It’s not a typo, though there’s no doubt that patience is a virtue when dealing with patients. Rather, the title is that of a delightful little book that’s a bit off the beaten path, but one that you might enjoy if you need a pick-me-up. More likely you’d come across it as a featured title in a small independent bookstore if you still frequent bricks & mortar, and might indulge yourself reading it in one or two sittings while sipping a venti coffee frappuccino lite. Of if you prefer, you can simply order it online and read it at your leisure.
The book was first published in France as La Penthère des neiges in 2019 by Éditions Gallimard, with the Penguin-Random House edition translated by Frank Wynne just released. If you’re not familiar with the author, Sylvain Tesson, this recent blog captures the essence of his writing: “His usual blend of philosophy, observation, musings, melodrama that suddenly segues into humor, self-deprecation, and beautifully rendered glimpses of his strange and wild explorations are always a delight.” As you might imagine, give that I’m sharing this on a professional rather than personal blog, I’m going to highlight Sylvain’s allusions to vision.
Sylvain Tesson suffered a terrible accident in 2014 when his back and spine broke a fall from the roof of a friend’s house. Though he doesn’t go into detail in the book about how this affected him, this YouTube video interview makes it clear that he had multiple fractures and was immobilized for a period of time. You would have to seek out our colleague Charles Boulet for a more accurate translation than what you can get from me, but as you can see from the video Sylvain has right side facial paralysis (though from the neck down everything appears to be moving symmetrically).
The front cover of the book is a photograph of the rare snow leopard (there are only 5,000 of them) in its natural habitat, as captured by the lens of famed photographer Vincent Munier. Regarding his friend, Tesson writes: “Scientists were scornful. Munier approached nature as an artist. His work was of little interest to statisticians, the servants of the number. I had met my fair share of number crunchers … The numbers added up. Where was the poetry? Nowhere. Did their work contribute to the sum of knowledge? Not necessarily. Science masked its limitations behind petabytes of digital data. The process of tallying the world claimed to advance science. It was pretentious.”
Tesson accompanied Munier and two other travelers (Marie and Léo) on a pilgrimage to Tibet to seek the elusive snow leopard. “Munier made up for my myopia. His eye discerned everything. I suspected nothing.” Tesson continues: “Having traveled with Munier from the Vosges to Le Champasur, Marie and Léo had made progress in the art of identifying the imperceptible. On this barren plateau, they would sometimes spot an antelope against the pale rocks, or a marmot stealing back into the shadow. To see what is unseen: a principle of Chinese Taoism and the desire of every artist. I had spent twenty-five years scouring the steppes without getting ten percent of what Munier noticed … From now on I would be aware that we were wandering amid staring eyes set in invisible faces. I counteracted my former indifference by the dual exercise of attentiveness and patience … and it would take me a long time to see what I was looking at. I did not realize that my eye had already captured what my mind refused to see.”
You may recall the OEP dalmation photo that illustrates the concept of figure-ground:
Tesson shares a photo that Munier was fond of showing, with a falcon in the foreground, the color of leather perched on a lichen-speckled boulder, while hidden in the curve of of the rockface and invisible to the unsuspecting glance were the eyes of a snow leopard staring straight at the photographer. Although this is not the photo in the book, it illustrates the figure-ground camouflage principle of the snow leopard:
Once you spot the hidden figure, it becomes more obvious on a subsequent look. There is an element of perceptual learning here, much as occurs with recognizing depth, particularly with random dot stereopsis figures embedded within background. Still can’t spot the leopard?
As Tesson describes it, once Munier pointed out the the leopard to him in the photo, he noticed what his eye would never have detected unprompted: “Once seen, I was struck by the presence of the animal every time I saw the photograph. the indistinguishable had become the obvious. The image concealed a valuable lesson. In nature, we are constantly being watched. Our eyes, on the other hand, are drawn to what is simple, they confirm what we already know. A child, being less conditioned than an adult, catches the mysteries of backgrounds and of hidden presences. Our little Tibetan friends were not taken in. The fingers instantly pointed to the leopard. “Sa’u!” they shrieked! Not because their life in the mountains had honed their vision, but because their child’s eyes were not drawn to certainty. They explored the peripheries of the real.”
Sylvain concludes his lyrical musing about vision with this sage advice. Humans are less than optimal curators of the earth’s sublime museum. “To wait and watch requires keeping the soul in suspense. The practice taught me a secret: it is always best to fine-tune one’s own reception frequency.”