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What do we see when we can only see ourselves?

Anais Nin once said that we don’t see things as they are, but as we are. And in his book The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung-Chul Han said that we, postmodern humans, have lost the ability of “taking time” in front of objects, including, for example, works of art, which we simply ignore.

To that combination of not seeing things, but only seeing ourselves (according to the color of the glasses we wear) and not taking time with things, I would like to add a third element: hedonistic narcissism, that is, not only no recognizing things as such, but assuming reality is there to give us pleasure, even ephemeral one. 

A few weeks ago, during a visit to a well-known museum, I witnessed all those three elements in action. I arrived early enough to the museum to be among the first ones to enter. And, as soon as the doors were open, I unexpectedly found myself among a stampede of people chaotically running to see a certain work of art.

I didn’t run. Running is not one of my attributes and I will never run inside a museum. But I walked as fast as I could. Then, when I arrived at the masterpiece, I saw exactly what Han described: people were not taking time to see it.

Instead of looking at the art, most, if not all, of those in the stampede were spending just a couple of seconds to take a selfie, always making a “V” sign with their hands, in front of the work of art, even covering the art with their faces.

It was clearly an unspoken statement saying to the museum something like, “There nothing beautiful or important here except me, and I am the only one worthy of a picture”. Or, in other words, “If I am not in the picture, there is no reason to take the picture”. 

Only seconds after taking the selfie, many of those postmodern humans were already somewhere else, finding a different place – a bridge, painting, sculpture, church, monument, or something else – to repeat the ritual of inserting their images in front of the unseen thing, imposing their narcissism upon their reality. 

Perhaps they were all making the “V” sign, usually associated with victory, to show they were victorious over history, cultural, art, creativity, beauty, and spirituality. 

Or perhaps the “V” sign should be understood as an indication of peace, perhaps an internal peace achieved only for a few seconds when we pretend to cover reality with a selfie, that is, when we don’t see things (Nin) and we don’t take time with things (Han). Then, looking for more peace, we run to another place for a new selfie.  

That’s what people were doing: running from one place to another looking for “selfie spots”, never stopping and collecting images faster than a bee collecting pollen. But at least the bee is working for the benefit of the hive, without posting images in social media to calm and appease a fragile ego. 

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