Understanding is the intellectual component of responsibility toward others. Observing people, paying careful attention to their behaviors, movements, words, facial expressions and the like, is an important tool for understanding.
[Vincent van Gogh felt keenly and observed keenly. This is apparent in his paintings and in many of his letters, such as this one to his brother:]
“Twilight is falling, and the view of the yard from my window is simply wonderful, with that little avenue of poplars - their slender forms and thin branches stand out so delicately against the grey evening sky; and then the old arsenal building on the water - quiet as “the waters of the old pool” mentioned in the Book of Isaiah - down by the waterside the walls of that arsenal are quite green and weather-beaten. Farther down is the little garden and the fence around it with the rosebushes, and everywhere in the yard the black figures of the workmen, and also the little dog. Just now Uncle Jan with his long grey hair is probably making his rounds. In the distance the masts of the ships in the dock can be seen, in front the Atjeh, quite black, and the grey and red monitors - and just now here and there the lamps are being lit. At this moment the bell is ringing and the whole stream of workmen is pouring toward the gate; at the same time the lamplighter is coming to light the lamp in the yard behind the house.” [Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, December 4, 1877]
Historian Timothy Garton Ash specializes in the "history of the present." One reviewer has called him "one of the most reliable and acute observers of the past present, able to report on events as a witness and, simultaneously, assess them with a coolness of judgment that almost always holds up over time."
- Timothy Garton Ash, History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (Random House, 2000).
- Timothy Garton Ash, Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade without a Name (Yale University Press, 2010).
- Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague (Vintage, 1993).
- Timothy Garton Ash, In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent(Random House, 1993).
- Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (Yale University Press, 2002).
“Deborah Baker is a serious biographer who specializes in fairly crazy writers.”
- Deborah Baker, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (Hamish Hamilton, 1993).
- Deborah Baker, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (Penguin Press, 2008).
- Deborah Baker, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (Graywolf Press, 2011): a biography of Maryam Jameelah, “a New York Jewish convert to Islam.”
- Errol Morris, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (The Penguin Press, 2011): "about the limitations of vision, and about the inevitable idiosyncracies and distortions involved in the act of looking."
- Michael Jacobs, Andes (Counterpoint, 2011): “traveling through South America’s mountains”.
- D. H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia (Thomas Seltzer, 1921).
- Akash Kapur, India Becoming: A Portrait of Lifge in Modern India (Riverhead Books, 2012): a well-traveled Indian native writes of his homeland.
- Jennet Conant, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist (Simon & Schuster, 2017): “Some years ago, Jennet Conant wrote an op-ed entitled ‘My Grandfather and the Bomb,’ in which she revealed that ‘Los Alamos was the chief morality tale of my childhood.’ When she was 10 years old her father, Ted Conant, moved his family to Japan and took his young daughter to visit Hiroshima. She became acutely aware ‘that I was living in a country my grandfather had once tried to blow to smithereens.’”
- Deborah Campbell, A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War (Picador, 2017): “ . . . a searing and extraordinarily affecting account of her experiences in Syria in the mid-2000s, one that reads in equal parts as memoir, history and mystery story.”
- James Wood, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays 1997-2019 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): “’To notice is to rescue, to redeem,’ Wood writes. ‘To save life from itself.’”
- Ann McCutchan, The Life She Wished To Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnian Rawlings, Author of “The Yearling” (Norton, 2021): “McCutchan is a sensitive observer of Rawlings’s work, and of her deeply unconventional life in general.”
- Joan Didion, Salvador (Simon & Schuster, 1983): “. . . it is difficult to deny that everything she writes grows out of close observation of the social and political landscape of El Salvador.”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Bill Cunningham New York, on New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, a cultural anthropologist of sorts: not a fashion photographer but a “photographer of people and what they wear”
- Capturing the Friedmans: a family chooses to film itselfduring a crisis in which the father was accused of multiple counts of child molestation and pornography
- Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids: The only way the film maker couldphotographically document the goings-onin Calcutta’s red light district was togive cameras to the children of the prostitutes, thereby also achieving a measure of redemption for the children.
- Exit Through the Gift Shop: a thrift shop ownerdocuments contemporary street art
- The Salt of the Earth: on the extraordinary photography of Sebastiāo Salgado, who photographed peoples, then nature
On the right, close to the road, was an inn, with a four-wheeled cart at the door, a large bundle of hop-poles, a plough, a heap of dried brushwood near a flourishing hedge, lime smoking in a square hole, and a ladder suspended along an old penthouse with straw partitions. A young girl was weeding in a field, where a huge yellow poster, probably of some outside spectacle, such as a parish festival, was fluttering in the wind. At one corner of the inn, beside a pool in which a flotilla of ducks was navigating, a badly paved path plunged into the bushes. The wayfarer struck into this. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book First – Waterloo, Chapter I, What Is Met With on the Way From Nivelles.]
Ann Beattie wrote short stories for The New Yorker for years, commenting with wry humor on her observations of New York life.
- Ann Beattie, The New Yorker Stories (Scribner, 2010). "One of Beattie's great strengths is the party scene, whose supply of hilariously random remarks and anthropologically interesting actions she exploits to pain Bruegel-like group portraits of an apparently grotesque age."
- Ann Beattie, Distortions (Doubleday, 1976).
- Ann Beattie, Chilly Scenes of Winter (Doubleday, 1976), a novel with a depressed and brooding protagonist.
- Dawn Trouard, Conversations with Ann Beattie (University Press of Mississippi, 2006).
Other novels and stories:
- Edna O’Brien, Saints and Sinners: Stories (Little, Brown & Company, 2011): the author marks her characters’ “presence in proudly simple declarative stone.”
- C.B. George, The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2016): “ . . . the narrative’s eye flits from one character to another, like a camera zooming in, pausing, then moving on. These portraits are superbly achieved, and the text is studded with memorable observations.”
- Michael Ondaatje, Warlight: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018): “This is a book that requires close reading. A sentence, a reference, will signal something yet to come. Blink, and you’ve missed it. You are forever dipping back — ah, now I see — such is the intricate and clever construction of a narrative about wartime deeds and postwar retributions that is also, at its heart, the story of a childhood.”
- Elizabeth Fremantle, The Poison Bed: A Novel (Pegasus Books, 2019): “Fremantle doesn’t elide the differences between the present and the past in favor of a kind of immediacy, but rather presents the period as a cabinet of curiosities.” (on observing and describing)
- Aysegül Savas, Walking On the Ceiling: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2019): “She writes with both sensuality and coolness, as if determined to find a rational explanation for the irrationality of existence, and for the narrator’s opaque understanding of herself.”
- Marlon James, Moon Witch, Spider King: A Novel (Riverhead, 2022): “. . . what has stayed with me are (James') more subtle observations on the human condition, how people don’t run away from terrible situations only because they don’t know where else to go, how love is like fear, grief is like fury and revenge can never be as satisfying as you imagine.”
- Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, Chéri: A Novel; The End of Chéri: A Novel (1920; 1926): “. . . the sharpness of her social observations (was) so ahead of her time that they come across as radical even by contemporary standards.”
- Umberto Boccioni, Visioni Simultanee (1911-12)
- Claude Monet, Camille Monet at the Window, Argentuile (1873)
- Claude Monet, The Manneport, Cliff at Etratat, Sunset (The Manneport) (1883)
- John Constable, A Lane near Deadham (1802)
- René Magritte, The Great Century (1954)
Film and Stage
- Fanny and Alexander: achild’s observations of life
- Pauline at the Beach, a film about a teenage girl watching adults behave strangely, and learning
- Sleeper, social criticism, with humor
- Barry Lyndon, a leisurelyobservation of “foolish, gallant overreaching” – see the novel by the same title
- Chan Is Missing, a character piece
- Leaving Las Vegas, a character studyof an alcoholic
- The Story of G.I. Joe, perhaps “the single most realistic Hollywood war film of the 1940s” (take that as you will)
- The Mirror(Zerkalo): Andrei Tarkovsky’s reminiscences about the Soviet Union during World War II
- Man With a Movie Camera(Chevolok s kino apparatom): expressing the filmmaker’s view that film should present life as it is lived
- Hukkleis a film that can be approached on several levels. Most simplistically, it is “a slice of life from a village day” but its dark quality and choice of images suggests an observational film about warps, or hiccups, in the conditions of life.
- Henry V: through his historical dramas, Shakespeare attempted to capture the soul and spirit of the people and cultures he portrayed
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
George Gershwin famously chronicled his native New York City, its rhythms and its people and American culture, and his beloved Broadway.
- On the Town
- Catfish Row
- Rhapsody in Blue
- Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra
- Concerto in F (1925)
- Of Thee I Sing
- Crazy For You
- My One and Only
Edgard Varèse, Amériques (1922, rev. 1929) (approx. 22-26’), seems to be a musical expression of the composer’s observations of New York City. “Varèse was inspired by his first impressions of the noises of the city from his new perch on the West Side of Manhattan. Where other newcomers might have focused on the visual stimulation, for Varèse the city offered an exhilarating aural cacophony of street noises, police cars, firetrucks, river sounds, foghorns, and skyscraper construction.” Top recorded performances are conducted by Abravanel in 1966, Boulez in 1975, Dohnányi & Cleveland Orchestra in 1993, Chailly in 1996, Kocsis in 2002, Morlot in 2011 ***, Welser-Möst in 2020.
Albums evoking New York City:
- Josh Tatsuo Cullen, “Scenes in Tin Can Alley: Piano Music of Florence Price” (2022)
Other themes, other artists:
- Ornette Coleman, “Skies of America” album, chronicles the great jazz saxophonist’s impressions of his native land. Here is an adaptation of the work in live performance, in 2016.
- Virgil Thompson, Three Pictures for Orchestra (1949)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”
- Nawang Khechog, “Nomads of the Tibetan High Plateau”
I see a great round wonder rolling through space, / I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, palaces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon the surface, / I see the shaded part on one side where the sleepers are sleeping, and the sunlit part on the other side, / I see the curious rapid change of the light and shade, / I see distant lands, as real and near to the inhabitants of them as my land is to me.
I see plenteous waters, / I see mountain peaks, / I see the sierras of Andes where they range, / I see plainly the Himalayas, Chian Shahs, Altays, Ghauts, / I see the giant pinnacles of Elbruz, Kazbek, Bazardjusi, / I see the Styrian Alps, and the Karnac Alps, / I see the Pyrenees, Balks, Carpathians, and to the north the Dofrafields, and off at sea mount Hecla, / I see Vesuvius and Etna, the mountains of the Moon, and the Red mountains of Madagascar, / I see the Lybian, Arabian, and Asiatic deserts, / I see huge dreadful Arctic and Antarctic icebergs, / I see the superior oceans and the inferior ones, the Atlantic and Pacific, the sea of Mexico, the Brazilian sea, and the sea of Peru, / The waters of Hindustan, the China sea, and the gulf of Guinea, / The Japan waters, the beautiful bay of Nagasaki land-lock'd in its mountains, / The spread of the Baltic, Caspian, Bothnia, the British shores, and the bay of Biscay, / The clear-sunn'd Mediterranean, and from one to another of its islands, / The White sea, and the sea around Greenland.
[Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-92), Book VI, “Salut au Monde” (4).]
- Pablo Neruda, “I remember you as you were”
- Seamus Heaney, “Observing”
Books of poems:
- Solmaz Sharif, Customs: Poems (Graywolf, 2022): “With an anthropological eye, Sharif’s reflections on freedom, consumerism and loyalty are at once witty and incisive.”