Monday, July 6, 2009

Blind Spots

The Winged Victory of Samothrace:



-- excavated in the 1860's and on display in the Louvre since the 1880's, has become one of the most familiar images in Western culture. It is known to the modern world only in its current fragmentary state, missing its head and arms; as in the case of the Venus de Milo, one struggles to imagine how it once looked in its pristine state, or how being more complete could make it more beautiful. The fragment has been accepted as a whole. When one rounds a corner in the Louvre and sees this statue at the top of a broad staircase at the other end of a vast hall, the effect is grand, thrilling. Not incomplete.

They say that when someone has a blind spot, the mind, or the eye, fills it in. One doesn't see a black or blurry spot in the middle of the field of vision. You don't see that something is missing. The old joke goes: A man goes to the doctor for a check-up, the doctor asks him to describe his routine upon waking up, the man says, "I urinate, I move my bowels, I vomit, I wash my face and hands, I shower, I sha-" "Hold on there," says the doctor. "What was that between moving your bowels and washing your face and hands?" "I vomit." "You vomit every morning?" "Doesn't everyone?"

We tend to accept whatever we're used to, to think of it as normal, whether it's living in a mansion surrounded my many acres of our land tended to by several full-time caretakers, or in a constant succession of hotel rooms, or in a small and noisy one-room apartment, or with no home at all, eating gourmet meals or dog food, eating much too much or not nearly enough, having sex daily with our choice of appealing partners, or once week in a monogamous relationship, or with no-one, being inebriated daily, or never, or somewhere in between. Very few people, or so it seems to me, think of themselves as very rich or very poor, very good or very bad, very pampered or very deprived. Their situations vary enormously, but they tend to think of themselves as pretty average and their situations as nothing special one way or another. The blind spots get filled in. "Yes, I have -- " fill in the blank: a leg amputated above the knee; 43 million dollars; a munitions dump next door to me where they're always exploding old ordinance that's too dangerous to try to disarm; six months to live; dozens of outstanding warrants for my arrest; 127 eels as pets; "-- but I'm just an average person and my life is pretty normal."

Not only do most people tend to think of themselves as normal and average: they very often ridicule or otherwise criticize any people who dare to describe themselves differently. "You think you're a genius just because you can perform those mathematical calculations 5,000 times faster than average? What an arrogant jerk!" "You think you've got it so rough just because you're a blind, deaf quadraplegic? Everybody has problems! Grow up!"

Okay so I'm exaggerating. (Am I?) Still, there is this tendency, to deny the differences in our situations. Often supported by a deep reluctance to really investigate in detail what it is like for others. It may be considered rude to poke one's nose in. Socially we mostly gravitate to the company of people in similar situations. Or if it's found out that someone has not, suspicion arises, whether it's the well-off being suspicious of a social climber (what a phrase!), or the poor suspecting condescension and false friendship, ulterior motives.

We're all pretty much the same, in pretty much similar circumstances. Well, clearly we're not, but let's shun anyone who's in a different sort of jam so that we can pretend we're all in more or less the same one.

Maybe that's not typical thinking and behavior at all. It's widespread, certainly, but how would I know whether most people really are so willfully blind. I have these tendencies, certainly. They say that the Winged Victory one had her hands cupped around her mouth to shout her joyous news; yet I cringe at knowing or even imagining what the statue looked like whole.

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