The Eye of the Beholder

…or what underpinned my personal Bildungsroman

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My eyes are dark brown with a black outward rim. I have been told they assume a greenish tinge, like in this picture, when I am sad. According to ancient Greek philosophers, sight and hearing are superior senses, compared to touch, smell and taste, because they lead us along the path of objective knowledge. I am about to tell you how they took me on a journey of life-saving subjectivity.

Dear Reader,

I don’t know whether you’ve managed to make either head or tail of my post on divinely orchestrated Meetings and their purpose to challenge, change and instruct, but I intend to tell you of such a Meeting I had, with a book mind you, some 10 years ago, in an event having repercussions on my life to date.

The book is this:

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Don’t be fooled by the NYT “self-help” label – it’s a stretch, reducing this book to a fraction of its real worth. It’s probably good for sales though. 🙂

It caught my eye and I bought it by chance at a Christmas charity bazaar nearly a decade ago. As soon as I had started reading it, I had an epiphany, discovering it contained so many thoughts that had been hovering shapelessly in my head for ages. You know, metaphorically speaking, one is struck with things, ideas or people they have already “known” and “met” in their heart.

Book back cover.
Back cover. Now this renders a bit more justice to this great book. I wish I had written that, it really struck so many chords with me. 🙂

The book, as the back cover summary rightly says, is a long essay, structured in chapters, on novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, but is also a very intelligently and playfully written personal opinion, corroborated with quotes from the book and also by Proust letters and other work, alongside incidents from his life. Topics discussed include love, friendship, attitude to time, enjoyment and purpose of reading and appreciation of beauty, among others.

Appreciation of beauty. This is what I have wanted for quite some time to write about and is something which I believe is as vital to people as air, water and food are.

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Front cover of the Bulgarian translation of In Search of Lost Time. I have never mustered the courage to read this, but I believe the time for that may have finally arrived. 🙂

The ability to perceive and appreciate beauty is a live-saving blessing that I consider part of the proverbial daily bread (nurturing the soul, not the stomach), which we should pray every day our Lord for.

Health, this is quite obvious, a clear mind and an ability to perceive and appreciate beauty – these I believe would have been the gifts of the Magi to mankind, had they considered common mortals worthy enough of their generosity. 🙂

Let me try to explain what I mean.

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Levski, finally cleaned up, restored, lacquered and framed! I love the rich frame and the cream-coloured passe-partout – it echoes the white of his shirt and really makes his face stand out. If you care to see how this portrait looked unframed, check this post. Shows how a little bit of effort goes a long way.

For various reasons, I spent a significant time of my adolescence obsessing about my home and clothes not being as beautiful as those the others had. Regardless of this being actually the case or not, the feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction were very real and I desperately needed an antidote – something I could turn to to save me from the bitterness I felt.

In his new frame, Botev looks very dapper too. And my living room is like the Hermitage! Hermitage comes from hermit, so I am a recluse and this is my beauty den. How cool. :)
In his new frame, Botev looks very dapper too. And my living room is like the Hermitage! Hermitage comes from hermit, by the way, so I am a recluse and this is my beauty den. How cool. 🙂

Thus I turned to reading and music and, to a lesser extent because of its harder accessibility, to art. All these gave me pure beauty – in words, descriptions, details, apt metaphors, clever retorts, perspicacious observations, discerning irony, moving melodies, emotional suspension and release, pleasing or striking colour combinations evoking moods, interesting plays of light and shade or a host of colours in things as ordinary as a cloud, a pile of earth or an expanse of snow. 

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This unassuming little painting which I did not like all that much because of the house somehow irritatingly dividing the space in half, is living a new life in this lavish frame. No passe-partout here, as there aren’t really any bright spots in the painting, so nothing this light-coloured strip could relate to.

Under the edifying influence of the above, I gradually started to consciously perceive beautiful details around me. These added texture and richness to things I had been taking for granted or even resenting earlier. For example, I started appreciating the huge and dusty piles of books crowding our flat, although none of the people I knew lived held hostage by books; I enjoyed the huge portraits of Bulgarian revolutionaries we had, although it was not really “in” to be patriotic at the time; I liked how the sun shone in patterns through the curtains on the parquet of our living room and I enjoyed how the parquet squeaked – differently under the feet of each person passing; I appreciated the smell of my mom’s cooking and it pleased me when the fresh green of the parsley contrasted with the food on my plate.

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Frame detail. I love how the golden colour gleams in the sun. Here it has a cold metallic tinge, but I am looking at it right now, live, and it is more copper-coloured, because of the light. The landscape itself may not be very inspiring, but I do love the layered paint and the nuances of petrol green and grey mingling to convey the image of deep and cool water. Also, look at how many colours the blandly-coloured shore actually has! 🙂

Common household objects, kitchen utensils and everyday scenes were by and by assuming aspects of grandeur, splendour and opulence, revealing levels of detail and interest never suspected before. If I looked at them as I would look at paintings, or thought of them as I would follow the developments in a book, I would pick up changes in colours according to the light, nuanced tones of voice, interesting choices of words, pleasing proportions or attractive colour combinations that might be applied to clothing, among many more.

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Another thing I like – how the sun hides in the concave parts of this frame and shines from there. I have a favourite tree too – the one to the right with the rose hue at the top. 🙂

Turned out my perceptions of beauty, which had made me miserable, were partial and not entirely my own. Rather, they were influenced, quite naturally too, by the historical time and life, as it was then. Thus – things bought abroad were beautiful, homes arranged slightly differently compared to the traditional Bulgarian way were fashionable, clothes bought with foreign currency from the special currency stores or at the newly established brand shops were cool and so on. Everything else was mundane and mediocre and consequently – not beautiful by default. These were the impressions I had formed as a child, and no one had deemed it necessary to discuss or correct them. So, I realsied I had work to do. 

This painting was exhibited in the Kazanlak Art Gallery and is called Lilyana. The man in the background is the artist himself. Lilyana is not his wife though, I believe his wife's name was Sophia and she posed for him for many nudes. Source:
Remember Lilyana? I originally posted her here. Then I told you I thought this painting somehow reminded me of me, of the way I gaze into the void and think. So yesterday I was going through old pictures and I found this:
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VERY old photo, of 2007, but there IS some similarity between me and Lilyana, isn’t there? In the pose, in the gaze, in the expression itself. In chapter How to Read for Yourself, De Botton quotes Proust as saying that while reading a book, he was constantly finding similarities between the characters and people he knew. In this way, he felt he was reading about acquaintances the whole time, which was making his bed-ridden lot less lonely. Anyway, once that I have been sensitized about this dreamy gaze into the nothingness, I would surely notice it in someone else and would enjoy the contrast between its intimacy and the public, i.e. supposedly extrovert, place it is taking place in. In this way, the gazing person would have unwittingly shared something with me, giving me a quiet moment of beauty all for myself. How lovely. And besides, that’s exactly the point in sensitization – noticing and appreciating.

While not arguing that the things listed in the paragraph above and their opposites had the same value, I think I learned to attach to both categories their correct value, thus avoiding placing misguided enthusiasm for things, then commonly accepted as notions of the good life. I try to apply the same principle today. 

The problem with my perception was not that the realities of my life I had been taking for granted did not have inherent aesthetic qualities, but rather that my senses had learned to look for aesthetics in some places, while overlooking others.

Looking at these quinces may make you aware of their womanly shape and the pleasant way they fill your hand when you take them. You might even think of placing some in a bowl on your dinner table, thus enjoying the contrast between the yellow and the green and the way they stand out against the brown of the table surface.
Looking at these quinces may make you aware of their womanly shape and the pleasant way they fill your hand when you take them. You might even think of placing some in a bowl on your dinner table, thus enjoying the how the yellow and the green complement each other and the way they stand out against the brown of the table surface. In this way, the painting would have given you a home decor tip, making your perusal of the IKEA catalogue unnecessary. Good to know you can make an independent inference like that alone, without having to rely on more blatant suggestions by a party actually willing to sell you something. Still Life with Quinces, oil on cardboard, Ekaterina Savova-Nenova (1901-1980), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue.

This is where books and music and art can really help – not only me, but people in general. This is what their purpose actually is – apart from being emotional and creative outlets for the authors. Their purpose, because of the high receptivity of the authors’senses, is to sensitize us, to literally open our eyes, to details and aspects of things that we might have been overlooking.

So in many cases, taking the time to take a second look and generally learning to look at things fully and properly reveals there is nothing inherently deficient about them. So you may just as well let go of the Weltenschmerz and be content and happy, right now. 

Look at those great colours - a real feast for the eyes and great suggestions for your summer attire. I remember several years ago that combining purple and peach like the sky here was really new and bold. Not for this 1976 painting though. Lavender Picking, oil on canvas, Alexander Petrov (1916-1983), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue.
Look at these great colours – a real feast for the eyes and great suggestions for your summer attire. I remember several years ago that combining purple and peach like the sky here was really new and bold. Not for this 1976 painting though. Lavender Picking, oil on canvas, Alexander Petrov (1916-1983), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue.

However, a challenge to this spiritual makeover is this – not being able to ascribe the correct value of things while they are happening means that your voluntary memory will retain a distorted, or incomplete, image of them, which will result in unhappy, mediocre or quite literally incomplete memories.

This failure of the voluntary memory to retain full images of events may stem from lack of sensitization, resulting from insufficient exposure to images of beauty; inattention, indicating an undisciplined and unclear mind; or other reasons such as laziness or a passive-aggressive reluctance to appreciate so as to punish someone. Turns out the latter leaves you short-changed, as the only person you would be really punishing, in the long-run, is yourself. 

This painting contains most of the colour palette I like to dress in. And I like the peonies too - both their lavish looks and gentle smell.
This painting contains most of the colour palette I like to wear. And I like the peonies too – both their exuberant looks and gentle smell. Still Life with Peonies, oil on canvas, Bistra Vinarova (1890-1977), Source: Bistra Vinarova Catalogue, Agato 2013.

Your involuntary memory, on the other hand, which clings to seemingly inconsequential details like smells, sounds and such, may be jogged (by art, food or a conscious effort) to awaken and shed light on aspects of things which you may have forgotten.

One such conscious effort is reflected in this post, in which I have tried to summarise happy things about the many and long summer months I had spent in the countryside as a child. I considered that something of an exile at the time and read like crazy to let the time pass. 🙂

According to De Botton, the difference between voluntary and involuntary memory is actually very small and lies in the number of details remembered. Voluntary memory remembers facts, while the involuntary one stores emotions and attitudes.

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Ahh, this is what I had been looking for when I told you I had been going through old photos yesterday. 🙂 The madeleines I used to make. 🙂 This is the tea cake that, along with linden, or lime-blossom tea, reawakens the involuntary memory of the happy past for the Proust character in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. I made those madeleines to a recipe from an original French cookbook. They are simple to make, I will have to redo them, to see what memories they’d awaken for me. 🙂 My grandma of the Wallachian village used to make cookies funnily called caterpillars, because of their shape – they would probably do for me what the madeleines did for the Proust character.
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This tea would complement the madeleines perfectly. And I do intend to share the pancake recipe, it’s from the French cookbook too and is foolproof. 🙂

Thus, having broader focus and more remembered details at voluntary command, alongside real-time appreciation of their worth, is what ultimately determines happiness.

So I believe the real objective of education, outside of its factual knowledge aspects, is to increase the focus span of children, to make them notice, associate and remember things, while showing them ways to apply these skills to life and not only to test-solving in the classroom. 

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Look how cleverly painted the wet street is. And how green, black, grey, azure and yellow smudge into each other in the sky to convey the storminess. And how the sky is clearing into bright blue from the top left corner of the painting. The human figure, though highly stylised, does convey the idea of one trying to jump the puddles so as not to get his feet wet. Every picture tells a story – how very true. Stara Zagora after Rain, 1958, oil on canvas, Dimitar Karadzhov (1907-2000), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue.

On the other hand, the fact that beauty is something to be discovered, or uncovered, by an actively searching mind and the fact that it is hidden in details and not always lying in obvious places, means that beauty is modest, understated and subtle and often fails the expectations of the over-romantic imagination (anyone ever felt disappointed by the “commonness” of the Mona Lisa? :)).

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I like painted urban scenes like this one very much. They are so full of life – every character is busy with his own affairs and has his own story. I like the bourgeois mother with her daughter and probably her younger child who is about to cross the street. But my favourite figure is the woman in front of the newspaper kiosk – the one standing with the legs apart. So many women assume this inelegant posture without taking notice, it is amusing that the artist had noticed that and thought of reproducing it in art. I like the reading gentleman too. I used to do that a lot – walk and read, as a teen. Karlovo, 1942, oil on canvas, Petar Slavov (1908-1988), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue.

I believe another difficulty  is that uncovering beauty and striving to remember happiness is one life-long exercise in concentration, which is hard to keep up to maintain a level life-long appreciation of everything. People get tired, distracted and overwhelmed by other aspects of their lives, so they may easily forget all about remembering beauty. Especially in anything or anyone that have always been around. 🙂 

Last but not least – De Botton argues -is this – the insufficient grasp of beauty in our immediate surroundings or the discrepancy between our internal ideas of beauty and our environment, may arise from the quick (technological and/or architectural) pace of life, which results in an abundance of sensitizing images from the bygone world and an insufficient number of images helping us identify the attractions of the current one. 

More colours that I like to wear - cool, sombre and dignified. White Azalea and Windflowe, 1931, il on canvas, Elisaveta Konsulova-Vazova (1881-1965), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue
More colours that I like to wear – cool and fresh, sombre and dignified. White Azalea and Windflower, 1931, oil on canvas, Elisaveta Konsulova-Vazova (1881-1965), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue

So we somehow end up with this – the key to finding beauty and happiness is either in learning to take a second look, or in learning to look at things properly in the first place.

The moral qualities paving the way to obtaining such skills are the universal human virtues that have been around since the times of the ancient Greeks and have reached our present-day Christian-dominated culture as humbleness, inquisitiveness, spiritual perseverance and resilience against despair.

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Oh, just look at these gorgeous pastels! I like the asymmetrical placing of the objects too. The sun is not risen yet and the water reflects the colours of the sky. One does get a feeling of the morning’s freshness from this painting, doesn’t one? Morning at the Danube, 1921, oil on canvas, Atanas Mishov (1879-1975), Stara Zagora Art Gallery Catalogue.

Indispensable health and a clear mind, that’s it. Simple, but not easy.

PS. If we magnify this idea of reviving the complete picture of memories in order to regain happiness, to a larger scale so as to test its validity, we would have more people cherishing happy memories and being content with their lot. This would mean less frustration and unhappiness in the world, perhaps resulting in less evil. I think this is what Dostoyevsky might have meant with his famous quip that beauty will save the world, quoted, with I believe a slightly different meaning ascribed, by long-legged contestants in zillion beauty pageants across the globe. 🙂

PS 2. Musical greeting – The main theme of movie Doomed Souls (Осъдени души), based on the eponymous book by Dimitar Dimov, whose personality and abode I described here. Composer is Mitko Shterev, whose music I also featured here and here. Soloist is talented and handsome Bulgarian pianist Georgi Cherkin, whom I presented here. Doomed Souls is in my area of specialisation, as it deals with the impossible love between an English woman and a Spanish Catholic priest, but I’ll probably say more on it some other time. It is an excruciating read. As a special bonus now however, three pages of De Botton’s exquisite Proust book. 🙂 Enjoy!

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Little fingers helping me hold the book.

🙂