Golf Through the Looking Glass

A Layman’s Reflections on The Art of Seeing

Peter Pallotta

March, 2012

 In the early 1940s, Aldous Huxley wrote in “The Art of Seeing” of how he had improved his chronically poor eyesight through the Bates Method — a controversial approach based on the belief that seeing was as much a psychological phenomenon as it was a physical act, and that better vision could be achieved not merely by using glasses, but by retraining the mind.

In analyzing this belief system, Huxley — a prolific author and wide-ranging intellectual who was soon to write “The Perennial Philosophy”, a seminal mid-century study of mysticism and spirituality — used language borrowed from philosopher C.D. Broad to describe the process of visual perception, a process that, in his view, was not at all identical to seeing.

Huxley argued that the eyes (and related nervous system) don’t actually see, but instead merely sense; that it is the mind that perceives what is being sensed; that the mind’s ability to accurately perceive what is sensed is related to an individual’s personal experiences, to his/her own memories; and that clear seeing — or better vision — is the result of both accurate sensing (the physical act) and correct perceiving (the psychological phenomenon).

The core concept involved here is one that Huxley had explored before and would return to again, namely, that knowing (or seeing) is closely tied to the character of the knower, to his/her personal experiences.  In his introduction to “The Perennial Philosophy” Huxley wrote: “Knowledge is a function of being; when there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing”.  In the spiritual context (the  philosophia perennis): only those who become pure in heart and humble in spirit are capable of knowing, in its fullness, the one Reality; only those who prepare themselves faithfully can experience the divine Ground.

Huxley’s contemporary, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, once put it more simply: “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing, but it also depends on what sort of person you are.”  Lewis and Huxley were very different men, far apart temperamentally and in their metaphysical beliefs, but they would have agreed that “what sort of person you are” was largely dependent on what you had made of yourself — on the character you had chosen to forge through a lifetime of thoughts, decisions and deeds.  In this sense at least, the universe is not mocked: just as one sows, so shall he reap.

Turning to the realm of art and creativity (and indeed, to the art-craft that is golf course architecture), the relationship between personal character and artistic vision — between who you are and what you are able to see — again presents itself.  Throughout history, that relationship has been made manifest in the inspiring works that great artists have left behind.  It is a relationship (and a creative process) well illustrated in the story of Michelangelo’s “David”, the monumental sculpture this genius of the Renaissance had chipped out of a ruined piece of marble that others — less able to see — had rejected as useless.

In Michelangelo’s words: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action.  I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes, as mine already see it.”  There is perhaps no better description of the creator as Conduit: he skillfully shapes a (subjective) vision into an (objective) fact — for only then can it be shared with the rest of human kind.

This is a special kind of seeing, obviously: to use Huxley’s language, it is a rare and near perfect marriage of the physical act of sensing and the psychological (even spiritual) phenomenon of perception.  And this special kind of seeing has found its expression as well in the creation of the world’s great golf courses, i.e. in the process by which golf course architects find, discover, intuit — in short, see — golf holes and a series of interconnected golf holes (a routing) already contained in the natural site, pre-existing there in the land itself in its original state.  To again borrow from Michelangelo: a great architect is able to set free the golf course — that lovely apparition — once imprisoned in the land.

For decades, golf course architects have been judged in large part by this very ability, i.e. the ability to visualize and then make manifest an 18 hole routing that is as well suited to the demands of the game as it is to the character (and properties) of the land, i.e. of Nature itself.  Of course, in terms of honouring the land, ability is not enough; there must also be a genuine willingness to treat the character and properties of Nature with respect.

On that subject, one of the most literate (and philosophically-inclined) of all Golden Age architects, Max Behr, had much to say.  In 1927 he wrote: “Hence, it is fundamental principle that we must search for; that basic principle of all which, in the degree it is apprehended, points the way to beauty and order, to the law of Nature.  It is the consummation of this in design that alone can give to outward expression an inward meaning…Golf architecture is not an art of representation; it is, essentially, an art of interpretation.  And an interpretative art allows freedom to fancy only through obedience to the law which dominates its medium, a law that lies outside ourselves.  The medium of the artist is paint, and he becomes its master; but the medium of the golf architect is the surface of the earth over which the forces of Nature alone are master.”  If Behr had lived in 1st century China instead of 20th century America, he would have likely written not of Nature, but of Tao — i.e. the path, the principle, the underlying order of the universe.