Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A New Perspective: Reflections on Proust

I am in Rome now, a city I lived in thirty years ago. As a cab driver said, trying to flatter me, yesterday, I must have been a bambina. Well, that aside, I spent a lot of time tht year with architects and art historians and I learned a few things about this city. Mainly that Rome is all about perspective. Sight lines.

It was as important how you viewed a church from down a hill or a side street as when you were right up in front of it in the piazza. I recall a moment in Florence when an architect stopped and said, as he pointed to a building in the distance, that this was the exact place the architect wanted his creation viewed.

Last week Larry, and I were in Spain and we went out to lunch in a little Basque village called San Juan. Last year for a couple weeks we lived in the village called San Pedro which is just across the narrow channel. For sixty cents a tiny ferry carries you back and forth.

We loved this place so much that we returned again this year. From the village of San Juan there is a walk that goes almost out to sea. We'd been to San Juan many times, but had never taken this walk before. However the previous year we had tried to walk from San Pedro to San Sebastian along the route that pilgrims use to go to Santiago de Compostela. It seemed to be an endless climb up a rocky terrain. In fact at one point we seemed to be walking among the sea gulls.

Now as we walked from the village of San Juan out towards the sea I could see the route we had taken. If I had seen it before, I never would have bothered trying to walk it. But now from a different perspective I saw how far we had gone and what we had tried to do. I am always interested when we see a person, a thing, a place from a different perspective.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn where I live. She took me on a trail I'd never taken and, though we came out in a place I knew quite well, I was lost and had no idea where I was because we'd come upon it from a different perspective. Another time recently at a street fair I had the same sensation. And once when neighbors had us over I could see our backyard tree in a way I never had. I saw how it loomed, how beautiful itàs branches were.

It made me think of this favorite quote of mine which I will paraphrase here because I am in Rome and donàt have it with me. But Proust said that travel isn't about seeing new places, but about seeing with new eyes. And I love those moments when it becomes clear to us that this is true. It is what Einstein discovered afterall. That it is all in the eye of the beholder.

But I also couldn't help but feel how this is true about our life in general. At times we think we are lost, but in fact we are just seeing things from a different angle. A book isn't working out, a friendship is faltering, something you were counting on doesn't come through. But there are other ways of looking at these things. Maybe your heart wasn't really in that book. Maybe it was time for that friendship to go. Or maybe you could do something to bring it back. And perhaps what you thought you wanted wasn't the right thing at all.

We have all had these moments and think we are lost inside of them. But if we realize that we are coming upon something that we think we know very well from another point of view, then, as Proust suggests, we can see it with fresh eyes.

And now I am going to go out and roam around Rome! Baci a tutti.


  1. Really really interesting piece Mary...perspectives...seeing...perception...in philosophy there is the distinction between "epistemic" appearance and "optical" appearance...a critical distinction to make in the way we understand the world, how we find things out about the world...that being through the former. The optical appearance can be said to be dependent on the laws of perspective, to be true TO the object but not OF the object. I think when you talk of those perspectives in the above you are talking of what is true (or false) OF the object, the epistemic appearance...

  2. Sean, thank you so much for bringing your philosophical perspective to this...I am going to think about it. I appreciate the distinction between To and Of. And I appreciate your comments always!!!