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Surgery Update: Perspective on Perspective


I've written and read almost exclusively non-fiction for the past... eight or nine years. But as I began my post on perspective (which I mentioned in my previous surgery update post), I realized that I would have to write an academic-article length piece to really start to touch what I wanted to say.

At the end of that post, I wrote a short metaphor that expressed how my perspective changes from major surgeries and events like them. The metaphor seemed like it had a lot of potential, so after spending some time thinking about it, I wrote a fictional parable to see if I could express the nuance and complexity in shorter form.

So I've ended up with two posts on perspective, one fiction, one non-fiction, and I've decided to merge the two.

Artists, especially writers, tend to dramatically and condescendingly frown upon those who explan the intended meaning behind their creative work. But I'm not writing any sort of "high art," nor do I have any desire to be a serious fiction writer, so I'm going to mix explanation with a "creative" story.

On perspective, generally

People who experience major health-related events often say that they have a way of, "putting things in perpective." This is true in a way, but I think that others get the wrong impression when they hear someone say this.

These experiences give us clarity, but not clarity regarding anything in particular. It gives us a lense through which we can, or often must, look at the world. But this clarity doesn't make sense of anything for us, it's up to the person to make sense of things.

This clarity does the work of cutting through the residue of worry, self-consciousness, motivation, and manipulation that builds up on the masks we use to protect ourselves from the world.

The Parable

It's not important to me that my readers appreciate whatever artistry may be in this writing (mostly because there is none), but it is important to me that it gets a point across. There are a ridiculous number of points I want to get across here, so hopefully this short section will help bring some of these to light.

My writing style in academic philosophy is extremely dense but deceptively conversational. After writing this fictional piece, I realized that my default style is the same whether fiction of philosophy. I wrote this fictional piece because fiction allows authors to write a single sentence that makes a very complex point, where it would take a paragraph to make the same point in non-fiction. The context of a story provides the explanation for the point the author wants to make. So fiction can be hugely more dense than non-fiction but sound like a simple story.

I guess that's why literary analysis became a thing...

There are three main characters in this story: the old man, the performer, and the narrator. People are able to metaphorically be any one of these characters, and I am writing as the narrator. Seems like kind of a stupidly obvious thing to say as the author, but it's important to point out because authors often represent themselves as characters other than the narrator in their writing.

So, I am the narrator, and the narrator's view of the world is the one through which I try to explain my thoughts on perspective.

Perspective: A Three-Character Parable

An ornate trinket of gold and diamonds sat atop the head of the performer as she spun, deep blue silken dress and all, to the floor. The flare in her eyes seemed out of a celestial storm, and the passion in her step reminded the old man of the fiery chambers deep below the City of Steel.

His job was to maintain the flames of these subterranean caverns so that the city above could prosper. The surface environment was, of course, harsh, and the city-dwellers can make anything from fire, but nothing from ice. Though charged only with maintaining the caverns, the old man had instead worked to steadily stoke the fires from a flame, to a flare, a roar, an inferno, and beyond.

But one day each week (usually), the man visited the parlor where danced the woman with the gold and diamond headpiece, the deep blue silken dress, and the fiery eyes. It wasn't just that she performed when she wanted to. She always performed, unless she was sleeping of course: she wasn't forced into it by anyone though, it was her passion.

The old man, weary from his work, began to make his way up towards the city around ten-o’clock each Saturday morning. His destination was just below the surface, so he never saw the City of Steel, but it never came to mind either. He always tried to enjoy the trek along the way. The heat from his caverns mixed with the humidity of the soil and produced the brilliant, beautiful subterranean condensation forests.

The problem wasn't that he couldn't appreciate the beauty of the hike to the parlor: he smelled the mossy earth, breathed the cool air--so fresh that it felt as if it were alive--, and his eyes could not believe the vibrant beauty that lay out before them. He could see and appreciate it all, but it was at once beautiful and distant.

As he entered the room, he sat in his usual spot, ordered his usual drink, but with a twist of lime zest, just to mix it up. It's good to change things up.

He enjoyed his time away from the caverns because it gave him respite. For decades, after awakening each day, he set to growing the fires as big as fires can grow. There's no limit to how big a fire can be.

So each Saturday (usually), the man would come to watch the performance, often stay late into the night, and walk home half-delirious and sleep deprived.

The performer thought it was odd that people, just like the old man, came from all around to visit the parlor. The performer did not, in fact, perform anything for an audience. She thought herself a performer because, she says, as everybody knows, "to perform" means "to fulfill" or "to come true" and that is what she did.

She was a brilliant writer, painter, sometimes music producer, and she did everything you might expect someone with those talents to do. When she wrote and painted, she was too far away for an audience to see, and when she produced music, she used headphones and no one could hear. Yet people from all around came to watch her from their place in the parlor. It was fine with her since she was such a "people person."

But the audience didn't just see a regular woman writing, painting, and sometimes producing music. They saw dancing, twirling of gold and diamond, and heard incredible music. They saw a world-class show of power and talent that inspired them to keep working their hardest in their own worlds. That's why they came, and that's why the old man was there tonight.

As you might imagine, it's hard work building the flame higher and higher each day, and the man needed to see himself for what he wanted himself to be, otherwise he couldn't maintain his sort of thankless work. So he came to the parlor, where he saw the woman writing, painting, and sometimes producing music.

It's not clear how it happens, but the brilliance of the woman's otherwise uneventful writing, painting, and sometimes music production somehow transforms, in sight and sound, into a spectacular show of great elegance for the parlor patrons.

It's quite a spectacular thing to witness--the magnification of the woman's normal activities into great spectacles in the eyes of onlookers--and I only know of this great, invisible transformation because I was once in both of their places. The spectacles blur and transform the sights and sounds for the audience, so they can see what they need to see.

Now, with all this talk of spectacles, you must be wondering about them. I can’t say much about how they work or where they come from, but these spectacles look ordinary enough: wire-framed, two shiny glass ellipses held together by a small wire arch. These special spectacles are worn uniformly, by everyone in the parlor but the performer.

In much the same way that no one is ever quite sure how they arrived in a dream, no one is ever quite sure when or how they began wearing these eye pieces—I only know of them because I was once in their place.

On second thought, there was one more thing to note about the spectacles: the wire frames didn’t just rest atop the ears. In fact, they spiraled around the ears and into the wearer’s skull at a singular point. But that’s only slightly odd, and the people of the City of Steel (and Below) don’t know much of their history, so things of this nature aren’t particularly extraordinary.

In any case, as the woman performs, the audience sits silently in awe. Those who take great pleasure in amusement clap and their eyes well up with emotion. The young up-and-comers mutter back and forth about how this performance reminds them of a performer of equal stature, as they send each other links to videos and articles for later. The serious business folk look up at the performer, down at their talent analyses, take notes for improvement, and repeat until they leave. It’s important to take things seriously, no matter what your place in life.

Between sets, the audience members talk with one another, milling about. The performer approached an old man at his usual table, with his usual drink, with a twist of lime zest.

So what do you do? She asked.

Some questions, we ask for ourselves, and some questions we ask for someone else.

His response was concise, comprehensive, and impressive, and she knows what important and thankless work the caverns are. He mentioned travel, hiking, and all sorts of interesting activities. He went on and on for quite some time. He gave an interesting account of history and how we’ve come to where we are. He discussed the importance of understanding one’s own self before shaping others.

It was, by most accounts, a very interesting conversation. But the performer was not taken by it. Though he was mid-sentence, the performer reached out and lifted the old man’s spectacles.

The man immediately stopped talking. He no longer wore the spectacles, and woman with fiery eyes stared straight at him. She seemed, to him, to be a different person. The performer no longer wore an ornate dress or headpiece, only jeans and a tee shirt. It was, though, unmistakably the same person: although everything about her and the room had changed, her eyes had not.

As the performer looked into the man’s eyes, she was surprised. She did not see eyes, a nose, and a mouth, as she had expected; after all, she had only removed his spectacles. Why should anything else change? But instead of eyes staring back at her, time stopped and she saw the man’s past.

Perhaps “his past” is not quite accurate: she saw a sphere of transparent impressions that the past had left behind. The sphere of impressions surrounded and slowly swirled around the old man. She observed, and noticed that these impressions were full of people, and the old man was at the center, in constant conversation with them all. These people were real, once, but now existed only as impressions.

The performer listened and realized that the old man and his impressions were discussing how he should act, now that he was in conversation with such a unique person as this performer. The impressions swayed the man this way and that, and it became clear that he had become a master of packaging his impressions into one eloquent, savvy package, to be delivered shortly.

Time resumed, and the two continued their conversation; the man’s glasses now off, and the impressions still in view of the performer. An impression of a former friend reminded him of the importance of displaying confidence, so the man leaned back, kicked one foot up, and spread an arm out across the top of his bench seat.

An impression of an old woman looked down at him disapprovingly, and an impression of his business partner celebrated a victory in a corner below—this prompted him to pontificate upon the finer points of his current, exciting work.

The performer looked about the parlor and stood suddenly. She walked to a woman in the corner, lifted her spectacles, and saw the same. The same, but a different set of impressions. She continued this for some time, yet no one seemed to notice. She returned to the old man, still expounding his experiences and accomplishments.

His voice faded away, as did the noise of the parlor, as she observed the spectacle in front of her. The performer saw that though she had conversed with the old man, he had not reciprocated. His conversation was one amongst his impressions; she only heard the results of their conversations.

Excuse me, she blurted—not to the old man in front of her, but the one surrounded by impressions—can you tell me your name?

The impressions disappeared leaving the old man looking into the fiery eyes of the performer. He couldn’t speak; he didn’t know how. Not even his name; he didn’t know his name.

The performer smiled, expressing her vague sympathies, returned to her table, and continued to write, paint, and sometimes produce music.

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