“How Do We See?”
A talk by David Wansbrough, September 25, 2009, hosted by English Language Evenings
Text by Stephanie Droop
This is David Wansbrough’s 26th time in Russia; he has been coming since the 70s for a few months at a time. David is a writer, artist and all-round visionary whose main skill lies in connecting people and making things happen. His talk about belief structures and intuition was a lyrical delight, mixing his usual wisdom and perceptive insights with anecdotes about jaw-dropping coincidences and poetry.
The main theme was that “the more we know, the richer the world is”, which rings in different ways depending on how we interpret ‘knowledge’. If we mean knowledge in the sense of Wittgenstein’s “when you see something, you find a name for it”, classifying our world, then we run the risk of losing a depth of perception that enables us to see intuitively and objectively. An example is when David’s friend was giving an art tour in a gallery: she stopped before a painting by Shishkin and asked the students what they saw. A physics professor said, “17 birch trees, 5 oak, 3 larch…”, listing the trees but missing the harmonious atmosphere and play of light.
Intuitive knowledge, however, comes when we don’t rely on classifying things. We have no names for any of the lines or hollows of the human face, but that does not prevent us from intimately knowing each others’ faces. In Ways of Seeing, essayist John Berger mentioned how the Salon of the Refused artists realized that the sky was blue, whereas in the art academy up until then the sky had always been grey-green. When artists can see objectively and intuitively it forges new paths in vision and hence shows us the next way we will see. The other times that we see more objectively are when we are in love (heightened senses), when we are close to death or when someone close has died (minutes dragging by).
Although intuition and received wisdom may seem to be opposites – some common practices are continued long after they become redundant – there is an interesting element of overlap because what started as intuition can quickly become received wisdom. People with flat feet are not allowed in any army, although the many flat-footed Olympic athletes have shown that it does not limit performance. It could be that long ago people noticed that when standing on guard, those with high arched feet could sense intruders coming by vibrations in the gap between foot and ground? Or is it a baseless custom that we continue with for no reason?
People often call David clairvoyant, which he modestly says is because he observes details and draws conclusions. Once he asked a man who regularly attended his lectures, “how long will your mother be in hospital?” The man was shocked at how anyone could have known that his mother was ill. David had remembered that the man lived with his mother who did his laundry, and so when the man was in a dirty, rumpled shirt he could see that his mum was away somewhere for a long time. But many of David’s stories contain coincidences so fantastic that they are hard to explain away prosaically. Time spent in his company is full of richly entertaining stories of how he predicted the future leaders of Russia from a photograph of 600 Soviet citizens and other examples of truly impressive perception.
It seems that perception might go in waves and that there is a collective consciousness that links us. How else can we understand the phenomenon in the 60s when psychologists were doing experiments on rats, when no progress was made for years, then one day a rat in Princeton solved the Skinner maze and the next day all the rats in Paris did it? Or that someone else independently tried to patent the lightbulb at the same time as Edison? Or that Japanese artists discovered linear perception the same time as artists in Europe? There are things that we cannot rationally explain. You have to suspend disbelief when listening to David, especially when he suggests that positive thinking causes positive events, or that virgin forests give out vibrations of soul, but on the whole listening to this wonderful person is entertaining, rewarding and stimulating.