Emerson, the Transparent Eye, and photos on my iPhone



Illustration of Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball” that accompanied the essay “Nature”

In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said:

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

I know of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and his essay “Nature,” but it is not my area of expertise.  (Although I confess, it is the illustration that accompanied the “transparent eyeball” passage in Emerson’s  essay “Nature”  that I recall most readily. It is a wonderful illustration.)

If I remember correctly, in “Nature,” Emerson is propounding a way of looking at the Universe in general and Nature in particular. It is Emerson’s “transcendental” way of finding communion with a divine being through observing the “scripture” that is Nature.

But lately I have been thinking of the “transparent eyeball” in a different way.

On a Monday in mid-April, I was reading a piece by a woman named Yoon Soo Lim.  In it, she mentioned that she had taken up a challenge of keeping a photo journal , in which one photograph was uploaded each  day of the year. The site was called blipfoto.

I didn’t think much of it, until my walk home through the city.  I started seeing possible “photo ops” everywhere: a funky display in an art gallery, a shadowy alley with a latticework of fire-escapes, a graphic advertisement for a boxing studio.  I had become an “eye” and had begun seeing things that I passed every single day and had never seen, or at least never paid much attention to.

Fog Rolling In 2014 jpbohannon

Fog Rolling In
2014 jpbohannon


I took up the photo challenge myself.  And it has changed the way I look at things.

Doors on N. 4th Street 2014 jpbohannon

Doors on N. 4th Street
2014 jpbohannon

No longer do I walk aimlessly from the bus to my door, from the street to the train station, from my desk to the cafeteria.  I walk now with a purpose…the purpose of seeing.


Sculpture at Market East Train Station 2014 jpbohannon

Sculpture at Market East Train Station
2014 jpbohannon

I am not sure why, but this leaves me feeling very alive.  I feel that I am “seeing deliberately”—a term that echoes Emerson’s disciple Thoreau who advised us all to “live deliberately.”  I am excited to see things, to find things, to re-discover things that had been invisible for so long, behind the cloak of daily routine.

And I am having fun with it.



Book Review: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

Phrenological San Francisco (page 128-129)

Phrenological San Francisco (page 128-129)

Rebecca Solnit begins her book with this quotation from Thoreau:

“I have traveled widely in Concord.”

Concord really isn’t that big a place to “travel widely” in, but that is the argument of Solnit’s Infinite City: every place contains an infinite number of “maps” with which we travel, and within her book Solnit creates a unique, intriguing, and entertaining series of maps of her city, San Francisco.

Now, you know you are in heady territory when in the first three paragraphs Solnit makes multiple references to Borges and Calvino, both fantastic cartographers and creators of worlds that have never existed. Yet, Solnit is every bit as imaginative and perceptive. She reveals a given place (San Francisco) in ways that had never been categorized before and introduces new perspectives on the city that have never before been imagined.

In her introduction, Solnit explains her method thus:

Every place is if not infinite then practically inexhaustible, and no quantity of maps will allow the distance to be completely traversed. Any single map can depict only an arbitrary selection of the facts on its two-dimensional surface… . For Infinite City, this selection has been a pleasure, an invitation to map death and beauty, butterflies and queer histories, together, with the intention not of comprehensively describing the city but rather of suggesting through these pairings the countless further ways it could be described. (I also chose pairs in order to use the space more effectively to play up this arbitrariness, and because this city is, as all good cities are, a compilation of coexisting differences, of the Baptist church next to the Dim Sum dispensary, the homeless outside the Opera House.)

And this is how the book works. The “arbitrary selection of facts” are surprising and unconventional. There are maps of industries and bee migrations and “tribal neighborhoods” and gang-lands and right-wing bastions and bygone areas of entertainment and carousal.  And the pairings are both startling and sensible. For instance, the map entitled “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body” is accompanied by Solnit’s essay “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Gourmet.” In both, the reader is given a map of the major dumpers of toxins into the environment (often food and wine growers) and the sites of delicious, food providers. (Often the two overlap.) The key to the map gives symbols for EPA SUPERFUNDS, Poison Sites, Palate Sites, Poison/Palate Sites and Wineries.

Poson/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body

Poson/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body

The population map–the current population not the map of those who have left and those who are arriving–is set up as a “tribal” map.  The expected ethnicities are cited–the Chinese, the Irish, the Korean, the Mexican–but they are accompanied by neighborhoods where the “tribes” include skateboarders, people with ties, transgender people, etc.  Again, this is accompanied by a moving essay by Solnit about the ever changing population shifts of her city.

Tribes of San Francisco

Tribes of San Francisco

But it is the pairings that are the most intriguing. One map, entitled Death and Beauty,  tracks the murders in the city during the year 2008 and the locations of Monterey cyprus trees throughout the city; another entitled Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders lists salmon streams, hatcheries and viewing sites along with the location of Zen monasteries, schools, and core sites; and still another, entitled Monarchs and Queens, reveals the locations of various butterfly locations and queer public spaces.

Monarchs and Queens

Monarchs and Queens

Each of the twenty-two maps are jewels of color, design, and information.  They are beautiful, as are all of the illustrations throughout.

While Solnit did not write all of the essays that accompany the maps, she did write the majority and her fellow essayists are similar in spirit, similar in the way they look at their ever-changing city. In a recent piece for the London Review of Books entitled “Google Invades” (February 2013), Solnit bemoaned the changes that have occurred in her city with the influx of Silicon Valley money.  She felt that the variety in the city’s fabric–in its economics, its life styles, its ethnicities, its politics, and its arts– was being leveled and watered-down with the influx of cyber-millionaires. The city–not just a neighborhood– was being gentrified.

Solnit sees her city, San Francisco, in many, various ways, in multiple perspectives that have accrued layer after layer through the years that she has lived there. These views are both nostalgic and forward-looking, while still very much ensconced in the present, no matter how ethereal that might be.  And while some of these layers may now have physically vanished, they remain in her memory, in her view of the city.

And they remain in this amazing, attractive, and addictive book.

The difficulty of thinking…the ease of not.

Bertrand Russell once said that people would do almost anything to avoid having to think. And we do. Consider how we go through most of our days.  Rise, commute, work, commute, dine, sleep. Certainly there are vacillating degrees of how purposefully we interact with our own lives, but mostly, I would say, we do things by rote.  For the most part, the majority of us do not “live our lives deliberately” as Thoreau advised us to–we would make ourselves mad if we did–but what are we sacrificing?

Samuel Beckett wrote that the routine, the habit, the treadmill of our lives is a way of deadening the pain of existence (how wonderfully Beckettian!); breaking out of the routine, the habit, the treadmill is exciting and might mask the pain, but it is temporary and not without risks.  To think deliberately is indeed difficult. But it is what makes us who we are. Our thinking is what separates us from others, what individualizes us.  There is a second kind of truth in the Cartesian “I think therefore I am.”  It is not simply a statement of existence, but one of uniqueness as well, an emphasis on the “I.”  And if we choose not to think, are we waiving our individuality to become simply a part of the herd?

In politics, for example, do we think or do we react? Do we consider the world around us or do we merely accept what we have been trained to accept? Are we so entrenched in our “camps” that we allow their ideas to immediately become ours without the trouble of thinking? Do we even have a personal philosophy?  How many of us could state what it is?  What do we believe in?  When have we last THOUGHT about what we believe?

The avoidance of thinking is hardly a 21st-century phenomenon–it just seems easier to do these days.  The opportunities for distraction, the ease in which we can fill our lives with noise, makes it all too easy to avoid stopping to think.  And like most habits, once we have learned to “not think,” it becomes a very hard habit to break.

But again, what are we sacrificing?

I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it.