Personification to Connect Us to Our Environment

Untitled photography by Matt Wisiniewski, from the series entitled
Untitled image by Matt Wisiniewski, from the series entitled “Wreckage,” 2011

Does it seem a farce to personify the world around us?  The non-person world is going on all the time, just doing its myriad things.  We share the same time and space coordinates as these non-person entities around us.  We even share significant amounts of DNA with many of the organisms surrounding us.  And yet, our brains are so composed to understand and shed light upon the mysterious that even this is not enough.  We familiarize ourselves (literally: make like family) the non-person objects around us through figures of speech like personification and metaphorical language.

We say that the plate is sitting there on the table, but it’s not.  It’s not sitting because sitting is a person’s verb.  Sitting implies legs and hips and the option to stand if it pleases.  The plate is definitely not sitting there, resting in the sun let in by the window.  And the window isn’t letting in anything.  It’s not because it can’t stop the sun from coming in either.  Like a computer program, the window has no unplanned functions and cannot improvise outside of its design.

Some linguists say that humans, on average, employ 6 metaphors per minute of speech or writing.  This includes both creative metaphors as well as “frozen” metaphors which are built into our language.  In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, outline a variety of examples of metaphors hiding within and actively influencing the ways in which we perceive reality.   Imagine, for example, the different conceptions of love under each of the following metaphorical structures:  Love is a journey.  Love is patient.  Love is chemical.  Love is war.  

Consider similarly:  Time is money; He shot down my argument; My thoughts are all over the place; etc.   After a few examples the layered nature of language becomes a bit clearer.

Untitled artwork by Matt Wisiniewski, from the Wreckage series, 2011
Untitled image by Matt Wisiniewski, from the Wreckage series, 2011

It’s hard to imagine a world without metaphorical language to help us understand what is going on around us.  Writer Edith Cobb wrote quite extensively about the nature of human imagination as a building tool and orientation factor among children.  In her book, Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, she describes it thus:

“Children strive to fill the gap between themselves and the objects of desire with imagined forms.  This psychological distance between self and universe and between self and progenitors is the locus in which the ecology of imagination in childhood has its origin.” (p.56)

The “imagined forms” of personification and metaphorical thinking alter our finite comprehension of the world around us.   If the trees can “clap” their “hands,” and we can clap our hands, here we have found a familiarity between an other and ourself.  Here we have built a meaningful, imaginative bridge connecting and expanding our sense of self and filling in some of the holes in the map of our surroundings, making familiar the mysterious (and potentially threatening) unknown.

These other things around us, occupying this moment with us — how do we outright refuse the sense of their presence and participation in this space?  There’s a constant story being told all around us, or perhaps a thousand narratives rubbing up against one another as within a great crowd, and each of us is the only witness in a unique theater.

Through metaphorical language and imagination, one reaches out into the abyss to find the object of desire (from Latin: “of the stars”).  We return from our reaching to find something of that same dark matter inherent in our own souls, confirming or securing our kinship with the other.  This relates and deepens the mystery, relieving one of the solitude, but not of the wonder.   Similarly, the stillness of the plates and cups on the table somehow also speaks to that deceptively quiet abyss inside of all of us.

Video collage by Matt Wisiniewski

A breeze presents itself now and again outside, affecting everything from the cadence of the crickets to the trees and their thousand clapping hands.  I live near the ocean and, as though in emulation, the wind often plays the trees like they were calm and distant, crashing waves.  Over this, the breeze is luring in the salty air from the sea.  Clapping and playing and luring, the non-person world requests an audience.  And I being the only one in the theater, witness it.

Bridges of Play in Art, Philosophy, and Childhood


The nature of the will is one of the major problematics of life.  Philosophers and artists have long labored to clarify the position we are in concerning the will.  How much power does one person have?  How much responsibility does one have in achieving for oneself the good life, and how can this be extended to others?  How exactly are we situated in this world?  To better understand the nature of will, artists, philosophers, and children open themselves up to opposition by treating it with a sense of play.

The child at play gives form to conflict, practicing “out in the open” in order to internalize what has been noticed in the external world, to gain understanding of self and situation.  The forces driving conflicts between people are usually invisible, ideological, and unconscious, but once they are driving behavior, the child becomes aware yet lacks understanding.  To develop a working model, or what Edith Cobb called a “world image,” the behavior is reproduced in experimental play.

Philosophers routinely reflect and do their thinking by surveying both sides of a problem.  Socrates is the archetype for this.  In his dialogues we often find Socrates asking questions normally thought to have obvious answers, questions like, “Do I want what is good?”  As part of a chain of questions that bring the other’s  inconsistencies of thought into higher resolution, he is surprisingly effective.  Socrates often leaves his company in a state of shock from having lived so long under the aegis of certain beliefs and values without examining them.

Similarly, artists often present situations without explicitly taking a side.  In crafting a story, an author takes all the time that’s required for viewers to believe and situate themselves in the whole driving conflict.  In order to do this, they must give equal weight to opposing sides.  Good is labored equally to evil.  This cannot be understated.  Evil is not run away from.  The author must take a detached stance to good as well as evil, and the long process of crafting such a story is a redemptive process for the author, for in that time love has been taken to evil.  The work is finished; now the conflict is felt by the reader, in all its natural complexity.  And this is what the work offers that life tends not to: honor to the paradoxical complexity of living. 

The feeling of conflict is not going to be novel for anyone.  Life is difficult, long, a labyrinth.  No map could ever be created that would give absolute lasting order to the world, whereby we could determine what to do or where to go next.  What is unique to the arts is that they offer safe passage through experience, and thus to transformation.  In other words, the arts offer the best simulacrum of such a map.  Life is always giving us experience; too often we fail to travel through it.  Whether from anxiety or what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom,” fear or sheer confusion, we seem resistant to understanding or processing what happens to us.  Such resistance promotes undesirable thought and behavior loops.  If we would travel through experience, our transformation would be the effect.  In order to do this, we must sometimes come down from the clouds of our own cleverness and righteousness and ground ourselves in earthly silliness.  There are many compatible modes of being.  There is no going out of character.  To quote Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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Showing Promise

Egg grown in a Tree
ink, 2015, Bonsai Ramey

A student puts off his final essay till the night before it’s due.  The stakes are high.  Four pages and 10% of his final grade for the course are on the line.  The deadline looms guillotine-like above his head, and this motivates him.  He gets his grade back soon and proclaims to his peers, “I don’t know how I got a 95% on my paper; I pulled it out of my butt the night before!”  What’s notable about this common scenario, putting aside his rectal storage site, is that this 95% is viewed as a major shortcoming of the teacher and a buckling of the high standard of quality he or she is known or supposed to maintain.

Let’s assume for the moment that while this is true, it is not entirely true.  Perhaps a second reading of the situation would ask, Why is the student not more impressed by himself, his transcendent nature, and what he was able to do with a few long, intense hours of focused, guillotine-dreading time?  He has produced not just passable work; the work is good.  It shows PROMISE.

We say of someone showing potential that he shows promise, exhibiting an aptitude or skill early in its flowering.  Why do we use the word “promise”?  Because, however nascent in its development, the potential culmination of the skill is perceptible.  Because, like promising something will come to pass, those who show promise would lift themselves above their current orbit merely by staying their present course.  Every person is a becoming, but that person who shows promise in a given capacity can consider himself promised a privileged position, a sacred earning, a gift, a power, merely by holding to the path along which he already finds himself.  This is special, for noticing the path means already some part of the conflict about life has been overcome.  A unifying direction has become visible from the chaos, a means to trump entropy, to “contribute a verse.”  As Walt Whitman wrote:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Trusting the Ground of Learning

In order to access that “world in a grain of sand” which William Blake wrote about, physically, nothing more is required than to walk the beach, sit and comb the sand.  In the end, physically, there is probably nothing required.  What he meant was a psychological alignment.  Only we think the weight of “infinity in the palm of the hand” is too great to bear alone, or it seems cheap, so we hire all kinds of help and conspire to lift the entire beach to see what’s holding it up.  If we can do it together, after all our labors, then, maybe, the reward will be great.  But a single grain of sand—there has got to be more to it than that.  We’re not used to finding greatness without great expenditure.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said in a speech that, to be concerned for others, we must “project the I into the thou.”  The only way to test something truly is to test it on its own ground, to walk that ground in those shoes.  This in itself is challenging enough; but it is impossible if one does not “know oneself” first.  So the reverse is just as true.  Nietzsche knew this well when he said, “The you is older than the I; the you has been pronounced holy, but not yet the I: so man crowds toward his neighbor” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 60).

Original Blue Mandala2