Speech in opposition to looking -
The violence that speech can do to a thing struck me one night on the way home from a bad poetry reading. I wrote:
The other evening I watched a poet read from a book he’d written. The poem described a series of long walks around London and for poetic effect made connections between moments that had passed on these walks. There was poetry in the language and words got stuck to themselves and stopped.
On the train on the way home I looked out of the window at barbed wire and the late sunshine on a roof. It made me imagine a sentence about barbed wire and the late sunshine on a roof, and I regretted doubling the view onto itself. I wished the poet could have transmitted the walks without the poem, or the poem without the poetry or better still, had not transmitted the walks at all, not even to himself. I’d like him to have just walked, and even that by accident.
Likewise, to my right there is a pot of thyme. I have just tugged from the soil a dry strand of this thyme, and it came out cleanly and I put it down on the
piece of paper by the window. It is very thin indeed. Its leaves are detailed to the hilt. It occupies space so close to me that its outline responds as I move.
I’d thought about taking a photograph or painting it or filming it, but it’s best as it is, just looked at. And yet here I am writing, and the writing is using up some of the thyme. I’m hoping the writing will redeem itself despite what it’s done to the thyme, most of which (I think, if my description’s been sufficiently brief) is still left on the paper. I hope it might redeem itself by doing something other than description. Things describe themselves best on their own. Language has other work to do.
But it’s not just language that does this violence to things. To merely observe a thing is to change it by isolating it as an event distinct from the matter around it. Once isolated, the thing is no longer the unobserved thing it once was: it becomes an object – the object of one’s regard. The unobserved thing-in-itself recedes from view at the very point of observation, leaving behind it a trace which testifies not to the presence of the thing but its absence. Far from bridging the gap between a thing and its observer, the effort to observe forces the thing away.