White angels & black devils

The Philosopher Developer

January 01, 2011

First of all: Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had a joyful time last night—but not too joyful, of course. I myself attended a party where the man who owned the house was showing everyone in attendance this M.C. Escher painting and asking him to name the first thing he saw:

Who doesn't see the devils first?
Who doesn't see the devils first?

Basically, everyone said "bats" (apparently they're devils?). The man would then pull the picture away, say "Now look between the bats," and show the picture again. On the second look, viewers would see the angels.

My big issue with this was: is this really so surprising? In our culture, by default white is a "background" color; just think of every single book you've ever read. The pages are white; the text (the content) is black. Or consider any black & white picture. Is white not virtually always the background, with black representing the content? Our eyes are drawn—whether by nature or simply by convention, I can't say, but drawn nevertheless—to the black part of a black & white visual.

So I, personally, didn't think it was that surprising. But I think it's a really cool picture, just like everything else by Escher; and I'm glad the guy at the party was showing it to people.

That's not what I wanted to write about today at all, though. Perhaps I'll write another post soon to discuss what I originally meant to discuss in this one: an interesting realization I recently had, and how it relates to my New Year's resolution.