Trusting the Images: Vapor flirting and flitting

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When the purport of the images—what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. —C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 52 (1963)

A man wakes up on a misty morning. He looks out his window and likes what he sees. So he dresses and walks out his door to enjoy what has been given him.

The mist doesn’t last long.  But while it lasts it softens the edges of the world, brings out its colors, and dances with the shafts of light from the rising sun.

And then it vanishes. The man emits a satisfied sigh. God makes everything beautiful in its time.(1)

I can imagine another man—say, a photographer—waking up the same morning, somewhere in the same vale, seeing the same mist, the same light, the same landscape. Recognizing the aesthetic value of what he sees, he runs to find his camera. He rushes out his door, and looks for just the right place to best capture the dance of mist and light and landscape, the viewpoint from which mist and light and landscape appear to greatest advantage. He experiments with a few different lenses, and snaps a few pictures to preserve the morning’s beauty for posterity—to preserve the past for the future.

It isn’t preserved, though. A window on it is preserved. If the photographer has done his work well, it may be a clear window. But still it is a window only; the misty morning itself isn’t preserved. And the sigh the photographer emits when the greedy fingers of the rising sun have stolen the last mists likely will be of a much different kind than our first man’s sigh of satisfaction.

God has set eternity in the man’s heart, but in such a way that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.(2)

We cannot capture vapor. We can enjoy its flirting and flitting through our fingers, but fixity is not one of its virtues. Likewise we cannot shepherd the wind. For starters, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Even if we did, we still couldn’t pick up stray wind, lay it across our shoulders, and carry it back to the fold.

Welcome to life under the sun.

For many years I could not begin to understand what Koholeth, the author of Ecclesiastes, was teaching. His book seemed to oscillate between pounding home the vanity of life, and then exhorting us to enjoy life—food, drink, company, and toil. Enjoy your vain life.

I can take instruction from paradox, but not schizophrenia.

But Koholeth was not schizophrenic. Many of his translators unjustly make him seem so. They make him seem so by doing precisely the opposite of what C. S. Lewis told Malcolm to do: they trusted abstractions like “vanity” and “meaningless,” rather than trusting images, like “vapor.” The translators doubtless could heap up lots of scholarly reasons for translating hebel as “vanity” rather than “vapor.” I’d say it’s a literary misjudgment, though. Hebel loses much of its affective power when rendered as a negative abstraction, rather than as a positive picture-word—the kind of word that lodges in our imagination and works its way through our will out into our hands and feet.

The vaporousness of life under the sun may very often vex us. It may turn much of our toil to vanity—especially if we labor under the delusion that our lives are going to turn a profit under the sun. Yet if God gives us the ability to do so (3), we will recognize life under the sun, in all its vaporousness, for what it is—and we will enjoy it.

(1) Ecclesiastes 3:11.

(2) Ecclesiastes 3:12.

(3) Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.

David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia. When he’s not practicing his profession, David is usually on stage, or playing a stringed instrument, or reading, or writing.


22 Comments

  1. Jody F.

    Just like vapor, just like life, a little bit that’s fleeting makes you want more. Hope there’s more of your writing here – soon! Thank you for this gift.

  2. Jim Crotty

    Indeed, speaking from the perspective of a landscape photographer I know full well the anxiety of chasing that “good light” across many landscapes, in the vain attempt at capturing that magic in the mist. I can only hope to succeed with a just a portion of the evidence of the moment. What is more important to fully live in the gift of those moments. If chasing about with camera and lens helps bring me to the experience, then so be it. It’s still fun to try but it’s pure pleasure to just simply be.

  3. Rebecca Reynolds

    @rebeccareynolds

    David, what a wonderful post to read on a day of snow angels and snowmen. I’m always tempted to hide something beautiful in the middle of a snowman that will remain after he’s melted away. Fade. Sigh. Praise.

  4. David Mitchel

    @

    Thanks for sparing the lawyer joke in the introduction!

    And thank you, all, for the kind comments.

    Chris, you just made me realize how much this dovetails with Russ Ramsey’s post here about putting away our cameras

    Peter, thanks for posting the link. That was new to me, and it’s lovely.

    Jody, thank you.

    Jim, thanks for that. It isn’t infrequent that the endeavor to capture something in art helps us see it — Louis Agassiz once said to one of his students that “a pencil is one of the best eyes.”

    Jonathan, thank you.

    Christopher — I see your snowy footprints and wish they could be fixed and frozen.

  5. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I love this. Thanks, David, glad to have you writing here.

    One thing I will say about cameras, especially when traveling abroad – having a camera with me makes me look at the world in a deeper, more detailed way, even if I don’t take photos on a given day.

    A great photo can do the same thing a great story can. It can stimulate the “inconsolable longing.” Often on the road my camera makes me see to the depths, see beauty revealed in texture, in line, in damp, in sunlight, in a drop of water, a blade of grass. But I understand the idea that we can become so intent on capturing every moment that we miss it entirely. I’m sure glad I’ve never done that, of course. (Loud, nervous laughter).

  6. Chinwe

    As a photographer myself, I appreciate this post so much. A friend asked me the other day: “So, sometimes you go to the harbor, just to take pictures?” I could see the confusion on his face and it made me realize that my actions are often confusing to some. You mean, not everyone plans their day around the quality of light? Not everyone checks sunset/sunrise times and watches where the shadows will fall? Not everyone lags behind the group on hikes in order to capture the light falling through the leaves just so?

    Like Ron said, I’ve definitely been guilty of looking through the window of my lens so often that I miss the whole wide world outside of it. However, I’ve settled more and more into the fact that, for me, photography (especially with film) has become part of the way I worship God and enjoy this world. It has opened my eyes to much Beauty around me.

    That said, sometimes I just leave the camera at home 🙂

  7. David Mitchel

    @

    Matt, Rebecca — thank you. (I submitted my earlier comment before I saw yours.)

    Ron, Chinwe — great comments. There are times when a camera, or a song, or a poem, helps us see things to which we’d be blind otherwise. To see those — by any means — and to help people see them, is part of our high calling to be royal priests. Sometimes that takes a camera, or pencil, or a book, or a banjo. Sometimes it requires putting our instruments down.

    By the way, your pictures are wonderful, Chinwe. I wondered at “sometimes I go to the harbor” whether you live in Baltimore (or at least spend some time there); then I saw the Druid Hill picture and the Baltimore hashtags at your site. I grew up just west of the city.

  8. SD Smith

    That was excellent, David. I LOVE that book and you have delivered a winning stroke of the hammer to the head. I’m so delighted you are in this team.

  9. Helena

    Ecclesiastes 3:11 is my favorite…I mean very favorite…verse. I still can’t quite get my mind around it, and I suppose that’s what makes it wonderful.
    This post is wonderful! Now I want to go back and reread all of Ecclesiastes, substituting “vaporous” for “vanity.”

  10. David

    Thanks, Helena.

    If anyone is looking for a good book about Ecclesiastes, by the way, I recommend Peter Leithart’s Solomon Among the Postmoderns. It’s a keen look both into Solomon, and the postmoderns. Leithart was the first author from whom I really took in the significance of the literal translation of hebel as “vapor.” The title of Leithart’s first chapter is “Vapor’s Revenge” — and is an extended discussion about how modernity was a massive attempt to grasp vapor and shepherd wind.

  11. JamesDWitmer

    I think my favorite thing about this article is that you gave us two images to start with, and those images did so much more for my understanding than discussing the relative merits of differing hermenutics.

    I have long appreciated Ecclesiasties, but you have increased my love for it. Thank you, David. Very glad you’re writing here.

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