As the dedicated work of an eminent scholar and teacher of literature, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984 by Don Gifford partially exists to demonstrate that people on the “farther shore” of the eighteenth century and before, and even in “midstream” between then and the late twentieth century, perceived a different world differently. Thus, the question of one of Gifford’s former students as to who wrote the Gettysburg address for President Abraham Lincoln—a question that makes perfect sense in the contemporary world of “a thousand points of light” and the skill of people such as Peggy Noonan—is revealed to highlight a need for such a “natural history of perception.”
Central to the six loosely connected essays that make up Gifford’s book, together with introduction and epilogue, is a trifold argument: Altering the ways and means of human perception alters humans’ view of the world itself; since the dawn of English Romanticism, human perception has undergone a dramatic change by combining technology and a new sense of private self; and this change has happened at a speed never before imaginable. Built around this theoretical superstructure is a vast array of perceptive examples, notes, and anecdotes.
For his perceptual outline, Gifford can rely on his long and rich academic involvement with the works of Irish modernist writer James Joyce. Gifford argues, for example, that Joyce’s most avant-garde work, Finnegans Wake (1939), offers a possible way back to a previous sense of temporal unity, away from contemporary ideas of life as a series of disjointed snapshots. This contemporary perception arose from the wish to recall exactly single moments in time, an experience first desired by William Wordsworth at the beginning of the departure from the “farther shore” and made a virtual reality forty years later by the invention of photography.
Yet in his emphasis on a continuous mass of land, to use imagery suggested by the title of the book, which leads tranquilly from Homer to the garden-level study of Gilbert White in the English village of Selborne, Gifford relies perhaps too much on continuity within the distant past and sees a road stretching from classical antiquity to White’s neoclassicism without giving due reference to culturally and aesthetically significant breaks along the way. In the end, one suspects that there were far more plunges than one before a meandering river brought humanity to the coastline of
The fascination of The Farther Shore with the immense acceleration of perceptual change under the impact of modern technology curiously echoes a concern voiced by Gifford’s fellow Massachusetts man of letters Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams (1906) almost a hundred years earlier. Adams’ “Law of Acceleration” envisions historic forces moving the world from the medieval unity of senses and aesthetics to brute domination of human-made dynamos, and rushing onward to its perceived collapse in total disharmony. Gifford is not so sure of collapse but sees the contemporary world split precariously in two. There is the sphere of statistics, emptied of meaning but bent on measuring with absurd scales a global “Average Man”; in direct opposition stands a newly created realm of the private individual. What has been lost is the middle ground of meaningful cultural, social, and intellectual interchange.
Gifford’s carefully presented examples work beautifully to illuminate his ideas. In his splendid first chapter, for example, he depicts tongue in cheek how photography, with its sharp-edged pictures, created quite literally a new view of the world and a new standard for “realism.” Because the unaided human eye, with its constant shift between telephoto and wide-angle view, cannot provide comparably crisp images to the brain, what is celebrated as “realistic” is in fact something akin to a technologized optical illusion. To complement this paradox, the reader learns that the understanding of mysterious processes in nature often necessitated the human invention of a parallel technique: A case in point for Gifford is bats, whose...
(The entire section is 1713 words.)