Shadows and Sight

Shadows in the late afternoon.

Shadows in the late afternoon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“…there are shadows because there are hills.”

E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
When our older daughter was a little over a year old, she was afraid to go into the enclosed porch of house at night. “Shadows hurting you,” she would say, meaning herself. Looming from the old glider sofa and other odd pieces of furniture, the shadows were indeed a bit frightening, especially, I imagine to one so tiny.

It is strange how our brains translate what our eyes see. I remember once waking in the middle of night, my husband sleeping beside me, and being totally convinced that a robe hanging on the door was really a person. Why did I think a person would stand in the door without moving for a long time, and why didn’t I do or say anything? I don’t know. I was too afraid to move. Things don’t make a whole lot of sense at 3 AM.

I look out my kitchen window, and I think a creature, a deer perhaps, is lying by my neighbor’s fence. It is a tree stump, but it surprises me every single day—sometimes several times each day. I know it’s not an animal, and yet every time I go to wash a dish or get a drink of water and casually glance out that window, I think an animal is there. (In my defense, I have seen real deer there in the yard and by that fence.)

How many times—especially while driving at night—do you think you see something in the shadows?

            Shadows are an important element in paintings and photographs. They provide contrast and definition. But how an artist actually sees and then interprets the world is also important. Physical handicaps can lead to new styles and new interpretations, but often artists’ memories and how they translate these visual memories into artistic creations remains intact. For example, Claude Monet’s style changed as his eyesight worsened because of cataracts. He told an interviewer that he was painting from memory and “trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and to the force of habit.” (Quoted from the New York Times article about artists and sight here.)

We all see and remember things differently. Four different people are likely to give four different interpretations—Rashomon-style–of any event they all have witnessed. Sometimes I wonder how imagination and perception has changed history. All interpretation of the past is subject to the biases and perceptions of the writer. For how long was the history of women, ordinary people, and minorities ignored because those writing history simply did not see them? It is said that the victors write history, but perhaps more accurately it is those in power who transmit or censor history. And sometimes it is sheer chance that affects what is preserved. For example, a city buried under volcanic dust and debris. What if all we knew of ancient Roman civilization was what was rediscovered in Pompeii or Herculaneum?

But imagination also affects the future. How many among the uneducated, downtrodden, and abused throughout the ages have not been able to envision a world beyond the limited one that surrounds them? How many never have the time, energy, or education to dream or create? How many have had to hide their real lives and dreams in the shadows because society would not accept whom they love or who they are—the wrong sex, the wrong color, the wrong class?

“We kiss in a shadow,
We hide from the moon,
Our meetings are few,
And over too soon.”
–Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I (1951)

 Sometimes shadows prevent us from venturing into new worlds or seeking new ideas.  We are held back by the shadows of those we have lost. We stand in the shadows of goals unachieved, or the memories of unrequited love. We hide in the shadow of those who have attained fame, afraid to venture out on our own. Sometimes we fear the shadows will hurt us and we become paralyzed. But contrast is important. We need to see—and feel–degrees of darkness and light. As Peter Pan reminds us, shadows can be lost, but they can be re-attached. Sometimes shadows inspire us to see the world in a new way.











The Past in Black and White


Whenever I think of the 1930s and 1940s, I see black and white images in my head. I realized this only recently. Certainly I know the world at that time did not exist only in black and white. I know it was not suddenly transformed. I know there was not a door like the one Dorothy Gale opened when she arrived in Munchkinland that changed the black and white World War II years into a Technicolor postwar period.

And yet, the images remain. It is only the decades of the Great Depression and World War II that appear to me this way. Perhaps the photographs of Dorothea Lange, the classic screwball comedies, such as It Happened One Night, and the newsreels of bombers and concentration camps have influenced me so that I imagine the world existed then as a shadow-filled realm, filled with a sense of threatening doom, and lightened only by the madcap antics of beautiful heiresses.

My parents grew up in the 1930s. They were the children of immigrants. They played with their friends and went to school. They laughed and cried. They were not rich, but they had food, clothing, and shelter. They went to the movies and to concerts. Yet when I imagine my mother in her parents’ grocery store in Philadelphia, I see her and the space around her as a black and white image.

When I think of other eras, I see them in color in my mind. Why is this? As I am influenced by photos and movies of the 1930s and 1940s, am I similarly influenced by the Renaissance masters, medieval tapestries, and cave paintings? What if I had never seen any of those things? How would I then perceive the past?

Does it matter? Numerous studies have questioned and examined the reliability of eyewitnesses. As humans, our brains filter and interpret what we see (or read or experience) according to the knowledge we have. When we encounter something unknown, we make it fit—somehow.  Memory, too, is pliable.  Who hasn’t had a conversation with a family member or friend during which you discover you have completely different memories of an event? (This is the theme of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s song from the 1958 musical Gigi,I Remember It Well.” Yes, I am also a fan of musicals. I hope that doesn’t make you stop reading my blog.)

When I write about events of the past, my words come from a brain influenced by all that I have read, seen, and experienced. It is impossible to be unbiased, despite my best attempts. I am not alone, of course, and I don’t think it is necessarily bad. It is part of what makes us human–minds that can imagine and view events in a thousand different ways and that can create poetry, literature, music, and art to express our thoughts and feelings. Each one of us has a unique view–and a unique way of expressing it.

These creative impulses can take many forms, and they can occur in unlikely places. For example, hidden in the secret annex with her family and four others the teenager Anne Frank wrote of her life and the horrors around her, while maintaining her belief in the essential goodness of people. She imagined a future in which she and her family would be able to continue their lives. When we in our present read her words written in the past, we read them with the knowledge that she did not survive the Holocaust. We are influenced by that knowledge, and it affects our perception of her words. There is a foreshadowing in her diary that she did not intend. She, who had no knowledge of the future, remained hopeful. I might picture her life existing in grainy colorless photos, but that is my failing, my mind’s attempt to make sense of her world. She lived her life in color, until it ended horribly and much too soon. Yet, the words she left behind demonstrate that though her world was filled with darkness and shadows, it was not black and white.