“Give Us More To See”

“Give Us More To See” December 11, 2012
“But how George looks. He could look forever
As if he sees you and he doesn’t all at once.”

Yesterday, I used Georges Seurat (as imagined by Stephen Sondheim in Sunday in the Park with George) to open up a discussion about the difficulty of pursuing intimacy with God (or, often, other people).  Play!George might approve of my framing a discussion of truth through artifice, since that’s exactly how he manages to see and comprehend others in the show.  In “Finishing the Hat” (below), George explains that he can only understand or interact with people from a distance.

Entering the world of the hat.
Reaching through the world of the hat like a window
Back to this one from that.

Studying a face.
Stepping back to look at a face,
leaves a little space in the way like a window.
But to see–
It’s the only way to see.

People are just too much.  When he is completely open and present to them, George can’t make any sense out of them. It’s all as much “Chaos” and is as senseless as scanning George’s pointillist painting dot by dot and trying to understand the whole image.  But Dot, his lover, either doesn’t realize that this is what intimacy looks like for George, or she doesn’t trust him that his distance allows him perspective, instead of an excuse to blur out what doesn’t appeal.  How can she tell?

Maybe George isn’t even engaged enough to merit the accusation that Roger levels at filmmaker Mark in another musical (“You’re always preaching not to be numb, but that’s how you thrive.  You pretend to create and observe when you really detach from being alive”).  Mark sees the real world, but holds himself back from participation, but Dot justifiably fears that George might not even be withdrawing from her, just his image of her.  But I think there’s a hint to the accuracy of George’s vision in the opening of “The Day Off.”  George sketches a dog and sings:

If the head was smaller…
If the tail were longer…
If he faced the water…
If the paws were hidden…
If the neck was darker…
If the back was curved…
More like the parasol…

George doesn’t just see, he alters.  While I was watching the show, I wasn’t sure if this was a positive sign.  If George is just using his art to assert mastery over the world around him as he “brings order to the whole” it looks like a point in favor of Dot’s theory that he doesn’t really know her.  But, in order to alter Dot, or the dog, he must be able to see them accurately.  Working to bring the elements of his painting into harmony means that George must be intensely aware of every way they jangle against his imagined ideal.

Call it the via negativa, the grotesque, or the virtue of an almost-right solution, but this seems to be exactly what Lewis called for in the Screwtape Letters; an awareness of the inadequacy of the constructed image.  By noticing where the representation fails, you gain a better understanding of the thing you still may not be able to picture.  Almost-convincing androids show us what we recognize as human; nearly-plausible chatbots teach us what we value most about conversation.

Here’s a practical example.  Most days, I pray Morning and Night Office from the Liturgy of the Hours.  When I’ve got a bit of extra time, I try to translate the psalms into ASL as I go.  I’m pretty terrible at this, since my vocabulary and syntax are patchy, and that ends up being pretty helpful.  I might read something like:

My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,
is struck down and borne away from me

And see how close I can get with


An actual translator could pull something similarly poetic, but I’m like a Deaf toddler.  The inadequacy of my vocabulary is frustrating, and it draws my attention back to the nuances of the prayer I’m making.  “Leave” isn’t really like “borne away.”  Someone could leave on their own, but if my home is being borne away, I might reasonably wonder who’s doing the bearing and what use they plan to make of it.

Or sometimes, I’ll be surprised by the appropriateness of the sign that reveals something visceral I was missing in the English.  I can’t find a decent ASL video of the Agnus Dei, but it’s a lot harder to gloss over the magnitude of “Have mercy on us” when you actually have to inflect the mercy sign as directed to you from God.

We may long for the beatific vision, but we can’t achieve it on our own efforts.  The best I can do is to be present enough to be discombobulated by the lacunae in my model.  Because if I have a hole, I must have a kind of sense of what it fits (or, at least, what it doesn’t).

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  • Unhappily Agnostic

    “People are just too much. When he is completely open and present to them, George can’t make any sense out of them.”

    I like these lines greatly, although they are arguably somewhat nihilistic.

    I don’t think the post really lives up to the promise of the first, though. The first poses the problem of how to get to know God, or people, given our tendency to make false images out of realities. Lewis himself, in various works, says that it is in knowing and living with people that they break our images of themselves, which is surely right. He also says that God is always the one who breaks out image of Himself; God is, Lewis says, the great iconoclast.

    The problem is that, well, for humans it is easy to find “where the representation fails” and so “gain a better understanding of the thing,” because we actually encounter them non-ambiguously. When Bob breaks my Bob-image, there’s no question Bob is there.

    But with God… well, it is hard to say that any phenomenon X is from God and meant to break your image of Him, because all phenomena must be interpreted–both for meaning and for origin. And to say reading Scripture breaks one’s God-image also doesn’t work so well, because I certainly interpret Scripture. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m accusing you of not solving a problem that you set out to solve; perhaps I’m accusing you of not solving a problem that is coextensive with the human condition. But there are certainly people who have incorrect ideas of God, who work with them for plenty of time, and who think they talk with God, and simply don’t have it broken.

    People break our images because they seem present. God, very often, seems absent.

    • Argus

      Jesus is God’s answer to all. To God’s seeming absence and all other questions.
      It is Jesus who breaks our ‘God-image’.

      • I hope you’re right.

        I know this sounds absurdly moody, but I’m not sure what else to say…

  • grok87

    “My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,
is struck down and borne away from me”

    I like your approach of translating/rethinking the psalms in ASL. I’ve found reading the bible in a foreign language (in my case German and Swahili) helpful as well. It forces you to come at the language/meaning in a fresh way. I note it is point 3 in this link:

    One of the things I love about the psalms is how visual and immediate the language/metaphors are which I would imagine make them a particularly good fit for ASL. I love the next line of that psalm as well
    “You have folded up my life,
like a weaver who severs the last thread.”
    Makes me think of the fates

    Kathleen Norris talks about the visual imagery of the psalms a lot in “The Cloister Walk”

    Today’s gospel sort of points toward your theme of “re-imagining” as well.
    The actual passage (parable of the lost sheep) ends “…in just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” And one is left wondering- who are these “little ones”? To get the answer one has to go back to the beginning of the chapter (Matthew 18) “I assure you unless you change and become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of God.”
    So perhaps we are called to re-image God as a child sees God. This chapter from Annie Dillard’s book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is worth reading. Here’s one quote:
    Martin Buber tells this tale: “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things any more.’”


  • grok87

    sorry here’s the Annie Dillard link

  • I can tell this is way too early in the morning for me to be reading your posts. I am in the midst of reading the Screwtape Letters and didn’t make the connection between George and constructed images of God until you mentioned it. =/

    Btw, to put your “People are just too much. When he is completely open and present to them, George can’t make any sense out of them.” into a bit more mathematical light, sticking oneself in the center of a Lie group, like, say, E_8 must be horrifically confusing. Zooming out a bit and projecting it into lower dimensions would alleviate the confusion significantly, allowing us to see the order and symmetry and get a better sense of it. But this invites accusations that we’re not really seeing it. Of course this accusation could be made of any higher-dimensional shape, even something as simple as a hypercube.

  • People can solve the problem of worshiping our own image of God rather than God Himself. The condition is that we need to open up the circle of people we are willing to see God in. If you just see God in those raised in your Christan tradition or even just those raised in some modern western Christian tradition you will not get there. This is one way the church matters. It put before us saints from many cultures and times and saints that have many and varied spiritual practices. Because they are saints we cannot just dismiss them as all wrong. That tends to be our first line of defense when faced with a person who rocks our world this way. We have to make sense of them as Christian men and women.

    Now once you see it in the saints you start to see it everywhere. Every person you meet has the potential to expand your view of God. Every piece of art you encounter can do the same. Then when God comes to you like He came to the Virgin Mary and tells you to do something that blows your mind you are going to be able to process it. Why should God do what I expect?

    • leahlibresco

      Hey, we’re on Sunday in the Park with George right now. Les Mis (“To love another person is to see the face of God!”) isn’t for two weeks!

  • jenesaispas

    Thanks, I understand the last post better now. Stephen Sondheim was on British radio a few weeks ago, I’m not sure if he said anything interesting to you, or if you can even hear it over there in the US 🙂

  • Ivan

    There’s a surprising amount of Orthodox Christian ASL content around the internet if you dig around.

  • “But, in order to alter Dot, or the dog, he must be able to see them accurately. ”

    I don’t buy this, and I’m not even sure that/why you do. I’ve read your post a few times to make sure I’m following correctly, but you seem to be saying that if you recognize the constructedness of the image, then you know something about the original, even if only that it varies on some parameter, if not by what amount.

    That differs from George’s situation as you outline in the passage I quoted, because here you seem to suggest that in order to misrepresent his subjects, he must know what they actually look like, which isn’t true: he could simply be switching a more pleasing error for his original error. So I guess I’m asking if you can clarify your argument here.

    More to the point, I am perhaps less optimistic than you: I think I can realize that my image of God is constructed (and therefore inaccurate) as a logical consequence of human psychology and divine transcendence, without knowing precisely what about my image is wrong. (I can determine that my image of God is untenable because two traits I attribute to God are mutually exclusive without knowing which of those traits is the flawed one, for example, or what it is about my framing of God that makes those two traits appear mutually exclusive when they are not.) This means that I know I worship a false image of God, but don’t have any way of moving from that knowledge to a true(r) image of God.

  • Yeah, slightly very proper for our periods.

  • Leonhard

    Leah, you’re wrong that Christianity teaches that our brokenness can be fixed. Virginity once it has been lost by masturbation, or by sexual intercourse is lost forever and will never be restored to the saint.

    • leahlibresco

      Virginity is not the source and summit of our virtue.

  • James Croft

    Thank you for reminding me to listen again to one of my favorite musicals. The London revival a few years back was one of the most exquisite pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered.