On Representation

Penguins on the beach in Cape Peninsula, SA by Tricia Jenkins

Beach penguins at Cape Peninsula, South Africa. Photographed by Tricia Jenkins.

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

The first time I read Emerson I was a teenager in college–more of a beach bum, really, enrolled in classes in San Diego but having trouble concentrating day to day. I liked how Emerson’s words felt as they drifted through my mind, his sentences like fractals, repetitive pulsations of insight. I would sit in the sand and look at seashells and think about how each one was a metaphor for lives lived and gone, leaving fragments of themselves strewn about, beautiful and broken.

The second time I read Emerson I was more ready for it. I was twice as old and studying rhetoric for a living. As I ruminated on his essay Language I realized that even though Emerson talks about nature symbolically, he isn’t using metaphor in the customary way. He isn’t just suggesting that we, for example, view a seashell as a symbol of death, nor even as a representative fact of life (even though he says that). Rather, he is suggesting that every seashell is Life, every seashell is the whole world. It’s not merely a “likeness” of the world (even though he says that too); it is uniquely significant all on its own, as a divine creation, and by studying it deeply enough we come to understand its infinite wisdom. The trick, if I can call it that, is to value the single seashell so much–to stay with it long after I think I’ve grasped its metaphorical meaning–to trust that it has much more to notice and ponder because that seashell itself contains everything.

So the American tourist goes to South Africa and sees penguins on the beach. First, let’s face it, she’s just gobsmacked to see penguins on the beach. In Africa. Second, she observes how the behavior of penguins at the beach is pretty much just like the behavior of humans at the beach: they’re all visitors, waddling around, lolling in the sand, cooly observing one another there–each as if the other species belongs somewhere else. Lots of metaphorical observations ensue, during which the tourists (human or penguin) come to represent keen insights about social dynamics or globalization or commercialization or whatever.

But all of that is too pat, isn’t it? It’s fun, but it’s smug. It’s the kind of insight a lot of us make every day, congratulating ourselves on our witty reading of a representative anecdote. It’s a meme.

If we really want to understand the metaphor, to deeply learn from it, we must start by taking seriously the thing itself rather than leaping to conclusions about whatever it may represent.

This is the lesson I learned in South Africa last week. My new Emerson is Karen Worcman, founder of Brazil’s Museum of the Person. She challenged us all to acknowledge that every person’s story matters not for the ways it represents some larger idea or trend or community but because it’s enough. A life lived matters. It is worth remembering. It is worth knowing. An individual life is enough because it is everything. It is the whole world.

As I return to my classroom tonight, to students whose mission is an oral history project with people representing (yep–I said that on the assignment sheet) different perspectives on the gentrification of the historic neighborhood near campus, I feel humbled, schooled really, and grateful to Karen for reminding me to have faith in the power of individual stories to teach us enough. To teach us everything. Here is the video I will use to begin that conversation in class:

 

 

 

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