Learning How To See Again, Josef Pieper

Learning How To See Again, Josef Pieper

By Josef Pieper (translated by Lothar Krauk)

from Only The Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation 


Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern

themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and
again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological
sensitivity of the human eye. We mean
the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality
as it truly is.
To be sure, no human being has ever really seen
everything that lies visibly in front of his eyes.
The world, including its tangible side, is unfathomable.
Who. would ever have perfectly perceived
the countless shapes and shades of just one

wave swelling and ebbing in the ocean! And yet,
there are degrees of perception. Going below a
certain bottom line quite obviously will endanger
the integrity of man as a spiritual being. It seems
that nowadays we have arrived at this bottom
I am writing this on my return from Canada,
aboard a ship sailing from New York to Rotterdam.
Most of the other passengers have spent
quite some time in the United States, many for
one reason only: to visit and see the New World
with their own eyes. With their own eyes: in this lies
the difficulty.

During the various conversations on deck and
at the dinner table I am always amazed at hearing
almost without exception rather generalized statements
and pronouncements that are plainly the
common fare of travel guides. It turns out that
hardly anybody has noticed those frequent small
signs in the streets of New York that indicate
public fallout shelters. And visiting New York
University, who would have noticed those stonehewn
chess tables in front of it, placed in Washington
Square by a caring city administration for
the Italian chess enthusiasts of that area?!
Or again, at table I had mentioned those magnificent
fluorescent sea creatures whirled up to the
surface by the hundreds in our ship’s bow wake.
The next day it was casually mentioned that “last
night there was nothing to be seen”. Indeed, for
nobody had the patience to let the eyes adapt to
the darkness. To repeat, then: man’s ability to see
is in decline.
Searching for the reasons, we could point to
various things: modern man’s restlessness and
stress, quite sufficiently denounced by now, or his
total absorption and enslavement by practical
goals and purposes. Yet one reason must not be
overlooked either: the average person of our time
loses the ability to see because there is too much to


There does exist something like “visual noise”,
which just like the acoustical counterpart, makes
clear perception impossible. One might perhaps
presume that TV watchers, tabloid readers, and
movie goers exercise and sharpen their eyes. But
the opposite is true. The ancient sages knew exactly
why they called the “concupiscence of the
eyes” a “destroyer”. The restoration of man’s inner
eyes can hardly be expected in this day and
age-unless, first of all, one were willing and determined
simply to exclude from one’s realm of
life all those inane and contrived but titillating illusions
incessantly generated by the entertainment

You may argue, perhaps: true, our capacity to
see has diminished, but such loss is merely the
price all higher cultures have to pay. We have lost,
no doubt, the American Indian’s keen sense of
smell, but we also no longer need it since we have
binoculars, compass, and radar. Let me repeat: in
this obviously continuing process there exists a
limit below which human nature itself is threatened,
and the very integrity of human existence is
directly endangered. Therefore, such ultimate
danger can no longer be averted with technology
alone. At stake here is this: How can man be saved
from becoming a totally passive consumer of
mass-produced goods and a subservient follower
beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim?
The question really is: How can man preserve
and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual
dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality?


The capacity to perceive the visible world
“with our own eyes” is indeed an essential constituent
of human nature. We are talking here about
man’s essential inner richness-or, should the
threat prevail, man’s most abject inner poverty.
And why so? To see things is the first step toward
that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality,
which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual
I am well aware that there are realities we can
come to know through “hearing” alone. All the
same, it remains a fact that only through seeing,
indeed through seeing with our own eyes, is our
inner autonomy established. Those no longer able
to see reality with their own eyes are equally unable
to hear correctly. It is specifically the man
thus impoverished who inevitably falls prey to the
demagogical spells of any powers that be. “Inevitably”,
because such a person is utterly deprived
even of the potential to keep a critical distance
(and here we recognize the direct political relevance
of our topic).

The diagnosis is indispensable yet only a first
step. What, then, may be proposed; what can be
We already mentioned simple abstention, a regimen
of fasting and abstinence, by which we
would try to keep the visual noise of daily inanities
at a distance. Such an approach seems to me
indeed an indispensable first step but, all the same,
no more than the removal, say, of a roadblock.
A better and more immediately effective remedy
is this: to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing
shapes and forms for the eye to see.
Nobody has to observe and study the visible
mystery of a human face more than the one who
sets out to sculpt it in a tangible medium. And this
holds true not only for a manually formed image.
The verbal “image” as well can thrive only when
it springs from a higher level of visual perception.
We sense the intensity of observation required
simply to say, “The girl’s eyes were gleaming like
wet currants” (Tolstoy).
Before you can express anything in tangible
form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt,
therefore, to create an artistic form compels
the artist to take a fresh look at the visible
reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.
Long before a creation is completed, the artO
ist has gained for himself another and more intimate
achievement: a deeper and more receptive
vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and
more discerning understanding, a more patient
openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous,
an eye for things previously overlooked. In short:
the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the
abundant wealth of all visible reality, and, thus
challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity
to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly
rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.


“The Faber Popular Reciter”, Introduction by Kingsley Amis

In a letter of 12 August 1977 to Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis wrote:

The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse has been easier and is going faster: a careful look through the Dict of Quots took me most of the way, then hymnals and old-fashioned anthologies.

“The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse” is The Faber Popular Reciter, edited and introduced by Amis (the “Dict of Quots” is the dictionary of quotations; obvious to most readers no doubt, but I was initially thrown!) Here is the blurb, which along with the Conquest letter quote, gives a good sense of the thing:

I have never quite taken to Martin, but the elder Amis is an interesting figure. I previously noted his judgments, too easy to dismiss as crustily reactionary, can be surprising. “Stanley and the Women” contains, amongst other things, one of the best, most realistic and least sentimental portrayals of schizophrenia in a novel. Anthony Powell commented of him that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension.”

His introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter is a splendid, at times tendentious, always interesting little essay in its own right. There are few poems I can think of since the 1930s that could possibly be considered recitation pieces in Amis’ terms (as opposed to poetry reading performances) – perhaps Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” As the book is out of print and I cannot find any trace of this introduction online, I have taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below.

The book itself is a splendid collection of splendid, and very non-trendy (to the degree they may have a trendiness of their own again) poems. There are five Wordsworth poems, despite Amis’ words below. There are two Yeats, the Lake Isle of Inisfree which I would expect and Easter 1916, which I wouldn’t (I would have thought The Second Coming, or The Ballad of Father Gilligan, or many others, were more recitation pieces…. but a terrible beauty is born is a great phrase I suppose)

When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions. Some were set as texts for classical translation, an exercise that gives you insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellow and me, that Mrs Hemans’ ‘Graves of a Household’ went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.

Most of that, together with much else, has gone. I suppose hymns are still sung here and there, classical verses written and – another way of gaining insight – poems learned by heart and recited. But in any real sense the last could only happen in school, as part of an academic discipline. Any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not as one who recites.

I should be sorry, the, if readers of this book were to be confined to those in search of material for what we usually understand by recitation. ‘Reciter’ is a nineteenth-century term used here for a collection of characteristically nineteenth-century objects: poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art. If recitation has died out in the family circle, reading aloud has not, and it is as material for this that my anthology is ideally intended; let me remind the doubtful that here is a third way, less troublesome that the first two, of finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more. Others will perhaps be glad to have within one binding a number of old favourites now obscured by changes in taste or fashion; yet others, younger than the other others, may make a discovery, if only that poetry need be none the worse for being neither egotistical nor formless.

I mentioned just now the nineteenth century as the main source of my selection, and sure enough is drawn from authors born either in its course or so soon before as to have done the larger part of their growing-up within in, between 1788 and 1888. More than this, the pieces from longer ago are very much of the sort that the nineteenth-century poetical outlook could accept without strain: Shakespeare at his most direct, Milton on his blindness, ballads, hymns, the patriotic, the sententious (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-character-of-a-happy-life/Wotton, Gray). Thus the Elizabethan period and the years immediately following contribute more than the major part of the seventeenth century, and there is one solitary poem in the Augustan heroic couplet.

No age of course has a single poetical outlook, always half a dozen. I was talking about the kind of person of that time who was intelligent and educated without having we would now call literary tastes, who liked poetry without finding it in any way a necessity and much of whose contact with it would have been through recitation and song, both sacred and profane. What our man, or woman, required is what first verse for rendering in those ways: absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line. (Outside Shakespeare, understood to be a special case, there are only two blank-verse pieces here, both by Tennyson, a different special case) Subject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours. The emotional requirement is that the reader, or hearer, be stirred and inspirited more than illuminated or moved to the gentler emotions: love poetry, for instance, can often be recited effectively, but not in the course of the kind of recitation I have described. For another set of reasons, comic poetry is likewise inappropriate.

The exclusions necessitated by all this obviously exclude a very large part of the best poetry in the language, even of that written in the nineteenth century. For instance, I have felt bound to omit Wordsworth, the poet of Nature: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ gets in because it takes an untypically detached, almost a townsman’s, view of the central figure. Shelley, Browning and Arnold are among those less than fairly represented; Charles Kingsley, Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson are not greater poets than Coleridge, Keats and (Some would add) Hopkins, who are altogether left out. Perhaps popular poetry, outside the accidental contributions of poets whose critical esteem rests on other achievements, can never be anything but what George Orwell called good bad poetry.

The phrase occurs in his entertaining and valuable review-article on Kipling, whose works he describes as ‘almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life’. Orwell goes on to give other examples of good bad poetry, half of which I have included here, and remarks, accurately enough on his terms, that there was no such thing until about 1790. The characteristics of this kind of poetry, he says, are vulgarity and sentimentality, though he softens the latter term by adding: ‘ A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which nearly every human being can share. The merit of a poem like ‘When All the World Is Young, Lad’ [‘Young and Old’] is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later, and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before,. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb ….’ Sentiment is usually considered different from and higher than sentimentality, and an example with almost universal appeal (which is perhaps a nice way of saying ‘vulgar’) hardly seems to deserve being called bad, even good bad. Not all popular verse, again, is in the Kipling manner; perhaps that manner deserves to be called vulgar and sentimental, though to me it does not in principle, but I can find nothing of either quality in , say, ‘The Old Squire’ 1887‘, ‘Ha’nacker Mill’ or the poems of the Great War that close the volume. Indeed, to anyone not blinkered by political prejudice, from which category I would exclude Orwell, ‘The Soldier must surely be counted one of the greatest poems of our century.

And yet … Well, I have included ‘Horatius‘ entire; I could not bear to cut so much as a single stanza; even to glance at it in the course of preparing the book sent a thrill through me; it is probably the best and most characteristic we have of military-patriotic popular verse – in it, Rome of course has the appeal of a golden-age England, though there are English notions in the ranks of Tuscany too. And yet there is something unreal, something almost ritualized about it, not vulgar not sentimental as those words are normally applied, something not of pretence but of let’s pretend. The brave days of old belong to the time when all the world was young: this is what used to be called a boy’s poem, founded on values that are few, simple and certain. They are none the less valuable for that, and certainly none the less fundamental. The distinction of Macaulay’s magnificent poem is that it enables the adult reader, or hearer, to recover in full some of the strong emotions of boyhood, an experience which is not a lapse from maturity but an endorsement of it.

For a number of reasons, a poet of our own day cannot write like that – in fact, during the 1930s, this entire literary genre quite suddenly disappeared, never to return. Such a poet would certainly lack in the first place the required skill and application. Should he possess these, he would even so find himself using a dead style and forms. Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious case of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War.

I thought at first of grouping the poems by subject, but was defeated by a shortage both of categories and of poems that fitted squarely into one and only one. (I should perhaps explain here to readers under forty that the generous selection of war and battle pieces is due not so much to national belligerence as to the fact that their fellow-countrymen used to feel peculiarly united at such times. The feeling persisted for some years after it had become impossible to write patriotic verse.) So – the poems are arranged chronologically instead, according to the year of their authors’ births. Although this is not a perfect plan, it has the advantage of offering a view not only of literary developments but also parts of our history. Read in this way too, some poems shed an interesting, even ironical, light on those that follow them.


“salvation would be easier for the clever and leisured than for the dull and busy”

From “Confessions of a Convert”. R H Benson:


It had been put to me by my Superior that I was surely incurring the guilt of pride in venturing to set up my opinion against the views of men, such as Dr. Pusey or Mr. Keble—men infinitely my superiors in goodness, learning, and experience. They had been into all these questions far more profoundly than I could ever hope to go, and had come to the conclusion that the claims of Rome were unjustified, and that the Church of England was, at any rate, a part of Christ’s Church. And then I suddenly realized clearly what I had only suspected before; namely, that if the Church of Christ was, as I believed it to be, God’s way of salvation, it was impossible that the finding of it should be a matter of shrewdness or scholarship; otherwise salvation would be easier for the clever and leisured than for the dull and busy. As for the holiness of men like Dr. Pusey—after all, “Christ came into this world to save sinners.””

I cannot describe the relief that this thought gave to me. I saw now that my intellectual difficulties were not the real heart of the matter, and that I had no right to be discouraged because I knew myself to be immeasurably the inferior of others who had decided against the cause that was beginning to show itself to me as true. Humility and singleness of motive, I saw now, were far more important than patristic learning.


Literary graffiti in Clonmel

Literary graffiti in Clonmel

The other day I spied this scrawled on a wall in Clonmel:

Impressively erudite, and with correct use of apostrophes. Although I did find the need to specify that these are the words of “writer Muriel Spark” mildly dissipated the effect.

Alas, it is something of a misquote:

Now, it is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk. Especially a man. Drink can mellow, it can sweeten. Too much can make a person silly. Or it can make them a savage

(from A Far Cry From Kensington)

The same author (I presume by the penmanship, or rather markermanship, [and indeed possible markerwomanship]) wrote this

I do wonder if these graffiti are the work of two persons; a close up of a section will show what I mean.

Finally here is the graffiti in some kind of context. This is a derelict site with no sign now of livestock or of a “Guard Do”



Sci Phi journal no more

My story “The Granddaughter Paradox” was published about this time last year in Sci Phi Journal. Unfortunately, I have now discovered, Sci Phi journal is no more (although the website is still up):


So Long, and Thanks for the Philosophy


This is probably the last post for Sci Phi Journal. It has been a pleasure to run SPJ, and I have been amazed by the goodwill it generates, which was easiest to measure when observing the growing number of visitors to the website. However, goodwill does not pay the bills, for either the writers or the rest of the team who worked hard to deliver SPJ on a regular basis. So it is with regret that I must advise SPJ will cease because of its continuing losses.

Thank you for visiting the site. I wish I could offer you more stories and articles in future. Maybe some of Team SPJ will eventually find a better way to resurrect the combination of philosophy, science and fiction that seemingly appeals to many, but which is difficult to promote in a fractured market that allows no room for dialogue between proponents of opposing views. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the SPJ archive of stories, which will remain on the web for the immediate future.

Many people deserve thanks, so please indulge me as I mention just a few of the contributors who helped to run SPJ. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Jim Fitzsimmons on the editorial team, and I hope and expect he will go on to bigger publications. The first readers of SPJ have always chosen to remain anonymous, but that will not prevent me from singing their praises, as their diligence ensured submitting authors received timely responses without fail. Finally I wish we could have paid better rates to the authors. Their many and varied contributions always merited a much more elevated platform for their work. I eagerly look forward to seeing more of their writing elsewhere.

It is a rather melancholy piece, and one could also reflected that in the 90s and 00s the internet was supposed to create an intellectual utopia of diversity, but that we have ended up with “a fractured market that allows no room for dialogue between proponents of opposing views”

Personally it is also melancholy to reflect that this is not the first “no more” post I have made about an outlet for my writing – there was Dabbler no more (though the Dabbler has made a slight comeback) and Alt Hist no more. And no more Shelf Life Magazine and no more Nthposition and no more SF site

Shortly after getting into the music of both Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, they died. Perhaps my prose has some kind of similar effect on publications…

The past and future of handwriting- David Rundle in the TLS

In the current TLS there is an excellent review by David Rundle of two recent books on handwriting.

Anyone who knows me, or more specifically had had to read my handwriting, will no doubt be amused to discover I am actually quite interested in handwriting. I have tried various pens, pen grips and other means to improve my scrawl. Alas, when time is short all these are abandoned and I revert to type (in every sense)

It is comforting to find out from the piece that St Thomas Aquinas also had difficult-to-read handwriting:


Anne Trubek’s book sounds like it exemplifies a current belief that handwriting is irrelevant anyway in the digital age. I am not so sure. Quite apart from anything else, I suspect handwriting to be a skill with much far transfer. And writing is an opportunity for artistic expression, something at a premium in a homogenised, noisome culture.

Rundle is quite sceptical of Trubek’s claims, which as he points out are rather First World centric, and concludes:

Pen and paper, then, will remain because they are cheap. Meanwhile, in the West, many of us may fret over the scrawl we inflict on the page, but we can reassure ourselves that bad handwriting is not an invention of modernity: ask anybody who has tried to decipher pages written by Thomas Aquinas. He would certainly not make it into a gallery such as that Patricia Lovett provides. Her selection of scribes necessarily concentrates on those with the most skill, but enough specimens survive to remind us that few mastered that level of artistry. Many wrote less accurately, less consistently and simply less presentably. If they had been Xerox machines, they would have been the ones in urgent need of a visit from the engineer.

A volume chronicling cacography – poor handwriting – might not sell as well as one on calligraphy, but it deserves its history too, and will certainly have its future. For those who are truly latter-day Aquinases, with a natural difficulty in being legible, the keyboard is a saving grace. Others too prefer it as their medium of self-expression. Yet, it is a “self” sublimated to the font choices of the corporation whose software you use. Of course, when we write by hand, we are also confined, individuality restrained by the requirements of the script, but there is a certain licence for variation and idiosyncrasy, however badly it is executed. Many may find such latitude engenders lassitude and choose to allow the computer to decide for them. That is not a freedom available to everyone in our world – if true freedom it is.

Rundle’s Twitter feed is full of interesting and entertaining snippets from manuscripts:





Textspeak in the 18th Century – the case of Pot-8-Os

Once, Prince’s use of “U” for “you” and “2” for “to” (or “too” or “two”) was seen as an example of his supposed eccentricity. Now, of course, it is all too commonplace.

What Prince was up to could be called “sensational spelling” though now it is not so sensational (and that sounds a little naff) with the rise of text speak. Naturally, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9481.00127/abstract.

One amusing 18th century example of this is Pot-8-Os. Here he is:


And here is his Wikipedia bio, which reveals him to have been an equine member of the 27 club. Here is one origin story for his name:

The origin of his name has several different versions. According to one, Abingdon intended to call the young colt “Potato” and instructed the stable boy to write the name on a feed bin. The stable boy facetiously spelled the name as “Potoooooooo” (Pot followed by 8 “o”s), which so amused Abingdon that he adopted the spelling