prose. Now, that’s tricky because we’re habituated. So, you say, oh, I’m on a street in Portland, Oregon. No big deal. But that street out there is not that, it’s much more. So I think that my goal is to just hint at that instant moment of crazy perception, and sometimes to do that you have to go a real long way around. I think when Kafka wrote the Metamorphosis that was probably the most honest, autobiographical way he could explain the way life felt to him, and the reason we love him is that it’s so counterintuitive, it’s so bold, and it’s so gutsy in rejecting what I’ve described as consensus-reality. Of course, language always reduces reality to simple things, because that’s how we get around, but there is that moment just before that happens which is so deliriously wonderful and I think that’s what we can sometimes get to in fiction.

At this point, my model of reality is basically that there’s a bunch of thought-streams walking and driving around. So we’re sitting here across the table: you’ve got a thought-stream going on, I’ve got one going on, we both know that the other one is real but we’re not quite buying it. And everything that you do today and feel today and accomplish today is going to be mediated or maybe caused by your thought-stream. So, when you think about the confusion in the world and the evil and also the beauty, it’s literally just those two thought streams hitting each other. Sparks going off. So for me, that’s a really exciting fictional model, to say well, you really could get at the truth by just modeling those.”

– George Saunders

Sebastian, Sebastian, what do you see?

I see that . . . PTSD is often more jungerdriven by the group social context than the trauma
experienced by the individual.

“Most higher primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are few examples of individuals surviving outside of a group. A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit situation that humans evolved for into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good, and people sleep alone or with a partner. Even if he or she is in a family, that is not the same as belonging to a large, self-sufficient group that shares and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individual lifestyles that those technologies spawn may be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

“You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society—that we are an anti-human society,” anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz warned when I tried this theory out on her. Abramowitz was in Ivory Coast during the start of the civil war there in 2002 and experienced, firsthand, the extremely close bonds created by hardship and danger. “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is about an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”

– Sebastian Junger, How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield, Vanity Fair

What Do You See?

GE’s Jahenry-holt-and-company-brown-bear-what-do-you-see-2743435-01ck Welch holds that “the team that sees reality the clearest wins.” I’ve noticed that thinkers of various stripes will occasionally “see” some aspect of reality with intense clarity. Their writing will shift momentarily to a more revelatory style of prose as they try to express the profundity of their shift in perspective. This blog series is a collection of such moments of recognition—when I think I hear someone saying, “Hey everyone, look over here. I’ve been watching for a while and now I see it differently.”

Sometimes this perspective is literally a higher view: the writer Frank White interviewed 29 astronauts and then wrote about the “overview effect” theory, arguing that the sight of earth from space consistently transforms astronauts’ perspectives on themselves and the world. Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1963, told White:

The earth is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you – all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.  And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.

I’ve been reading a children’s book to my one-year-old daughter titled Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  I’ve begun imagining that when a grownup thinker is conveying a momentous shift in perspective, he or she is answering the deceptively simple question of “what do you see?”

Annie, Annie, what do you see?

Any culture tells you how to live your one and only life: to wit as everyone else does. Probably most cultures prize, as ours rightly does, making a contribution by working hard at work that you love; being in the know, and intelligent; gathering a surplus; and loving your family above all, and your dog, your boat, bird-watching. Beyond those things our culture might specialize in money, and celebrity, and natural beauty. These are not universal. You enjoy work and will love your grandchildren, and somewhere in there you die…Say you have seen something. You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real, the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?

—Annie Dillard, “This Is The Life”

Sandy P., Sandy P., what do you see?

I think of organizations as a group of people sailing in a stream of ideas. Sometimes they are sailing in swift, clear streams where the ideas are abundant, but sometimes they are in stagnant pools or terrifying whirlpools. At other times, one person’s idea stream forks off, splitting them apart from other people and taking them in a new direction. To me, this is the real story of community and culture. The rest is just surface appearance and illusion.

—Sandy Pentland, Social Physics

Ed, Ed, what do you see? 

Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “ugly babies.” They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing—in the form of time and patience in order to grow…Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.

—Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.