In One Writer’s Beginnings, the southern novelist, Eudora Welty, describes how she became a loving observer. At the age of six or seven, she was bedridden for several months due to a heart condition. During this time, she was allowed to sleep in her parent’s bed, and they would shade the lamp just right so she would be hidden in darkness while they discussed their day. From that hidden moment when she observed her parents, framed in the low light of the bedroom lamp, with their voices just out of distance, she recognized the beauty of their relationship:
I suppose I was exercising as early as then the turn of mind, the nature of temperament, of a privileged observer; and owing to the way I became so, it turned out that I became the loving kind.
Here, in this childhood moment, is a precise formulation of the heart of literature. The writer is an observer of human nature, but not just any observer. Specifically, she is a loving observer, and everything that she sees in the human person, whether a foible or idiosyncrasy, is met with love. The state of being a loving observer is not just a disposition but an act, as Welty writes, “A conscious act grew out of this by the time I began to write stories.” Later on, the loving observance of other people leads to a deeper understanding of the value and dignity of the human person:
The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being who will never be confined in any frame.
As readers, we too can be loving observers of the authors we study, and it is through this circle of observation that a community is formed.
Gerard Manley Hopkins models the loving observer for us in his poetry and the mechanism for this lies in the nature of beauty. In his platonic dialogue on the origin of beauty, Hopkins proposes that “Beauty is a relation and the apprehension of it a comparison.” What this means is that we find something beautiful because it is a mixture of two opposites, such as similarity and difference, symmetry and change.
Hopkins’ understanding of beauty explains how Welty became a loving observer. She recognized the similarity between herself and her parents through being allowed to witness their conversation. At the same time, she is distinguished from them by the lighting of the room, as she is hidden in darkness and they are lit by the lamp. It is in our similarities and our differences that we apprehend beauty, and it is in that apprehension that we become loving observers. We can only understand the beautiful through the difference of others since our need for beauty is synonymous with our need for community.