On Seeing, Waking, and Being Woke


Arts & Culture

Caravaggio, Narcissus, ca. 1595, oil on canvas, 43″ x 36″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I saw Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town for the first time in a gallery on Madison Avenue in 1994. I was a freshman in college; I had come into New York on the train for the day, alone. It was February. I had never been in a New York art gallery before, but I had seen reproductions of Nighthawks, and I wanted to know more. The room where the paintings were displayed was not large—the size of an ordinary living room. Apart from the gallery attendant behind her desk, I was the only one there.

I loved all the paintings, but when I stopped in front of Pennsylvania Coal Town, it seemed to me, in that moment, that I was looking at a perfect work of art. The man, who has been stooped over, raking leaves, raises his head to look in the direction of the setting sun. The curvature of his back is a little exaggerated, giving him a feeling of intense, though perhaps accidental, humility. He’s raised his head almost in surprise, without expectation, but his gaze is fixed on whatever lies on the other side of the house: on the source of light, of course. You’re not supposed to think about what exactly he’s seeing; his head, his chin, is lifted, looking toward the horizon. The little alley, the side yard between these no-nonsense, matter-of-fact clapboard coal-town houses, is flooded with light. It’s an image of transfiguration. The accidental quotidian life, illuminated from another angle.

In those days I was thinking almost nonstop about transfiguration by light: or, to use a more familiar term to writers, epiphany. I was thinking about it but not quite getting it to happen. I wanted my stories to have endings like Joyce’s “The Dead,” or Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” or Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother”:

The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming—Diana and Helen—and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.

“Seeing establishes our place in the surrounding world,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing: “We explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it … the explanation never quite fits the sight.” That, I thought, was what I was writing for: to reverse the process of analysis and return the reader/viewer to the moment itself.

I was in love with this idea. It’s hard to say things like that and still be taken seriously. I was convinced that I cared more about accomplishing this artistic task, this objective, than I did about any human being. I had the convenient fierceness of a nineteen-year-old with no financial obligations whatsoever. But young love is still love. It isn’t that emotions get less intense over time; young adults just aren’t as adept at concealing them. I had no scar tissue.

One of the pivotal moments in my writing life happened the following fall, when I was in a workshop with the novelist Robert Stone. Bob Stone was not—as he would have admitted himself—a gifted or terribly engaged teacher. He was incontestably a writer who was paying the bills. But he presented the most formidable example of seriousness, commitment, and gravitas: a writer who had ridden on the bus with the Merry Pranksters, who had lived with Kerouac in a dog food factory in Mexico, who had taken every trip and walked down every dark alley. He said very little to me or anyone in the class about our work, but every word counted. At the end of the semester, almost trembling with emotion, he read us Conrad’s famous preface from The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’:

It is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage. The sincere endeavor to accomplish that creative task … is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused … must run thus: —My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.

I don’t remember every student who was in class that day. There was a short, very intense-looking man, with perpetual stubble and shoulder-length black hair, who might have been Israeli; there was a tall woman with short blond hair from the Midwest, who was a senior and already applying to M.F.A. programs; there was a Chinese American woman who sat to my left, whose first name may have been Katherine. As far as I can remember, there were no black students in the class. We sat at an oval seminar table in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, the dark, drafty battlement of a building on High Street that houses the Yale English department. At that moment, there were Conrad’s words, and then, of course, somewhere in our perceptual memory, there was the word n_____. [1]

What was that word doing there, on that day? By which I don’t mean “how did it arrive there”—it arrived via the title of one of Conrad’s lesser-known works, a novella from 1897—but, what work was it doing there, what effect did it have? Bob could have chosen to say, “I’m going to read a well-known passage from Joseph Conrad,” but that’s not what he did, nor anything he probably would have considered doing. Would it have been different, if black students were present?

There’s no simple answer to this question. Or even any answer at all. The point is this: at the time, I would never have considered it a question worth asking. I would have considered it an affront to the effort Conrad (and Bob Stone) was making to establish a universal invocation, a “mission statement,” for fiction. In 1994, I might even have said, dismissively, something like “This is mere semantics.” I might have pointed out that the word n____ meant something very different to Conrad and his contemporaries in the late nineteenth century than it means today. (Which, for what it’s worth, is true: Conrad’s American publisher, Dodd and Mead, refused to publish the book with its original title, not because the word n____ was offensive but because American readers would never want to read a book that centered on a black person).

At the time, sitting in that classroom, I would not have appreciated the irony of Conrad’s statement that the function of the artist is to enable “seeing,” to illuminate the world, juxtaposed with the title of his most famous work, Heart of Darkness. Let alone the many obvious aporias within the novella—places where Marlowe loses heart, loses his descriptive capacities—or his inability to describe black Africans as having notable human characteristics.

Love, the cliché says, is blind. Or, maybe a better way of putting it: love is selective. What kept me from even thinking to ask the question was my love for Conrad—I had already devoured Lord Jim, Victory, and Nostromo, in addition to Heart of Darkness—and for Bob Stone, an impersonal love, a projection of myself, of the artist I imagined I wanted to be. I left class that day in a kind of rapture that had within it more than a tinge of self-righteousness.

Love, which drives us toward literature in the first place, may be the thing that prevents us from achieving it. Because love so often takes the form of magical thinking, or what Berger calls “mystification.” Mystification, he says, “is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.” So often, he says, it involves turning away from inconvenient details, glaring absences, or obvious contradictions, toward universal principles, formal symmetries.

It never occurred to me to wonder, as I moved through that room of Hopper’s paintings, why nearly all of the people in them were white. Or to wonder, as I gazed at his all-but-deserted urban scenes: Where is everyone else?

Flannery O’Connor, who admires this Conrad preface and quotes from it several times in Mystery and Manners, also adds a necessary caveat: Conrad’s faith is entirely rooted in revelation through sensory detail, but as a Catholic novelist, she can’t stop there. “St. Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way,” she writes, “intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things.” Writing fiction, for her, is always preoccupied with the world of things, but also with the mind of angels: a vision she calls “anagogical” (from the Greek anagoge, “ascent”), a phrase derived from biblical hermeneutics, where it means, approximately, to discern invisible realities in the visible world.

Anyone familiar with O’Connor’s fiction knows that her vision is not, in any conventional sense, uplifting. She doesn’t do epiphanies. Acknowledging the spiritual confusion and indecision of her own time as a given, she nonetheless says:

The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin … Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.

It’s possible, even if you have no inherent feeling for O’Connor’s theology, to appreciate how her anagogical view of her immediate world—the Jim Crow South of the mid-twentieth century—gives her the language and feeling for comedy to describe the grotesque racism of the time in a way that her white contemporaries or near-contemporaries could not. There are many ways of thinking about “the maximum amount of seriousness” without, necessarily, getting into a contest about who has reached the max. Dogmatic as she was, O’Connor was actually a very eccentric Catholic; her particular view of religious revelation was never meant to qualify as dogma for anyone but herself. John Berger, a very serious Marxist, nonetheless warns in Ways of Seeing against a “pseudo-Marxist mystification of the past” which is as faulty as any other distortion.

What O’Connor is doing is calling attention to the presence of the unseen—not “unseen” in the sense of diaphanous spirits or ghosts, but an unseen structure in the world, one that can be glimpsed, as it were, by looking upward. For her, “the maximum amount of seriousness” is obtained when the reader recognizes the structure (that is, the hierarchy) of God, the angels, and the path to redemption, as something just as real as the visible world.

There are other structures too, glimpsable, palpably real, in the visible universe. They are not “extra.” The word n_____, with all its resonances, was as present in that room as any other word. The absence of black or brown faces at the table, or the fact that I have forgotten them, is a visual fact. These things too can be perceived through the senses. To do justice to Conrad’s meaning, I can’t leave them out.

Which in its own way is a good thing. It means that within the sensory world, not to mention in the books I’ve read again and again, there are still things that may surprise me. I can go on making art simply by noticing. I can still be transformed by the obvious.


Jess Row is the author of White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, as well as the novel Your Face in Mine and the story collections The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost. White Flights is his first book of nonfiction. One of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists of 2007, he lives in New York and teaches at the College of New Jersey.

Excerpted from White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, by Jess Row (Graywolf Press, August 6, 2019).


[1] I’ve chosen to reproduce this word within quotations from texts but not within my own text, where it will appear as n____. Words and performances of words are never neutral; and n_____ in particular is never not being performed. (For me this has everything to do with N.W.A.’s Straight outta Compton, where I first heard the word used in the idiom of hip-hop; that would be another essay in itself). Suffice it to say this: the word’s impact is not diluted or diffused by repetition. So I choose not to repeat it, but rather to indicate its presence.