When I was a child my family went on holiday to the Isle of Wight. We played pitch and putt at Brown’s Golf Course, walked along the chalk cliffs, bought test tubes full of different coloured layered sand at Alum Bay, which soon after got knocked off the mantelpiece and shattered on the hearth during an indoor game of football, and one evening we went to Blackgang Chine.
The name alone fascinated me: ‘Blackgang’ sounded like a group of smugglers and ‘Chine’ sounded like, well, China. (I have since learned that a chine is a mountain ridge.) I thought the place was wonderful: dark and with lots of coloured lights and small paths leading round corners to who-knew-where. There were mysterious dells, hollows and grottoes, partly in shadow and partly picked out with magical red and green lights that stretched far away into the distance. That, at least, is how I remember it.
I suppose my dad must have seen the whole thing differently. He probably guessed at the wattage of the bulbs and whether they were screw or bayonet fittings. He may have noticed wires trailing from the bulbs to a generator gently humming in some forgotten corner. He perhaps wondered what the woman who sold us the entrance tickets did in winter when all the tourists had gone home or whether this bit of land was owned by the local municipality or some private entrepreneur.
I’m pretty sure we saw the chine differently but which way was right? The nice answer, which might also be true, is that we were both right. I was looking through the eyes of an 8-year-old and my dad through the eyes of an adult male and both saw what was fitting for our brains. Even so, in one sense I think my dad’s view was closer to reality. After all, he could have pointed to the generator and the bulbs and wires and speculated about the business plan of the people who built the whole thing. I could only keep my vision going by remaining innocent of The Man Behind the Curtain. I hadn’t yet eaten of the Tree of Knowledge but once you have there is no going back. You can’t ‘unknow’ what you have learned and the gatekeepers of Eden won’t let you back in.
This started me thinking about something I witnessed on Facebook a few months ago. An overweight 50-year-old lady had posted a picture of herself and all her friends had commented on how beautiful she looked. Now gentle reader, you’ll just have to take my word for it that she really wasn’t. My friend, who is even more unkind than me, would have said she had a face like a side of beef. So were her friends lying? Did they mean ‘beautiful for you?’ Or did they genuinely, bizarrely, see her as beautiful?
The latter isn’t impossible. Mothers think their children beautiful, no matter how ugly they are. And I once had a girlfriend of whom that same unkind friend claimed that had she farted in the bath I would have thought it was a symphony. So maybe the friends of this lady were seeing her through a wonderfully distorting filter, just as I had done with my one-time girlfriend. (Er, that is that she was once my girlfriend. Not that we did it only once, you understand). When you are looking through the eyes of love then nothing looks as it does to an impartial observer. Beer goggles do the same for men albeit temporarily, more’s the pity.
It must be great to go through life seeing things in this way and I’m sure some people do, just as there are people who see everything black and ugly. And since none of us is a machine then we shouldn’t expect to see the world with scientific objectively. But what happens if the oxytocin wears off, the haze clears and you suddenly start to see people as ensembles of meat, bone and sinew? Then what the actor John Barrymore said becomes comprehensible:
Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.
An extreme description of this too-clear-eyed view; of the familiar suddenly rendered alien and appalling as though a lying veil has been lifted from our human eyes, can be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful short story Terror, which you can read here.