Reflection 13: Wallpaper

October 27, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

Years ago I wallpapered several rooms in the only house I ever owned. I chose small colonial patterns in blue and rose. By the time I got to the last room, I was a pretty good paper hanger. I started behind the door and worked my way around. As I was climbing the ladder with the second strip all pasted and ready to go up, I saw that I had hung the first strip upside down. It was too late to remove it and start again. I suppose I could have put the second strip on top of the first, but I had just enough paper to go around once. I put the second strip up the right way and went on from there. For a week, that mistake glared at me every time I entered the room, showing me to be the klutz that I am. I retired as a wallpaper hanger. A year later I remembered my carelessness and compared the first two strips. Hung either way, the pattern looked the same. I had to put my nose to the wall to make out the difference. I stayed only a couple of years in that house, but, assuming the room was not repapered, I’ll bet that nobody else ever noticed it either.


Consciousness can be forgiving, even after being highly sensitized, unto turning a blind eye. Yes, we can see the world in fine (foveal) detail, but once seen that way, our consciousness tends to rest on its laurels and move on to new challenges. We do our best seeing with the fovea of our retina where light-receptive cells are packed closely together, giving us sharp color vision. We often reserve that sort of scrutiny for novel situations unfolding in new arrays of color, contrast, shape, and motion. Once they become familiar, we conceptualize them, turning particular patterns and colors from images into abstract ideas.


If we study it at close range in a gallery, a painting by Jan van Eyck, say, soon decays into one more example from the Northern Renaissance, just as the sensory nuances of the broccoli-cheese omelet I made for breakfast last Sunday—much commented on at the time—have gone to omelet heaven. A colleague once hung a large print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk. He told me years later he hadn’t looked at it since. Or if he had looked at it, he hadn’t seen it.


Wherever I work, I pile new papers on the old ones I was working with yesterday. I’m talking important papers, papers I have read and scrutinized in fine detail because they interested me. Then. This is now. My mind has moved on to new concerns. The old ones, for me, don’t exist. So I bury them, as falling pine needles deck the forest floor, eventually turning into duff, into soil, into their constituent molecules. Decay is a natural process. In consciousness we call it habituation. Getting so used to a thing we don’t even see (hear, taste, smell, feel) it.


My desk is a kind of mulch pile of clutter. It calls for a Heinrich Schliemann or some other archaeologist to dig through its layers looking for Troy. People visiting my two-room apartment notice the clutter immediately. I never see it. I build it—on the table, desk, sofa, floor, bed, every shelf in the place—but for me it isn’t really there. Not for my eyes or my consciousness. I live with it every day and wholly ignore it. As some married couples sit across the table as if they were dining alone. They’ve become wallpaper to each other.


If over-familiarity dulls consciousness, anticipation and novelty heighten it. Here’s an anti-wallpaper example from my experience on March 7, 1997, as recorded in my 1998 book on hiking the trails of Acadia National Park:


Being the first one out after a snowstorm is one of life’s greatest joys. With roads and walkways erased, there are no rules governing where you can go. The world has been made anew, and you are the first to witness its beauty. Usually, creatures of habit that we are, we get out the snow shovel and start remaking the world as it was. But if we resist that urge and give in to the wonder of the moment, we find ourselves made anew as well, as we were as children awakening to a day when school was called off because of a storm. I remember lying in bed without opening my eyes, listening for sounds from the outside world that would tell me what kind of day it was. Better than the scrape of shovels or the whump of loose tire chains clattering against fenders was the eloquence of a town muffled beneath a foot of new snow, the news conveyed by absolute silence. I did not have to look out the window to know a revolution had swept over the world in the night, and I had been dubbed emperor while I slept.


Which observer is the true me, bumbling paperhanger or keen-sighted emperor of all I survey? As consciousness would have it, I am both. Either way, I focus on one thing at a time. Shifting my attention from the pattern on a strip of wallpaper to trying to hang it straight, I am apt to lose sight of the pattern and so hang the strip upside-down. Novelty, on the other hand—as in a snow-covered landscape—makes things seen a thousand times appear so various and so new that each cries out for my sharpest attention. In truth, I am emperor of bumbling paperhangers. Sometimes I see sharply and clearly with my eyes, sometimes conceptually with my mind. Experience has taught me it is important to tell the difference between these two modes of seeing.




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