“Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible.”
-René Magritte, in an interview about his painting, The Son Of Man
“I know that I have never met these characters. I made them up. I read about the things they did, I studied them and then imagined what they felt and thought and said and wanted from their lives. What they were really like, of course, no one will ever know. This is, I am convinced, a blessing, a blessing, and I feel dismay for all the people who, a thousand years from now, will have our times on tape and film to study. They will see our faces, hear our voices, know it all and be deceived. They will be dealing with the surface, and the truth of things is always underneath. It has to be imagined.”
-John Goldman, in his 1980 introduction to The Lion In Winter. Goldman’s play imagines the private lives of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children.
Back when I was seventeen or eighteen, I remember sitting at the beach and looking at a palm tree. My mind, tense, shifting, chased another dozen thoughts at the same time. I was bored. On edge. Disengaged. So I started to look at the tree. I looked at its jagged fronds, shifting in the breeze. I looked at its rough trunk. I remembered, and imagined, the feel of that trunk–the brown stubbs of old fronds, fibrous and serrated. On a whim, I wondered if I could get my whole mind to gather around the tree. What would it sound like, if I knocked my knuckles against it? What would it taste like? Not the fruit–the trunk itself. What mixture of dust and sand, salt and wood? My brother had climbed the tree yesterday, so I’d been close to it–I thought back to its smell, and held that in my mind. Layered on top of each other, my senses wrapped me around and around this growing thing. At first I had to keep leading my mind back to the tree. Then it was easier for my focus to gather, like water to the bottom of a bowl. Then, for a few moments, all I did was see, touch, hear, taste and smell the tree, there from where I was sitting.
Maybe all things are hidden to us. In Magritte’s painting, the man’s face is hidden behind an apple–but even if the apple wasn’t there, we’d see the surface of a face, not the person underneath. If we looked beneath the skin and the eyes, we could see the surface of the skull, the surface of the brain. We couldn’t see the person. Goldman takes Magritte’s idea and brings it to history, to politics. We have so much information about people, so many pictures, so many soundclips–and “the truth of something” he says “is always underneath” all that. In a way, Goldman’s thought reminds me of how different people see Donald Trump: the people I know who admire him are not talking about the same individual as the people I know who are horrified by him. There is an actual human there, of course, a person with a mind that believes certain things; but the supporters I know are sure this person is one way, and the critics are sure he is another. In “liking” or “disliking” him, they seem to be talking about two different people, and disagreeing about which one exists. I wonder what would happen to the argument if you could resolve that disagreement.
Maybe it’s only through concentration (or playful awareness) and imagination that we can come close to seeing. There are depths to every person, and sounds and tastes to every tree. Instead of thinking about the world as a face behind a veil, maybe we need to think about it as the face and the veil together, and the blood and bone beneath, and the hidden lips and the unseen air they’re breathing. It is a mystery. Seeing shows us some surfaces. With imagination and time, and the work of making, maybe we can start to understand.