The Doors of Perception

by Frederick Turner

On a recent research and writing trip to the Galapagos, I sometimes did not know what I was seeing. Of course, there was a helpful guide and the guidebook, and over six decades of travel to educate the eye, but the landscape and its dwellers were so deeply strange that all the accustomed genres and conventions of intelligent sight were bypassed or overwhelmed. Everything was so sharp in focus that it could be a foot away, or a mile. The light contrast between bright and dark was so enormous, the saturation of the unfamiliar colors so deep, the albedo effects so radical—a different world facing the sun from that with the sun behind you—and the shapes so grotesque, that one’s visual integrative faculty was strained and overloaded.

The silence roared in one’s ears. There were smells one had never smelled before—delicate, acid, entrancing but also vaguely menacing; sometimes disgusting, like that of a beach full of huge basking sea-lions, totally unafraid, surrounded by their enormous feces. Yet one was not disgusted, because there was no normal here to compare it with, nothing that was defiled by its contact. One did not even know whether one was hot or cold. The equator neatly bisects the Galapagos Islands, and any inland sheltered place can be an inferno. Yet the isles are bathed with the icy ocean current from Antarctica, and penguins dart and fly in swarms, confusingly, under water. You can shiver and sweat at the same time in the chill breeze and the baking enormous sun.

A bird would come down and perch on your hat, as if it were simply a convenient place to see things from. There was a lava platform covered with a thousand black iguanas of every size, exactly the same color as the lava (including the same veins of iridescence), all staring at the sun with their mineral eyes; and the lava itself was so tortured in shape that it resembled deformed iguanas, and one did not know what was lava and what was lizard. There were tall prickly fleshy trees, which the guide said were a mutated form of the familiar prickly pear I knew from Texas, and zoomorphic communities of tiny bulbous cacti in pink and orange that had evolved from the same ancestor.

Even the camera was confused. Calibrated for light less unobscured, less equatorial, more forgiving and nuanced, it made digital photographs that were like old black-and-white shots, or in which one was uncertain what was figure and what was ground, or even whether the photo was upright or on its side. Pictures of the amazing lava, with its sheen of metal oxide colors—manganese, iron, zinc, tin, magnesium—came out just plain black. Giant tortoises could not be distinguished from the chaos of dead leaves, fallen branches and raw earth in which they were slowly grubbing ten feet away. At other times, the colors in the photo were ridiculously gaudy. There were photos that were impossible, even with a good underwater camera: thirty Golden Rays, turned velvety dark green by the blue light of the water, swimming very gently in unison from one end of a volcanic crack to the other, little waves running along their wings to propel them—then turning in unison and swimming gently back.

The deep question here concerns the picturesque. What can be seen may be what can be pictured in the available pictorial (verbal, olfactory, acoustic, tactile) vocabulary. Ludwig Wittgenstein observed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that "the limits of my language are the limits of my world," and went on to say with characteristic bluntness "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." When English settlers came to America, they saw a bird they had never seen before. They called it a robin, because of its red breast, though it is an entirely different kind of bird from the English robin they knew—the former is a species of thrush, the latter a flycatcher. Likewise, the red-winged blackbird, an icterine related to the warblers, is no kin to the European blackbird, a species of thrush, from which it gets its name. But the newcomers had to have names, they were compelled by Adam’s task to label things, and they used what labels they had to hand. My camera did what it could with the programming it had; my eye must fain do the same.

And so did the eyes of all the artists and writers who followed the great age of discovery. The Renaissance and the voyages of Columbus sparked a period in which an increasing cascade of new things to be properly seen and named descended upon the European consciousness. A whole range of picturing and naming techniques emerged. California was named after an imaginary country in a Spanish romance. Renaissance artists who recorded the voyages of the first explorers represented the almost naked bodies of the natives in the conventions of old-master anatomy and Greco-Roman aesthetics, using contrapposto poses and arcadian landscape compositions. The great Baroque artists of Quito, whose works I saw in that amazing mountain city, used the European traditions of exotic landscape art (often itself an attempt to render the alien world of the Holy Land), with added elements of Incan iconography. But they did not have a cultural memory of Incan aesthetics, so they replaced the incomprehensible Incan style with that of Moorish Granada, whose conventions they already knew, as a sort of all-purpose pagan Other.

British naval artists faced the same problem—or was it an opportunity? William Hodges’s Resolution and Adventure with Fishing Craft in Matavai Bay and A View of Cape Stephens in Cook’s Straits (New Zealand) with Waterspout (both painted in 1776) use the palette of Giorgione and Claude Lorrain and subtly morph the Pacific light into the more familiar Mediterranean light. Australian artists like Augustus Earle (e.g., Portrait of Bungaree, a Native of New South Wales, with Fort Macquarie, Sydney Harbour, in Background, 1826) and George O’Brien (e.g., View of Auckland and the Old Grafton Bridge, 1887) drew on nautical draftsmanship, botanical and zoological illustration techniques, and again the European old master landscapists for their visual vocabulary.

In North America, frontier artists like James Wooldridge (e.g., Indians of Virginia, 1675), James Otto Lewis (e.g., A Chippewa Squaw and Child, 1826), George Catlin (e.g., Sioux Village, c. 1835, An Indian Ball-Play, c. 1846–50) and Charles M. Russell (e.g., When the Land Belonged to God, 1914), explore various strategies for visually "naming" their subjects. One strategy is to call on the tradition of the Edenic scene, the idea of an untouched and innocent world without paralyzing reflection, inhabited by Montaigne’s or Rousseau’s noble savages. To this end, they tend to eliminate from their paintings any traces of European artifacts, trade goods, civilized squalor or self-conscious self-presentation (which would surely already have been part of the real scene). This, paradoxically, was a distortion of what they saw. One of the earliest trade goods introduced by European merchants was the mirror, so most of the natives pictured in early paintings and engravings would probably have seen themselves already and put the formidable human ability to read faces to work on their own.

Wooldridge’s landscape is painted in the style of European stage scenery, and his natives are an anthology of Renaissance poses. Yet one can see that there is an attempt at rendering the strangeness and freshness of the place—but using ancient European conceptions of strangeness and freshness. He has painted not Virginia but Eden. Catlin (e.g., his portrait White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, 1844–45), and to some extent Lewis, go a long way toward an accurate portrayal of the clothing, facial expression, hair style, architecture and accoutrements of the Native Americans they depict. But the landscape the natives are set in is either in the old arcadian idiom or virtually excluded, but for a suggestion of green and a horizon. Catlin’s hunting scenes are quite surreal—he doesn’t really understand the prairie, though he has caught something of the wild hunt that takes place in it. Catlin has allowed himself to be influenced by Plains Indian artistic styles, though, and some of that magic leaks through.

It is with Frederic Remington that some kind of true synthesis between the Euro-American eye and the western American frontier takes place. In such works as Return of the Blackfoot War Party (1887), A Mining Town, Wyoming (1899) and A Dash for the Timber (1888), Remington has rightly rendered the western light, and has integrated a fully seen native with his own gestures into a fully seen western landscape. It is not that he has discarded the technique of the classic European tradition: he has truly expanded it by an act of creative imagination and a submission to the rules of another world. It is no coincidence that his artistic solutions have become the standard for all western art, from the covers of Louis Lamour cowboy paperbacks to the movies of John Ford and Sergio Leone.

Meanwhile, in the long-settled valleys of the Northeast, there has been enough time for the Euro-American eye to get accustomed to the new world, and the first great triumph of American art has begun: the achievement of the Hudson River School, culminating in the work of Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. Though Asher Brown Durand’s lushly arcadian The Catskills could almost have been painted by Claude or Poussin, Thomas Cole—in The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton), 1836—has already grasped something of the alienness of the American landscape and light, found a vocabulary in the European palette to express it and wrestled it to a new purpose. Jasper Cropsey—in Greenwood Lake (1870) or Fisherman’s House, Greenwood Lake (New Jersey), from 1877—finally recognizes and makes beautiful the sheer disheveledness of the American landscape. The trees no longer look trimmed, the undergrowth is not picturesque but filled with vitality, the colors compete rather than harmonize, but the vast American sky embraces all.

Novelists and poets wrestled with the same kind of fundamental cognitive and perceptual problems. Joseph Conrad’s famous journey up the Congo in Heart of Darkness makes explicit the nature of Wittgenstein’s paradox. Conrad’s character Marlow is speaking about that of which he cannot speak:

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. …We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.

There is a kind of hint in the term "inheritance" that suggests that the alienness is not absolute. The way to begin to speak the unspeakable is to recognize our common kinship with it, and this is the true work of the artist of the radically strange. The artist must sail into the unknown, cutting blazes as he or she goes along, blazes that consist of a combination of some symbol already known and some open question, a grotesque paradox, that opens up the new territory of perception. The artist must not abandon the tradition he or she inherited. Rather, the imaginative journey is not away from the classic tradition, but back into it, through it, back further to what was the classic for the classicists themselves; back further—both into the childhood of our imagination and the childhood of our culture—to where the origins of what we now encounter as radical strangeness itself branched off from our ancestral roots.

Herman Melville is even more explicit in chapter 102, "A Bower in the Arsacides," of Moby Dick. Ishmael is determined to get to know that ultimate monster, that inconceivable alienness, the whale. He wants to measure it scientifically, classify it in a family tree, a taxonomy that might ultimately relate it to our own origins as mammals. To do this he must, like Jonah, enter into the belly of a skeletal whale, and inhabit, make sense of and name the nameless. The whale skeleton has been made into a sort of shrine by the Solomon Islands king who is Ishmael’s friend, and is surrounded by a luxuriant palm grove. Ishmael considers the amazing process of weaving that creates the palm-leaves and the vines:

All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric?

Nature is a continuous creative process, but what is its meaning? Ishmael is looking for a blaze or way-marker to help him penetrate the mystery (and Melville is looking for words to make his novel about the incomprehensible whale). Like Shakespeare’s poet, he must link earth with heaven, the known with the unknown, the living and the unliving, shape and the shapeless:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V, i)

So Ishmael continues his meditation:

Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging—a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the sunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.

The whale symbolizes God on Sunday, at rest so that humans can hear him speak. What Melville has done is what Darwin did, in that moment of overwhelming insight in the Galapagos when, contemplating the branching-out of what are now called the Darwin finches into a dozen different species, he conceived the theory of evolution. It was that insight that I had come to the Galapagos to re-experience. We can only truly picture the unknown by tracing our own cultural and biological stemma back to the branchpoint that was also the parent of what we now strain to see and name. We must make the shaman’s journey, back down the cave from which we first emerged, and speak with our ancestors. Paul Gauguin’s astonishing Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? makes the same move as Melville’s: he has traced his own tradition and the Tahitian tradition to their common root and seen the world anew.

As we continue our restless human voyage of discovery, we will encounter again the problems and opportunities of giving a local habitation and a name to the alien and nameless. Already science fiction is taking on the task of seeing the landscape of Mars:

The sun was a little gold button, and above it shone two evening stars: Venus, and the Earth.

"They’ve been getting closer every night lately," Ann said softly. "The conjunction should be really brilliant."

The sun touched the horizon, and the dune crests faded to shadow. The little button sun sank over the black line to the west. Now the sky was a maroon dome, the high clouds the pink of moss campion. Stars were popping out everywhere, and the maroon sky shifted to a vivid dark violet, an electric color that was picked up by the dune crests, so that it seemed crescents of liquid twilight lay across the black plain.

Here Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars (Bantam, 1993) begins a new phase in our artistic journey. We weave together science (the astronomical fact), metaphor (the button, the campion, the electricity), our common solar system history and the classical conventions of landscape description—and clothe the unseeable alienness with the garment of art. 

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1