Modernism caused a profound shift in the way we use our senses. In his book Myth and Meaning, Lévi-Strauss admitted his initial shock when he discovered that Indian tribesmen were able to see the planet Venus in daylight, with the naked eye-“something that to me would be utterly impossible and incredible.” But he learned from astronomers that it was feasible, and he found ancient accounts of Western navigators with the same ability. “Today we use less and we use more of our mental capacity than we did in the past,” he realized. We have sacrificed perceptual capabilities for other mental abilities-to concentrate on a computer screen while sitting in a cubicle for many hours at a stretch (something those Indians would find “utterly impossible and incredible”), or to shut off multiple levels of awareness as we drive a car in heavy traffic. In other words, we are brought up within a system that teaches us to postpone, defer, and eliminate most incoming sense data in favor of a future reward. We live in a feedback loop of perceptual postponement. For the most part, we are not even aware of what we have lost.
To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings