The Grand Canyon
I once read an essay by Walker Percy claiming that it is nearly impossible for the contemporary person to truly see the Grand Canyon. He claims the Grand Canyon is unavailable to most people. That while a celebrated amount of tourists ogle down its throat every year, this crimson spectacle remains to be seen.
But how could something so big be so difficult to see?
Let’s imagine the Grand Canyon. At sunset. A bruised sky arcs over those deep purple ridges. If this image could speak, it would say “Om.”
If you are tempted, do not mistake this image before you as the Canyon–this is only an imagined scene most likely based on a reproduced photograph, a film, a post card, a well-written poem, or at some point, memory.
Let’s start over–where Percy starts. Percy opens his essay, “The Loss of the Creature” with an example. He describes the lone explorer and adventurer Garcia Lopex deCardenas as stumbling over this remarkable expanse of fissure, the pale pink flesh of earth exposed. I can’t even begin to imagine seeing such a spectacle for the first time.
(I feel obliged at this point to mention that I am well aware that deCardenas did not actually “discover” the Grand Canyon. He was far from the first person to see it (there were populations living there before he came along), but it was the first time he saw it or conceived of it, for that matter, and he is Percy’s example, so he is my example, here.)
The closest I can come to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is recalling childhood (though, truthfully I can’t recall that far). I see a star, a tree, snow! It’s all so miraculous and new! We are truly caught off guard. We are truly experiencing and seeing.
To this wonder, to this experience, Percy assigns a value ‘P’. This ‘P’ represents the intensity quotient behind the authentic encounter with the canyon. (i.e. you have no idea such a thing exists, and then, suddenly, woah, there it is.)
So why would Walker Percy claim that the average tourist does not even receive a millionth part of value ‘P’?
Too many distractions? Commercialism? Pollution? We’ve since seen greater wonders? Technology?
Percy blames it on something called the Symbolic Complex. He contends that the sightseer approaches the Canyon with a preexisting Symbolic Complex in his or her mind. The Canyon is no longer the canyon glimpsed by the Spaniard. It is a collective throng of photographs, brochures, movie clips, and the like. It is the words Grand Canyon.
The sightseer measures their satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon corresponds to the Symbolic Complex. The climax of the tourist’s satisfaction is not the spectacle itself, but the “measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the performed symbolic complex.”
If we are not careful, the idea of the Canyon becomes more real than the Canyon itself.
I think this is how it is with love so much of the time.