Sunday, November 22, 2009

Seeing as Limiting

In L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, Aunt Beast and her planet particularly fascinate me. Meg’s attempt to explain “seeing” to Aunt Beast and Aunt Beast’s subsequent conclusion that “It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing” (174) seems to me incredibly significant. The notion of seeing as limiting is completely counterintuitive and, indeed, almost unbelievable. Yet it is on this hazy planet where Meg is finally able to “see” the truth about herself (“I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be all easy and simple … because I was scared [191]) as well as the true way to save Charles Wallace (… it has to be me. it can’t be anyone else. I don’t understand Charles, but he understands me [187]). Indeed, Meg must journey to a planet where vision does not exist to ultimately see the truth.

The creatures themselves are also striking. Physically, they are rather unattractive: “They were the same dull gray color as the flowers … [their] fingers were long waving tentacles …” (167). Yet their beings – that which they stand for – completely counteract their appearances. Indeed, though “the creatures on Uriel had seemed far more than human faces” and though those on Camazotz are human, it is these unattractive creatures that offer the most help and the most insight. It is they who facilitate the novel’s turning point. They epitomize the axiom “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Aunt Beast states “We do not know what things look like, as you say … We know what things are like” (174). Here, she reveals one of the fundamental problems with vision: it is that which allows us to judge others. Vision allows us to develop preconceived notions based on superficial differences and vision allows us to stereotype. On Ixchel, however, where truth is based on feeling and knowing we encounter perhaps the most lovely and sympathetic creatures in the entire novel – creatures that are capable of healing.

Aunt Beast also tells Meg “We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal” (179). This statement offers perhaps the most useful advice in the entire novel: look to the unseen for truth. Do not settle for apparent truths. This entire chapter beautifully exposes one of the recurring themes in our class: the difference between apparent truth and actual truth; the difference between appearance and reality.

While tutoring the other day, one of the students was trying to recall my full name. They know me as “Miss Katie” but I had told them the week before that my real name was Katherine. A new girl walked up and asked what the student was doing and he said, “I’m trying to remember what she’s called.” The new girl ventured a guess: “The white chick!” This made sense, considering the majority of the students I work with are African American. I smiled and told her my real name.

This incident reminded me how truly pervasive a role skin color plays in characterizing a person. To my student, I was not Katie; I was my skin color first and I was a “chick” second. This seems to me exactly what Aunt Beast was talking about when she postulated that seeing was limiting. As long as we can see, people will always be limited by the stereotypes surrounding their physical and social conditions – at least initially. Because we can see, we must work twice as hard to “know what things are like” as the inhabitants of Ixchel do.

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