Seeing is receiving: Tim Winton, The Boy Behind the Curtain

20 Jan

I am greatly enjoying Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain. It shows him to be a deeply reflective man, a person of spiritual and ethical sensitivity as well as dedicated and hard-working in his life as a writer. The reflections are organized more as developing themes than as a chronology of his personal formation. But the work does help us to know him and the deeply personal dimensions of his writings. There are stories from his own childhood and earlier life experiences which found their way into his fiction. That’s interesting, though not surprising. As he says, in a chapter about his father’s horrific car accident and other encounters with human struggle and failing (his dad was a police officer), ‘Without strife the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with.’

One passage has struck me as really powerful. It’s a very short reflection on Winton’s daily routine of taking a morning walk on the beach. Readers of his work will know how crucial the beach is to his life and writing. He says that he thrives on routine: yet he also says that this repeated walk is continually offering him something new. He has learned to see the familiar and routine as profoundly alive, fresh—and constantly offering him something.

I would describe this as the spiritual disciplines of seeing and receiving. Tim Winton is just such a spiritual person and freely identifies as such. (This is much too important to be classed as ‘religion’, and I would therefore resist any desires to label him in terms of one or another religious group.) Rather I want to quote from this short passage and let the writer speak for himself! By introducing the idea that the world around us must be seen as ‘subjects’ not objects (it is alive!), he explains what it means to see, to pay attention, and how this has implications for his life and work. Everything has its story.

Every day I come and most days I learn something new, but only occasionally do I really see because while I’m always looking I’m not necessarily paying serious attention. Half the time, in the manner of my kind and my era, I’m looking at shells and stones and stranded jellyfish as though they are objects, rather than subjects. A subject has a life. In its wake and even more in its form it trails a story, a jurney that can be as brief as that of a cuttlefish that leaves only the foamy hull of its backbone to memory and whose death can be read in the neat curve of toothmarks made by the dolphin that claimed it. The bones of the turtle scattered along the house track suggest a longer story, probably longer than my own, a life of oceanic questing and feats of navigation still beyond human ken. And the pink and yellow boulders pressed up against the coral reef—they are only new in the narrowest sense. The flash floods of autumn ripped them from canyons a kilometre away and rolled them to the sea, but they were ancient and storied long before this, marbled and ground smooth before the world even saw a human.  [FR comment: what brilliant economy of language!]

When you pay attention you feel the presence of the past, you sense the ongoing struggle and the yearning of all things seen and unseen. For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies facedown in the rockpool is shelter to the tine and deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was host to half a million lives. Each hole in it aerated cauliflower was wrought by an organism straining to thrive, build, reproduce—a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on Earth.

That, I realize all too infrequently, is what lies beneath the surface of every sleepy step I take before breakfast: the resonance of a trillion lives, finished and only just begun, subjects that ached to be fed, seek the light and tilt toward increase in a creation that has been burning and lapping and gnawing and withering and rotting and flowering since there was nothing in the cosmos but shivering potential.To tread here and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished. Things are not just what they appear to be, not even the people and creatures and forms most familiar to us. They are certainly not knowable by how they first present themselves.Looking deeply, humbly, reverently will sometimes open the viewer to what lingers beneath hue and form and texture—the faint tracks of story that suggest relationships, alliances, consequences, damage. If you can ever know something you’ll understand it by what is has given, what it owes, what it needs. It has never existed in isolation. And ghosting forever behind its mere appearance is its holy purpose, its billion meeting with the life urge in which it has swum or tumbled or blossomed, however long or however briefly.

      (Tim Winton, The Boy Behind the Curtain, pages 56 & 57; bold emphasis added)

Here it is: seeing is receiving, and deeply seeing requires respect, paying attention to what is given, rather than our constant need to grasp, to take or to organize. This seeing and receiving enable us to meet with the holy purpose of the creator and the creation, and to know our place. Sallie McFague, an ecological theologian, once wrote that sin is ‘not knowing our place’. I think this has profound resonance with Winton’s piece here. The critical word is ‘knowing’: to know your place can have a kind of authoritarian sense of order, hierarchy, structure. “Knowing your place’ could mean: stay in your corner, keep out of things. But it can also have this inviting sense of knowing as a participant, a subject amongst subjects: to know in a continuing and relational sense, and thus to have a place, a home, along with other subjects in the community of creation. This is what McFague intended and so too does Winton. It’s about seeing, receiving, living and indeed loving, in the holy presence of what McFague calls God’s body.


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