Thursday, October 2, 2014

The most expensive item in the room.

The old duffers lined the hall.  Their mammoth tour bus waited patiently outside. The men all looked like veterans of Omaha Beach, but actually they were more likely to be veterans of Woodstock. Time does that.

Sarah was very good — smart, energetic, informed, thought-provoking — the kind of tour guide any museum would like to have and any tourist would want to get, feeding loads of information in very digestible chunks.  

She pointed to the desk in the center of the room. Henry David Thoreau felt no need to lock his cabin when he left and didn’t mind if he found someone sitting there when he returned. But he always locked his desk, as the scratch marks around the keyhole proved. Safeguarding the contents of his mind was more important to him than protecting the contents of his house. 

She stumbled a little bit on the Transcendentalists, admitting that their organizing principles still eluded her.  They believed in the goodness of all mankind and were back-to-nature types, which all sounded rather hippie-ish. A chuckle rose from the audience. 

In a separate room, she asked if anyone knew what the most expensive item in there was.  People guessed this and that. No, none of these. It was the mirror, which was made of polished silver. Mirrors were a rarity in colonial times, owned by very few, and many 17th century inhabitants went years without ever seeing their own reflection, or even knowing what they themselves looked like.  

It’s a proposition of existential wonderment — what would it mean to go decades or a whole lifetime without ever seeing your own face? What sort of person would such a colonial man be who never had the opportunity to look upon himself but only looked out onto others? There is a reason the verb "to reflect" means "to throw back heat or light" as a mirror does, but also "to think deeply" or "to contemplate". It all adds a different wrinkle on the admonition to "be self-aware." 

Today, we suffer no such dearth. Our faces are as familiar to us as anything we see, and our opportunities to see our own reflections, whether on surfaces or in digital formats, gives us almost endless opportunities to reflect. Moreover, in today's world, we are also surrounded by other human faces, in the form of persons or on screens or in the pages of print media. Our daily visual landscape is littered with eyes-nose-mouth, which is unlike the earliest days of colonial America, when to see the face of another human being was more common than seeing an image of one's own, but still itself a rare occurrence. If there is such a thing as social evolution, this must surely be a part of it.