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The process of perception involves two steps: the recognition of sensory information and the interpretation of sensory information. In order for the truth to be perceived, or, in other words, for something to be perceived accurately, sensory information must be recognized or identified correctly and then interpreted faithfully according to that recognition. A faithful interpretation is one that does not negate the recognition of sensory information. Truth is not perceived if an inaccurate recognition is interpreted faithfully. An interpretation may take several forms, however, and truth still be perceived, if the recognition is accurate and if the interpretation does not negate that recognition.
In Part One, Chapter Eighteen of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, when the title character enters into battle with a flock of sheep, his perception of the sheep is at first influenced by expectation. In this case the mode of perception is sight; vision is the sensory information that Don Quixote must recognize and interpret. Don Quixote and his squire Sancho at first cannot see the sheep because of the “clouds of dust they [the sheep] raised, which obscured and blinded their [Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s] vision” (Cervantes 135). Before he can actually perceive the approaching hordes, Don Quixote expects them to be enemy armies ready to clash in battle, because, as the narrator explains, “every hour and every minute his mind was always full of those battles, enchantments, adventures, miracles, loves, and challenges which are related in books of chivalry” (Cervantes 135). In other words, Don Quixote’s madness, caused by literature, prompts him to expect these approaching hordes to be armies.
Yet, even after he can see the hordes of sheep, he still believes them to be armies. As the flocks grow nearer, Sancho yells to Don Quixote, who swears to defeat one of the “armies,” “Turn back, Don Quixote, for I swear to God, sir, they are rams and ewes you are going to attack. Turn back!” (Cervantes 137). Don Quixote, however, ignores his squire’s warning and attacks the sheep as if they were an enemy army. At this point in the adventure, Don Quixote recognizes the sheep inaccurately as warriors, and interprets them as such. The first stage of his perception is inaccurate he does not perceive the truth–, but the second stage is accurate. He interprets his vision faithfully according to his recognition, but because the first stage of perception is inaccurate, he does not perceive truth.
The knight’s perception changes, however, after the battle, when Sancho tells him, once again, “Didn’t I tell you, Don Quixote, sir, …to turn back, for they were not armies you were going to attack, but flocks of sheep?” (Cervantes 138). It is here that Don Quixote recognizes the truth, and he acknowledges that the hordes were, indeed, sheep. He interprets his recognition unfaithfully, though, because he goes on to claim that “an enchanter…turned the hostile squadrons into flocks of sheep” (Cervantes 139). Such an interpretation negates the correct recognition, and is therefore unfaithful. In this way, Don Quixote’s perception changes from inaccurate recognition and faithful interpretation to accurate recognition and unfaithful interpretation. He modifies his perception to accommodate Sancho’s objection.
Another instance that illustrates Don Quixote’s misperception of truth is the famous adventure with the windmills. On this occasion, unlike the battle with the sheep, in which a dust cloud at first impairs his vision, Don Quixote sees and perceives the windmills from the start, yet he still cannot perceive the truth. He says, “Look over there, friend Sancho Panza, where more than thirty monstrous giants appear” (Cervantes 68). Don Quixote’s command to “look,” and his insistence that the giants “appear” must mean that he can see them. He recognizes the sight of the windmills inaccurately as giants, and interprets them faithfully as such. As with the sheep adventure, when, after the battle, Sancho tells Don Quixote that his perception was wrong, Don Quixote’s perception changes from inaccurate recognition and faithful interpretation to accurate recognition and unfaithful interpretation. Sancho says, “Didn’t I tell your worship to look what you were doing, for they were only windmills?” (Cervantes 69). Once again, Don Quixote claims that an enchanter, the “sage Friston…turned those giants into windmills” (Cervantes 69).
The character Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also perceives elements of the world differently from other characters. Like Don Quixote, the mode of Lily’s perception is vision. Unlike Don Quixote, whose recognition of the truth changes in the sheep scene, Lily’s recognition of the truth that, for instance, Mrs. Ramsay is Mrs. Ramsay, remains constant. Also unlike Don Quixote, whose interpretation takes the forms of words, as in his lengthy enumeration of the “knights” in the approaching “armies,” and of action, as in his attack of the sheep, Lily’s interpretation takes the forms of thought and of representation in paint. Lily attempts, with little success, to perceive, and, thus to understand Mrs. Ramsay in all her complexity as a woman and as a human being. She uses language of “seeing” or of “vision” in order to express her frustration at such a daunting task: “Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman, she thought” (Woolf 198). The interpretation for such attempts at perceiving the wholeness of people takes the form of thought. Lily’s primary form of interpretation, however, is represented in her painting.
The scene Lily paints from the Ramsay’s summer home in the Hebrides includes Mrs. Ramsay reading to James. Lily recognizes the form of Mrs. Ramsay to be, in fact, Mrs. Ramsay. She skews her interpretation in paint by representing Mrs. Ramsay and James as a purple triangle. It cannot be said, as it could for Don Quixote, that because her interpretation represents Mrs. Ramsay differently than she sees them, that Lily does not perceive the truth. There is a crucial difference in these characters’ interpretations. Don Quixote’s belief, for example, that an enchanter has changed armies into sheep belies his recognition. Although he recognizes the truth that the hordes appear as sheep, his interpretation that they are, in fact, warriors negates his recognition. Lily’s artistic interpretation of Mrs. Ramsay as a triangle does not negate her recognition of Mrs. Ramsay as herself. Lily does not think that Mrs. Ramsay and James are actually a purple triangle. She tells Mr. Bankes that “she had made no attempt at likeness” (Woolf 52) in depicting Mrs. Ramsay and James as a triangular shape.
Lily’s self-consciousness of interpretation, her deliberate modification of perception, marks another crucial difference between herself and Don Quixote: that Lily actively modifies her vision in order to represent truth, whereas Don Quixote modifies his vision in order to represent fantasy. Although Cervantes does not give the reader as extensive a view of the minds of characters as Woolf does, he does write that “everything that he [Don Quixote] said, thought, or did was influenced by his fantasies” (Cervantes 134). As Don Quixote is enumerating the knights in the approaching hordes, even before he can perceive them, the narrator explains that he is “carried away by his strangely deluded imagination” (Cervantes 136). In this way, Don Quixote’s perception, and the modification of that perception in response to Sancho’s objections, for instance is in support of a fantasy, a delusion. He refuses to perceive truth.
Lily, on the other hand, is forever in search of perceiving truth. This is, perhaps, the most vital difference between her perception of the world and Don Quixote’s. Her goal in changing the composition of her picture, or in representing figures abstractly is not to support a fantasy or a delusion, but, rather, to represent her “vision” or “picture.” As she attempts to explain her painting to Mr. Bankes on page 53, she is described as “becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children her picture” (Woolf). Seeing this picture, this vision, is not easy for Lily; she must strain in order to see the truth of it. As she struggles to see it, “always something…thrust through, snubbed her, waked her, required and got in the end an effort of attention, so that the vision must be continually remade” (Woolf 181). Like Don Quixote, Lily changes her perception. Unlike Don Quixote, the changes Lily makes allow her to better perceive the truth. She modifies her interpretation of the world, which she recognizes accurately, according to her sense of her changing vision. She tells Mr. Bankes thatIt was a question, she remembered, how to connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left. She might do it by bringing the line of the branch across so; or break the vacancy in the foreground by an object (James perhaps) so. But the danger was that by doing that the unity of the whole might be broken.Woolf p.53
Thus, her interpretation (represented by the painting) must be altered in order to support her vision. These changes in interpretation never negate her recognition of reality, however, and, thus, her perception always supports truth. She enacts changes in visual composition, favoring unity, balance of left and right, and balance of foreground and background. On the last page of the novel, when she sees “it clear for a second,” she paints a single line in the center of the painting (Woolf 209). The novel goes on to say “It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought,…I have had my vision” (Woolf 209). With that single line, Lily finishes her painting and is finally able to perceive the truth of her vision. Her long struggle to see and represent her vision is completed.
Tracking the recognition and interpretation of Don Quixote is rather more challenging than tracking Lily’s, though, because Cervantes gives us very few glimpses into Don Quixote’s mind. The progress of Lily’s painting, as she struggles to “see” her vision and then to complete the painting takes place almost exclusively on a mental plane. The process of perception and its relation to truth are dependent upon the thought processes of accurate recognition and faithful interpretation. These are psychological processes. The reader sees very little of Don Quixote’s psychology, and must instead rely on his words and actions, in effect, the residue and result of mental processes, in order to track his changes in perception. In Woolf, by contrast, the reader sees into Lily’s thoughts, and consequently can see the actual moment of recognition and the moment of interpretation.
Both characters, in the end, perceive some form of truth. Lily perceives it through active pursuit of her vision and, finally, through completion of her painting. Don Quixote perceives truth in the end when his madness abates and the goal of his perception is no longer to support a fantasy. In either case, however, the perception of truth leads the character to a better understanding of the world, and marks the completion of a journey. Don Quixote perceives truth and ends his errantry. Lily perceives truth and finishes her painting. The process of perception is the journey. Truth is the end.
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