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Optimizing Optics: The Writings of James Elkins

“What is really happening, what I can never really see or else I will go mad, is that I am not the spider who weaves the web, and I am not even a fly caught in the web: I am the web itself, streaming off in all directions with no center and no self that I can call my own.” (James Elkins, The Object Stares Back, pg. 75)

There are infinite worlds to be seen, and infinite eyes to see and be seen by. This is one of the messages I gleaned from the writings of James Elkins, and I will never see the world the same way again, knowing that each experience of seeing the world is also — and perhaps even more so — an experience of the world seeing me. I am in conversation with each object I see. Each view is a mirror into my own soul, and life is an experience of soaking in these views.

As a visual artist, I have often been overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of inspiration in the world — each day of life contains more creative fodder than I could break down in a lifetime. Elkins’ books present their own myriad possibilities for reflection - each chapter of How to Use Your Eyes provides a different lesson for looking more carefully at the world. The cracks in roads and oil paintings are maps of their individual histories, sunsets provide us with opportunities to see the cast shadow of the earth, and nighttime phenomena invite us to look more closely even at darkness. There is even more mystery to the world than we give it credit for, and our eyes are more capable of examining it than we realize on a daily basis.

This knowledge can be liberating or paralyzing. No matter how hungrily we pursue and understanding of each object, we cannot capture and tame everything that passes through our field of vision. But it is that very hunger, Elkins argues, that compels us to create: “Sometimes the desire to possess what is seen is so intense that vision reaches outward and creates the objects themselves” (The Object Stares Back, 29)

In this way, each work of art is its own reflection on our mortality; every creative choice we make signals that we have made that choice and not another, that we have chosen to use our finite lives to express that particular idea. This is a bold decision to make, and a beautifully bittersweet aspect of the human condition.

Mortician and educator Caitlyn Doughty notes that “Death drives every creative and destructive impulse we have as human beings. The closer we come to understanding it, the closer we come to understanding ourselves” (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes). At the same time, she notes, our denial of death is just as insistent as our underlying preoccupation with it, and helping people to confront this reality is part of her mission. The challenge, however, as Elkin notes, is that “Death, in particular, may be the hardest thing to see” (The Object Stares Back, 87). In his chapter entitled “Looking Away, and Seeing Too Much,” Elkins expands upon this idea:

“Like most people, I usually try to think around death. Sometimes I prefer death as an abstraction, as if it were a proposition in mathematics, and other times I imagine it as impersonal, as if it only happened to people in the obituary columns. Painters think around death by showering it with symbols…we say an hourglass is a memento mori, a reminder of death—but it isn’t; it’s a way of not thinking about death, not looking at it and not thinking about it.” -pg. 108

Elkins, like Doughty, reflects on the fact that we rarely experience a genuine encounter with seeing death. Even when we bring ourselves to look at images that contain the moment of death, we are not really seeing it. There is a blindness that co-operates with our vision in every experience of seeing.

Throughout his text, Elkins explains that blindness is an essential part of seeing; we are guided through life not only by what our eyes show us, but also by what they don’t. Given the overwhelming number of infinitely complex stimuli that surround us, this blindness is a blessing that helps us stay sane. Our finite vision and finite lives are gifts that enable us to experience any of the world at all.

As he concludes The Object Stares Back, Elkins reflects succinctly on the relationship between seeing and drawing. “A drawing is an expression of a dialogue with blindness, and the most beautiful drawings are beautiful because they show it is sometimes possible to win that battle and produce a form out of nothing” (233). Despite our finite time on this earth, there is nothing futile about taking the time to observe, and to pull a new visual marker out from the ether. Each drawing is its own kind of miracle; a record of an encounter with the infinite.

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