This morning I ran across something Walker Percy had to say about how, as a price of adapting to the world, we must accept the notion of habit. It’s a way of making the world less threatening. It’s hard to believe a self-conscious creature could live without accepting some habits. We like to believe the world more predictable than it is. Percy notes, however, that habit distances us from the world, obscures our “seeing.” Habit cuts us off from a primary response to the world. Our vision becomes like our speech: overloaded and meaningless with clichés. We experience the world through a hazy veil. Percy gives a clever and perceptive anecdote:
A man in Boston decides to spend his vacation at the Grand Canyon. He visits his travel bureau, looks at
the folder, signs up for a two-week tour. He and his family see the tour, see the Grand Canyon, and return
to Boston. May we say that this man has seen the Grand Canyon? Possibly he has. But it is more likely what
he has done is the one sure way not to see the canyon.
Percy explains why the man has not seen the Grand Canyon, not really: “the Grand Canyon, the things as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.” A lady with whom I once worked, in telling of her trip out West, told me not to waste my time on seeing the Grand Canyon, for it “was nothing but a big damn hole in the ground,” a comment that told me much more about the woman than about the Grand Canyon. A man who toured Europe for three weeks told me all he saw was a “lot of old buildings.” About all he had gleaned from his trip is that London is expensive, Rome is dirty, and the female performers at a show he saw in Paris went topless. Henceforth, all Paris will mean to him is a bare tit.
William Blake said pretty much the same thing Percy does. Blake said we must learn to see through the eye, not with the eye. To see with the eye is to see with habit; to see through the eye is to see anew, with imagination. I think this is what Emily Dickinson means when she tells the skeptic that the song of the bird is not in the bird, but “in thee.” Habit obliterates the world of Awe, before which we ought to stand with fear and trembling, the mysterium tremendum of seething creation. It’s a scary business; habit helps us assuage the fear, good old habits and the usual illusions.
Wallace Stevens proves to me, though, that one need not go in search of Grand Canyons; the world outside of one’s window is full of revelation for one who will see, a revelation that Stevens calls “the angel of reality,” an angel with “neither ashen wing nor wear of ore,” one “without a tepid aureole, /
Or stars that follow me, not to attend, / But, of my being and its knowing, part.”
I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.
Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn man-locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone . . . .
But habits can be good things. When I ran an errand this morning, both going there and returning home, I stopped or went as the traffic light told me. Routine is not inherently wrong. It is the thing, in fact, that saves us from chaos and terror.