Reading with Both Eyes
I keep thinking about balance a lot these days. Not just physical balance, obviously, though I think about that too on some nights, especially when I’m walking out of a bar. I’m thinking more about a mental attitude. About keeping everything in the air, and not dropping any of the balls. I think it requires a sort of 360-degree peripheral vision that allows you to plot the locations of everything without focusing on anything. It’s something I feel I’ve always wanted, but never managed to achieve. I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, and there’s a bit in it that touches on this. In it, the protagonist is attempting to decipher books from the planet Tralfamadore:
Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.
“Exactly,” said the voice.
“They are telegrams?”
“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”
Years ago, a friend of my father’s told me how he was learning to speed read, and it involved using his peripheral vision to scan down both sides of the column of text, the left eye down the left side and the right eye down the right. The downside of this technique was that while you registered the pertinent details quickly, you didn’t really absorb the sentences. So it was great for reading a newspaper, but not so much when it came to a novel. But it’s still all about balance, of not really focusing on any one thing.
Like walking, riding a bicycle, or flying helicopters.
It makes me sometimes wonder what balance really is. An awareness; a compromise? Or is balance in fact the opposite of focus, of quality — of good, even? But Robert Pirsig often talks of quality as almost situational awareness; an overall grasp of the big picture. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he makes it sound like balance:
If you want to build a factory or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good. That is what carries you forward. This sense isn’t just something you’re born with, although you are born with it. It’s also something you can develop. It’s just not “intuition”, not just unexplained “skill” or “talent”. It’s the direct result of contact with basic reality, Quality, which dualistic reason has in the past tended to conceal.
A juggler needs balance to keep all those objects in the air, but he still doesn’t lose touch with them. He touches them all, moves them around, controls them. Maybe that’s it.