Think of all the blades of grass in any lawn. Most people want only the sensation of “lawn,” of a green carpet. But if we look closer, we see that there are worlds between every two blades, and three blades of grass in a row will make a symphony of near- but not absolute symmetries, little bending uprights that echo each other without being completely congruent, some leaning over others, a symphony of verdant scimitars. Paying attention to only one square foot of any normal lawn could take us a lifetime. Sane people, however, can’t afford to spend their lives contemplating the blades of grass under their feet: we simply ignore the fact that the world is full of particulars, refusing to let it bother us.
Still, this unrecognized murmur of unperceived particulars is tapped over and over. It’s the reservoir from which things we do notice surge.
For example, in the sudden April snow on the woods behind my house, which I see in the breaking daylight as I jump rope on the back deck. All the branches, not yet fleshed out with proper leaves but disfigured in a green haze by buds, are outlined in a thin set of white lines, the snow not enough to accumulate but enough to accent. I see all the trees, the curvature of the ground, the trees that have fallen, with their roots up in the air like women in hoop skirts, roots meant to anchor the trees vertically to the ground but rendered non-functional by horizontality: the sun glimmers behind other houses, whitening the white.
Yet it’s only chance that had me up at that hour, chance that had me, or probably anyone, notice this. I can take the attitude that it’s a good thing I was up. At least someone noticed it; somehow, it seems, this wasn’t in vain on the part of the world. It almost seems as if I’ve saved the day, or at least the morning: I’ve been conscious of this virtuosity on the part of the world. I’m conscious of the “save”: I got to see this after all. By the same token, the narrowness of the save—the fact that I’m not usually up at this hour at all—reminds me that most of the world goes unperceived. The fact of so much of what seems waste can remind me that little of it is saved” in this sense, which ought to make me question whether the saving has a point, given that it’s so rare. If I need to see the world to save it from non-being, that doesn’t bode well for most of the world: after all, I’m not usually around. Indeed, nobody is, and somehow the world goes on producing these things, which may seem therefore wasted, like meals lovingly prepared that no one eats, that simply spoil and are thrown away.
The Russian Formalist theoretician Victor Shklovsky thought that a lot of the world spoiled in this sense. He was horrified by a passage in Tolstoy’s diary noting that when he, Tolstoy went to dust the table, he couldn’t remember if he had or hadn’t. Tolstoy is shaken with the existential feeling that the unnoticed is the unoccurred: we alone cause the world to have been, a later echo of Bishop Berkeley: esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. Shklovsky echoes his feeling.
The solution to this horrible situation, Shklovsky suggested, was to notice the world. He believed that it was only artists who made people notice the world. Hence his famous conclusion that “Art makes the stone stoney.” Unnoticed, the world simply isn’t. His conclusion is that art and artists are necessary for any of the world to be at all, to be saved from oblivion.
But Shklovsky was wrong about the middle term of his reasoning, the assertion that noticing only takes place in art. It can also take place in what I’m calling the aesthetic sense of life. I noticed the dusting of snow on my trees as the sun rose, and need never have tried to make art from this. Whether or not I try and transmit this perception to others is a subsequent decision that has nothing to do with the noticing, but we speak of art only if I do decide to make this attempt.
It’s also a mistake to think that the world is producing finished meals that somehow we have to show up for; if we don’t they’re thrown away. In fact, it’s only when we show up that there’s a meal. What causes the noticing to happen is an effect not of the world itself but of what we, the perceiver, are familiar with. The woods in the snow made an impression because it looked so different than it usually does. That’s what we notice: a situation where we can establish commonality (same woods, same place) but also are aware of differences: how the trees looked in the snow vs. how they looked outside. For the same reason we think the world transfigured in the spring when, as in Washington as I write, the world is turned to frothing pink, with all the ornamental cherry trees all over the center of the city in gushing bloom. But if this were the norm, the way green leaves are, we’d presumably not notice them even if we saw them—or only the way we do the green leaves, occasionally, the sky dark, the air sweet-smelling, or in their first, pale green phase that itself looks so different from the norm. Green is no less startling a color than pink, only we’re used to it.
Interest is produced by variations from the norm: the fact that I have the background of woods without snow in comparison with woods with snow look interesting. Or the light of full day in comparison with which the faint glimmer of dawn is interesting.
It’s true that all the things we liked, we noticed. However we tend to draw a false converse: if we could notice them all, we’d like them all. I fact, we’d simply be overwhelmed, which is why we fail to notice most things to begin with. It might be interesting, as an artwork, to take photographs of the same three blades of grass in my lawn over a period of time. But if we did this with the next three, and the next three, and the next three, people would turn away. Interest isn’t “fair”: it doesn’t mean the world is this interesting, in fact the opposite—that one thing being interesting presupposes many things that aren’t.
Let’s say we could get all the six billion people on the Earth busy noticing for every minute of their waking time. Or create another six billion whose job was merely to notice. Why would that be better? They’re all busy noticing; who notices that they notice? How would that valorize the world? Would we be sure that even then we’d scratched the surface of things to notice in the world? And for that matter, the most fundamental question of all is this: in what way, beyond my own pleasure, have I “saved” the world by noticing it? Perhaps the world doesn’t care to be noticed.