This essay is based on Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” which is a chapter in the book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” In particular, this paper is an analysis of the meaning of seeing literally (the natural obvious) and figuratively (the artificial obvious). Dillard uses metaphors and personal examples to elaborate literally and figuratively, seeing and proceeds to show a type of seeing that is more visionary rather than biological. A person can only see finer details through deep observation and understanding without relying on the brain’s interpretation of a site, image, or thing that one is seeing at a particular time. Through this kind of seeing, a person can see the ‘invisible’ details. By offering a comprehensive elaboration of the natural obvious and artificial obvious perspectives of seeing, Dillard suggests that seeing is not limited to experience, knowledge or feelings, but encompasses the integration of vision, thought, and deeper observation.
The natural obvious and artificial obvious comprise important lenses of seeing the world based on Dillard’s perspectives. In this regard, Dillard offers an elaborate distinction of seeing literally and figuratively. To see literally entails seeing abstract objects or items in nature without focusing on details. Dillard suggests that knowledge and experience have a great influence on literally seeing. She argues that seeing literally is easier than seeing artificially because artificial obvious involves a comprehensive synthesis of what a person sees. In her description, Dillard links literally obvious to seeing what one expects to see. She writes that “but the artificial obvious is hard to see. My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head; I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect” (16).
Furthermore, Dillard uses metaphors to explain what it means to see literally and figuratively. Through the literally approach to seeing, a person will often see an image that has already been formed in mind through either learning or experience. To see literally, hence, often limits the details that one can see or discern. A real picture or image is often formed when one sees figuratively. Figuratively seeing causes an individual to see what it is that they are looking at. Perhaps the metaphor of the bullfrog offers an elemental account or distinction of seeing literally and figuratively.
The scenario involves a group of campers who were shouting at Dillard to search for a green frog that was in front of her (16). She dedicated her efforts to search for the green frog because her mind had already conceived the idea that a frog should be green. For several minutes, she was unable to see the frog because it was not green in color. According to Dillard (16), she wasted three minutes staring at the frog even though it was large, and “a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions.” When Dillard finally saw the frog, it had the color of hickory bark and not green (16). In this metaphor, Dillard elaborates on how natural obvious seeing works. Unlike artificial obvious, natural obvious seeing is influenced by what we already know and expect. When staring at a thing, a person might be unable to distinguish the real features of that thing because of their expectations. The metaphor further suggests that what a person expects to see might not be what really exists.
Dillard uses yet another metaphor about the snakes and native to elaborate on the concept of seeing literally and figuratively. The metaphor involves a conversation between a herpetologist and native. During the conversation, “the herpetologist asks the native, “Are there snakes in that ravine?” “Nosir.” And the herpetologist comes home with, yessir, three bags full” (16). The native was responding based on his knowledge and experience. Suggestively, the native knew their land and did not even bother to search for the snakes. The native exemplifies the concept of natural obvious whereby the person is already accustomed to the environment and sees the environment through experience and knowledge. He was unable to see the snakes because he did not expect the unexpected when looking for the snakes. On the contrary, the herpetologist exemplifies the idea of artificial obvious because they easily see the snakes on the environment.
As Dillard proceeds to realize a novel way of seeing, she explains the limitation of the biological or neurological way of seeing. The biological way of seeing tends to limit the extent to which a person can see. Despite the limitation associated with the neurological way of seeing, a person might not have the ability to avoid it, as observed by Dillard. Thus, she does not underrate the significance of biology or neurology in facilitating seeing and interpreting what the human eyes see. However, the biological or neurological way of seeing involuntary controls what a person sees. In explaining the biological way of seeing, Dillard writes that “a nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts, and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain” (16). The human brain does not allow a person to see clearly without filtering or editing what comes through the eyes. Hence, the brain completely influences the natural obvious way of seeing.
Based on the above excerpt, people do not often see the real world. If what people see is edited, then Dillard implies that artificial obvious is complex. The brain interprets what Dillard sees in the real world, meaning that when a person sees something, they are seeing something else. Moreover, Dillard argues that it is hard to erase images that have already been recorded in mind. In one instance, she read a wonderful book, and the book's images, 'color-patches,' kept coming into her mind for several weeks. Dillard gives the account of this experience by noting that 'the patches were ripe in the valley orchards' (19). Seeing, in this case, is explained as a phenomenon that is entirely controlled by the mind and thought rather than something that is physical.
The role of biology or physical seeing is also stressed in this metaphor. Dillard first saw the patches when reading the book before they were recorded in mind. Her mind continued to create more images that kept coming and going. She explains this experience by writing, “all day long, I walked among shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked back” (19). Based on Dillard’s experience, it is plausible to argue that the mind recreates what the eyes have seen depending on how a person concentrates on what the eyes have seen. Dillard observes that some of the color-patches swelled, while others vanished completely. While seeing these patches, Dillard was unable to maintain the illusion of flatness. She concludes that “form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn’t unpeach the peaches” (19). Even though this example of Dillard contains some aspects of biology in seeing, it relates to both literal obvious and artificial obvious of seeing. An imperative question that arises from the example is whether Dillard was seeing artificially obvious or naturally obvious. Regarding this question, it is notable that she was seeing artificially obvious because she had read the book keenly.
When Dillard introduces or explores the biological way of seeing, it becomes clear that a person can easily see through the lenses of natural obvious and artificial obvious. In this case, it seems simple to switch between the two ways of seeing when necessary. Nevertheless, the idea of seeing artificially obvious is more complicated than it seems. Simplest or unicellular animals such as amoebae can see the real universe because what they see is not edited. Despite the intricacy of seeing artificially obvious, humans can still attempt to use this method of seeing, notwithstanding Dillard’s warning that “this looking business is risky” (18). Dillard acknowledged the riskiness of seeing artificially when she almost fell while watching the migration of hawks using binoculars. At first, Dillard observed the hawks migrating without any troubles. Dillard felt dizziness when she started thinking seriously about the hawk’s migration. In fact, Dillard could not explain what she was seeing because “the world was full of unexplained foreshortenings and depths” (18).
Eventually, Dillard realizes that seeing is more than just biological. The appropriate way of seeing, according to Dillard's perspective, is artificial obvious. Artificial obvious is a way of seeing that allows for closer and deeper observation of the universe. This way of seeing can be achieved when the “eyes have adjusted to” the dimensions or amoebae (18). Based on this point of view, Dillard notes that “the difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera” (20). When Dillard is using a camera, she takes shots based on the calibrated meter’s light (20). The camera cannot allow her to see more than what comes through the camera’s lens. When using her naked eyes, she can see through the eye's lens without any light controller. Her naked eyes allow the moment’s light to be printed directly on ‘silver gut.’ Hence, seeing through naked eyes allows an individual to avoid unscrupulous seeing or observation.
Verbalization also constitutes seeing artificially obvious because a person pays a lot of attention to what they see. Verbalization is this context implies the spoken expression of thoughts or ideas in words. Dillard acknowledges that naked eyes alone cannot allow one to see clearly because they facilitate natural obvious only. She explains how verbalization works in seeing. A person can see things through the eyes and fail to comprehend what they are seeing. The mind should be alert to interpret what is passing through the eyes:
“Seeing is, of course, very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.” My eyes alone can’t solve analogy tests using figures” (20).
Dillard suggests that there are immense benefits of seeing artificially obvious. The benefits are attributed to the fact that a person will be able to see more through the figurative approach than the literal approach. She explains how reading Steward Edward White’s work changed her view of seeing. White’s work insists “that if you looked closely enough, you could see the wind—the dim, hardly-made-out, fine debris fleeing high in the air,” indicating that seeing artificially causes one to see more than what naked eyes can see (16). Furthermore, Dillard says that “as soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you too will see deer” (16).In order to see the invisible, a person should deliberately stop to see the natural obvious.
As an example, Dillard explained how she was able to see the invisible when observing the sunset in Virginia. She described a conventional sunset with invisible low clouds on the northern or southern horizon (17). She was able to see invisible clouds when looking into water reflection. Artificial obvious enables Dillard to see the invisible clouds while natural obvious enables her to see the sunset. When a person looks literally, they will only be able to see the sunset and nothing more. However, taking time to observe the site reveals more details such as the invisible clouds. Through the use of the metaphor of sunset, Dillard reveals the importance of observing things thoughtfully to see smaller details. Therefore, looking closer and keenly prevents a person from missing important details in a certain site.
Dillard concludes by explaining the ultimate way of seeing that is not based on biology or knowledge. Through a metaphor, she explains a similarity between her vision and that of a blind girl who saw for the first time. Dillard writes that “when her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw the tree with the lights in it” (21).In this metaphor, Dillard explains the ultimate or novel way of seeing through a person who was seeing the world with her naked eyes for the first time.
Coincidentally, Dillard had also visited the same tree and saw lights on it, based on her detailed account. She notes, “it was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years” (21). Dillard’s experience is comparable to the blind girl because Dillard was not thinking of anything when she saw the lights on the tree. She was simply walking across Tinker Creek without focusing on anything (21). The girl, who had just seen for the first, was probably also not thinking about the trees. In fact, the girl did not know the real shape of a tree because of her blindness.
Dillard continues to explain her experience when she saw lights on the tree. She actually stood on the grass, which also had lights (21). Chiefly, it is virtually impossible to stare at the natural grass and see the light on it since the naked eye cannot see the lights. A person would require more than just the normal eyes to see the lights. Dillard’s experience was strange because she had seen something that she had not seen before. In order to see the lights on the grass, Dillard was simply not staring at the grass with the physical eyes. She was “utterly focused and utterly dreamed” (21). She suggests that focus was an elemental aspect of seeing in this metaphor. In order to see clearly or artificially obvious, the focus is an essential element. Dillard concludes that metaphor by noting that “it was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance” (21).
When Dillard discovers or learns a new way of seeing, her experience is completely different. She feels like the blind girl who is seeing the universe with her physical eyes for the first time. Suggestively, artificial obvious is a way of seeing that enables a person to see the universe with comprehension and understanding. More importantly, artificial obvious challenges the biological or neurological way of seeing because it enables a person to see finer details of a thing.
Dillard presents and differentiates the natural and artificial obvious of seeing. Through the use of metaphors and own experience, she shows that seeing comprises a combination of vision, thought, and deeper observation rather than experience, knowledge, or feelings. Natural seeing entails seeing regularly or normally without a deeper thought or observation. On the contrary, artificial seeing involves looking at the universe closely, thoughtfully, and with an open mind. Dillard realized that forgetting the natural obvious is an important step for a person to see artificially or clearly. Biological or neurological way of seeing tend to impend a person from seeing the real universe. Dillard advances that concept of seeing through the artificially obvious way. Seeing artificially obvious allows an individual to see more details than seeing literally. In essence, the ultimate way of seeing based on Dillard should not involve interpretations of images, sites, or things by the brain.
- Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” English 1A Course Reader. Edited by Nathan Wirth, Nathan’s Mind, Inc. 2019