There is no greater pleasure on a stormy winter evening than to sit in a comfortable chair in front of the fire with a stack of seed catalogs, the way a sensualist settles down with his Playboy and Penthouse.
Look at this unblemished skin, radiant as if lit from within (I’m talking about a tomato). Or here, where the low angle of the light illuminates a fine fuzz of downy hairs disappearing around a plump curve into the shadow of an alluring cleft (I’m talking about a peach). And look at this turgid morsel of luminous pinkness; one could fairly lick the page (I’m talking about a raspberry).
Such entertainment seems harmless enough, except that there is a subtle risk: the unthoughtful reader might come to believe that the flawless image on the glossy page is genuine.
The perfect tomato of the seed catalog, and the digitally primped Miss January, are fictions, so convincingly presented that one might believe in their reality. And believing that, one then looks around at the tomato on the table and the woman sitting in front of it, and it seems that they fall short.
In this view, every tomato, irregular and eccentric, scarred by the vicissitudes of its history, is a failed attempt at the tomato of the seed catalog, in the same way that a woman who looks interesting is a failed attempt at Miss January. One imagines the judges holding the scorecards over their heads: 7.8, 7.2, 7.6, out of a possible 10.
A customer who, having been seduced by the glossy page, holds this view of the world is frustrating to the farmer. Such a one looks contemptuously at the farmer’s offering of tomatoes, deigns to run his thumbnail across one, and then walks off without buying anything. Perhaps he is a tax auditor who believes that the word “tomato” written on a scrap of paper is more real than the tomato itself. After he marries Miss January, the two of them can select perfect tomatoes directly from the video screen.
The notion of a perfect tomato is part of the centuries-old dispute between Platonism and pluralism. Plato suggested that our perceptions are like shadows cast by a flickering fire onto the rough walls of a cave, and that there exists an object of perfection, whose shadows we observe, that we can never quite apprehend. In the opposing camp of the pluralists, the best-known champion is William James, a man so wise that he could knowingly hold contradictory views simultaneously and still sleep well at night. His book A Pluralistic Universe was published in 1908, at a time when pluralism had the advantage. For at that time, the technology of reproducing images was so poor that much was left to the imagination, and the farmer, guided by a crude copperplate engraving in his seed catalog, likely felt that most any tomato came close enough.
Now Platonism has the upper hand. The proliferation of digitally tuned electronic images is unstoppable — one can hardly escape them — and a generation is coming of age that has known the glossy perfection of the electronic universe since infancy. Reality, by comparison, is a bit tattered, threadbare in places, and here and there misshapen and miscolored, and off the beat and out of tune. To those of us surviving pluralists, the irregularity of reality is a treasured and endearing trait. We look with uneasiness at the neoplatonists, who, like the neoconservatives in politics, are an alien and scary race.
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