Torments of the Damned

My father, dear departed soul, once found himself obliged not only to teach in something called a “community college” – to young subsidized people not entirely interested in his or any course – but to teach them the “laws” of perspective. The master subject was industrial design, and as he gently explained to them, it would require the ability to draw. Moreover, it required the ability to draw in perspective.

He recalled a Bible verse apt to this end. He had remembered it from childhood in Sunday School, where various verses were committed to deep memory. It was: “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!”

Now, papa did not outwardly practice Christianity, and had not returned as an adult to his family’s Methodist church. But thanks to this early indoctrination, he might suddenly quote a prophet, or otherwise attribute wisdom to God. He was a mystery hidden in plain sight. I’m still puzzling over his “religious development,” which ended clutching a St. Benedict’s Cross.

He could shock with remarks to suggest that he found the whole Christian teaching self-evident. That, and I should add, the teaching of Charles Dickens. He loved to intone, in a theatrical manner, the great and constant truth that, “God is in the details.” He did it in a glinting, winking way; but not without the echo of that distant thunder.

I’m sure his students (only half of whom he classed as juvenile delinquents) were taken aback when he struck the pose of Isaiah.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning that, as he said, “there are no ‘laws’ of perspective.” There is a geometry that can be patiently learnt, and executed with the help of drafting equipment. The same can be used to check what is hand-drawn. Fun games can even be played, by inverting or perverting the lines of sight. But the thing itself requires only eyes, and the ability to trust them.

That was where the problems always started. People do not trust their eyes. They trust their brains, instead, and their brains tell their eyes what to see. They cannot see perspective because they are not looking at what happens to be directly before them, at all times. And perspective is just the start.

Perspective: Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877 [Art Institute of Chicago]
Perspective: Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877 [Art Institute of Chicago]

It happens, as I later found, that Thomas De Quincey made the same observation, about observation. This was in his essay dealing with, “The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” He referred to the farce that results when anyone without sight-training tries to depict two walls meeting at right angles; or the scene down a street of parallel houses. The notorious English opium-eater became adept at distinguishing what was, and what wasn’t, really there.

The naïve draftsman “knows” that certain lines meet at right angles. He can “prove” this to himself by sight, or if absolutely necessary, with a spirit level. He knows, from what he imagines to be experience, his vertical from his horizontal. He knows it so certainly that he will revolt if asked to draw that angle at greater than 90 degrees. The medievals called this “learned ignorance.”

And so the task, for the teacher, is to shake self-confidence: to show his students the scene, and trace it through a glass. Then, take away the glass when it has (finally) served its purpose.

The Bible, my father, and De Quincey were as one, in opposition to the human understanding. It is not that we trust the evidence of our senses. It is that we confidently refute this evidence. We see not what is there, but what we expect, and the fact of perspective is unexpected.

We are victimized by our own understanding, and might perish in our own conceit, were it not for the pain of higher authority. Gradually we learn, or may hope to learn, that there are people who can see what is in front of their faces – who are wiser, and not from arrogance, but from the virtue of humility. We might wish to submit our understanding to theirs, by way of improving our eyesight.

Papa was teaching in the 1970s – arguably (then) the nadir of Western Civ. He was confronting a generation which he had difficulty seeing. He was encountering levels of incuriosity and indifference that he had not thought possible, before he was thrust into teaching. He had to confront demands for “relevance” premised on the notion that relevance was extinct. But he found that a few of them could still be “converted,” to accepting the obvious, praise the Lord.

His problems with the school administration started when he introduced some standards. He refused to inflate his marks, and thus some students failed. But for a modern college, where funding is attached to the number of warm bodies, nobody must fail. He was sacked several times for upholding standards, but fought it successfully each time. Finally, he did quit, in disgust.

But to the end he held that, at least in principle, human beings are teachable. And that, moreover, it is possible to teach some things that are true. (Gentle reader will guess that he was my first hero: a man who would go to the wall for the truth.)

Perhaps we despair unnecessarily for the future of our species. Papa, too, came very close to despondency while – in that fine Biblical phrase – “kicking against the pricks.”

The phrase, as so many in the Bible, is misunderstood; because we think we understand it. The reference is to a spike or goad, used to steer oxen on the right path. An ox may dislike it, so much that he kicks against it, and then he discovers real pain. Papa learnt the pain of the straight furrow.

Better to accept the little torments, with open human eyes; to see what is actually before us – our death – and not compound it with the torments of the damned.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: