Reprint: Observation as an Art: An Open Mind by Nettie Palmer

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The happiest people I know, at any age of life, are those who can observe and be startled by what they see or hear. Some people, so the intelligence testers tell us, are of a mental age of 14, and stay there, never developing nor learning. Very sad, of course, but to me it is even sadder to see people, who, while apparently quite well educated and intelligent, cannot notice anything for themselves. They would be happier and live more richly if their minds were, in a sense, emptier and more receptive. "I had rather forge than furnish my mind," said Montague (though I can never manage to find where he said it). Well, the forging of the malleable mind should be a continuous process: on the other hand, the minds that are furnished with conventional "suites" and the kind of pictures that are sold with dining-room sets are soon over-full. Windows and doors are shut to protect these precious possessions from dust and robbers. There is no entrance for new ideas or interests. Some minds are permanently furnished in this way at an incredibly early age. I would suggest that they need the alternation treatment: to be flung into a melting-pot and forged, over and over again. The melting-pot is, of course, life, experience, art as an interpretation of life. How many people can experience life and its revelations? I am not speaking, for the moment, of what we call deeper revelations, given to a poetic mind; but how many can even, without prejudice, observe?

Bad Observation.

To observe is to surrender to your environment, letting it show you what it can. Most observers are not passive enough. They put a landscape or a city or a group of people through some test of comparison, instead of taking it for what it is. They look at some wild landscape and contrast it, not with some other virgin region (if they must draw a contrast), but with some idyllic, cultivated, possibly unvisited spot. I have heard people say that the Bon Accord Falls, in the Blackall Ranges, were not as beautiful as a cherry orchard in Kent, which, incidentally, they had never seen. I don't quarrel with them for admiring imagined cherry orchards, if that refreshed their mind; but I feel that, when faced with the rich glooms of the Bon Accord precipices and forest, they already had enough to fill their minds for the time. It is hard, indeed, to concentrate steadily on any wonderful experience so as to carry it with us afterwards as a pure vision:

   For each day brings its petty dust
      Our soon-choked minds to fill,
   And we forgot because we must
      And not because we will.

But when we allow our impressions to be blurred in the beginning by making irrelevant comparisons, the "petty dust" has all too easy a task: There is almost nothing for it to cover up.

So much for the registering of beauty. What about observation as applied to matters of what is called every-day interest? How many of us can know what to look for if we go to a new place which has a civilisation unlike our own? Can we go with a mind open enough to guess at the essential quality of what we see; or are we merely intent on measuring, let us say, Italy or Ceylon, by our own habitual standards of what is important in daily life? Lately, I was reading some travel notes by the solid American novelist, Theodore Dreiser, Dreiser, whose chief quality has always been that of a detailed registrar of American life, if any one has appeared objective, unbiassed, coldly observant; Dreiser has been so; that was in America, But now he goes to Russia, not as a novelist, but as a journalist, and writes his impressions. The first batch of them that I saw contained a long, pained account of living in some Moscow flat, where he had to go right to the bottom of the building for his bath. From this he drew the darkest conclusions as to Russia's psychology and future. Excellent; but if he had lived, in the same, inquiring way, in London, he would have found London County Council model flats where, in a group of buildings containing hundreds of flats, there was simply no bathroom at all. Not that that proves anything in particular either; there was water laid on, with basins, and there were some public baths not far away. But Dreiser would logically need to apply the same type of American plumber's test to all countries instead of merely to Russia. In London he would never think of making such a test. There-fore I say he was observing the wrong things about Russia; he was losing that power of detached observation that had been his at home in America. He condemns many things in American life, yet accepts its standards after all, as against those of any country that he sets out to study. He is like a mother who scolds her own little boy with steadiness and vigour, but after all thinks there are no other little boys in the same street with him. This does not make her a good iudge of the others; she is not seeking out their essential qualities, whatever they may be. She is merely saying that her Freddie never does that or this. No, the first rule for an observer is surely that he must keep an open mind, or as open as possible. One does not go to Italy for advanced methods in plumbing and central heating, nor to America for ancient palaces, nor to Russia for punctuality, nor to France for the cloudy variety of philosophy. Figs from thistles ? No, nor mangoes from apple trees. If this is all very trite, once I write it down, is it not also quite necessary? Don't we all sometimes go to steep Corsica and ask for plains? And this, of course, means missing the tragic beauty of Corsican ravines.

The First Rapture.

Once we are more or less fitted to observe, having "cleared our minds of cant" as far as possible, it must be admitted that the greatest or the easiest pleasure of observation comes during the first moments of seeing a place. I state this with reservations, for we all know that there comes a long-lasting delight from steeping the mind in some well-known beauty. But that other, startled and fresh, is an extraordinary boon, seeming to come wholly from outside ourselves. You emerge from a tree-covered road and suddenly see a line of blue before you -- an arm of the sea, unguessed at -- it takes you by the throat with beauty. Or you reach a foreign port before dawn, hearing boatmen singing near the shore, and watch the new outlines dawn magically upon your sight. You feel that this is all given to you, outside your volition; you have not "used your imagination"; the work has been done for you. Yet even for this some preparation was needed, the preparation at least of eagerness and willingness to be moved by beauty. People can become blind to every kind of beauty for want of letting some strong hand "stab the spirit broad awake."

Some writers have the faculty of describing first rapture, faced with a new scene, above all others. Among these, first among them surely is D. H. Lawrence, whose impressionism is dazzling. Nothing in that way is beyond his powers. He can do an ice-cold landscape in the Tyrol or a glittering day along the South Coast of New South Wales, and, whether you know the scene or not, you feel that with him you are perceiving it for the first time. This is not the only nor the ultimate kind of observation, but while it lasts' it is miraculous.  Lawrence has done Mexico, Australia, Sardinia, England -- but there are many untasted astonishments for him still. So there are for all of us, unless we keep our minds over-furnished with factory-made impressions and opinions.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 22 September 1928

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 4, 2011 7:03 AM.

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