“…there are shadows because there are hills.”
—E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
When our older daughter was a little over a year old, she was afraid to go into the enclosed porch of house at night. “Shadows hurting you,” she would say, meaning herself. Looming from the old glider sofa and other odd pieces of furniture, the shadows were indeed a bit frightening, especially, I imagine to one so tiny.
It is strange how our brains translate what our eyes see. I remember once waking in the middle of night, my husband sleeping beside me, and being totally convinced that a robe hanging on the door was really a person. Why did I think a person would stand in the door without moving for a long time, and why didn’t I do or say anything? I don’t know. I was too afraid to move. Things don’t make a whole lot of sense at 3 AM.
I look out my kitchen window, and I think a creature, a deer perhaps, is lying by my neighbor’s fence. It is a tree stump, but it surprises me every single day—sometimes several times each day. I know it’s not an animal, and yet every time I go to wash a dish or get a drink of water and casually glance out that window, I think an animal is there. (In my defense, I have seen real deer there in the yard and by that fence.)
How many times—especially while driving at night—do you think you see something in the shadows?
Shadows are an important element in paintings and photographs. They provide contrast and definition. But how an artist actually sees and then interprets the world is also important. Physical handicaps can lead to new styles and new interpretations, but often artists’ memories and how they translate these visual memories into artistic creations remains intact. For example, Claude Monet’s style changed as his eyesight worsened because of cataracts. He told an interviewer that he was painting from memory and “trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and to the force of habit.” (Quoted from the New York Times article about artists and sight here.)
We all see and remember things differently. Four different people are likely to give four different interpretations—Rashomon-style–of any event they all have witnessed. Sometimes I wonder how imagination and perception has changed history. All interpretation of the past is subject to the biases and perceptions of the writer. For how long was the history of women, ordinary people, and minorities ignored because those writing history simply did not see them? It is said that the victors write history, but perhaps more accurately it is those in power who transmit or censor history. And sometimes it is sheer chance that affects what is preserved. For example, a city buried under volcanic dust and debris. What if all we knew of ancient Roman civilization was what was rediscovered in Pompeii or Herculaneum?
But imagination also affects the future. How many among the uneducated, downtrodden, and abused throughout the ages have not been able to envision a world beyond the limited one that surrounds them? How many never have the time, energy, or education to dream or create? How many have had to hide their real lives and dreams in the shadows because society would not accept whom they love or who they are—the wrong sex, the wrong color, the wrong class?
“We kiss in a shadow,
We hide from the moon,
Our meetings are few,
And over too soon.”
–Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I (1951)
Sometimes shadows prevent us from venturing into new worlds or seeking new ideas. We are held back by the shadows of those we have lost. We stand in the shadows of goals unachieved, or the memories of unrequited love. We hide in the shadow of those who have attained fame, afraid to venture out on our own. Sometimes we fear the shadows will hurt us and we become paralyzed. But contrast is important. We need to see—and feel–degrees of darkness and light. As Peter Pan reminds us, shadows can be lost, but they can be re-attached. Sometimes shadows inspire us to see the world in a new way.