Sunday, June 28, 2009

What We Don't See

Somewhere in his astute discussions of the “stream of consciousness,” a phrase of his own invention, I think, William James notes the almost sovereign role of attention which, at will, picks some element of this stream on which to bestow its focus. James is often read as if he equated the “stream” with consciousness itself, but he really describes two distinct phenomena at work. I am at times reminded of the power of attention to draw near, and also to shut out, when I encounter certain puzzles or problems. The other day I saw a quiz on another site (Rebecca Writes) that I occasionally visit. It tests your knowledge of the borders of States of the Union. The quiz is here. I only scored five out of ten: obviously I’m not smart geographically despite thinking otherwise. But every time the subject arises, I flunk again. The other day, reading an old history book, I couldn’t for the life of me locate Sidon and Tyre. I should have known: Carthage was settled from there, and the settlers were Phoenicians, hence they came from Lebanon. Another great geography test is here, hat tip to Monique for that one.

The passing of Michael Jackson powerfully reminded me that, despite my arrival in the United States in 1951, I’ve managed to miss the whole flamboyant flowering of psychedelic pop culture in my own times—except to the extent that I couldn’t avoid it—including phenomena like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and many other greats. Out of that ocean the only figures I’m able to focus are Bruce Springsteen on the male and Enya, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins on the female side. I recognize the faces of perhaps a hundred or more actors and actresses—and have definite ideas whether or not I like them—but I can only name one: Meryl Streep.

Sports is a desert. I only know a little about baseball, but that amounts to a small cluster of atoms—this despite The Dickson Baseball Dictionary within reach of where I sit. My knowledge of flowers and trees is even more abysmal—but I do regularly visit Jim’s Hostas, aka the hosta library, just to get lost in gardening reveries.

Yes. We see those things we choose to see. Lord! The world is limitless. And you do have to make choices. But we also actively construct our ignorance.

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