Looking along the beam

A friend reading the recent article on fundamentalism quipped that it’s a case of only looking at the beam. He was referring to one of Lewis’s loveliest illustrations, from “Meditation in a Toolshed:”

I was standing today in the dark tool shed. The light was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dusts floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly, the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious that all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognized biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.

When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematicians head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there – only tiny movements of grey matter…The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

…The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside. “All these moral ideals which look so transcendental and beautiful from inside,” says the wiseacre, “are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.” And no one plays the game the other way round by replying, “If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature”… [O]ne must look along and at everything.

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