…there was also the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us.
(Roland Barthes, ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’ from Mythologies)
This week, I was forced, twice, to reconsider perception.
The eyes, it seems, are considered to be the most important of our sensory organs, at least if pejorative terms are anything to go by. ‘Blindness’ is a metaphor for ignorance that outweighs ‘deafness’, and we don’t even have normally-used words in English to describe the loss of smell, taste, or touch.
So when the optometrist told me that she’d be putting drops in my eyes to dilate the pupils at 2 pm on a brutally sunny day (which I had described as pleasantly sunny before walking back out into the light with pupils looking like some early nocturnal mammal), I suddenly realized how dramatically dependent I am on my vision. Stumbling along the street to the coffee shop where I was meant to be marking papers, I had to close one eye and squint through the other (no I wasn’t going to wear the sunglasses in a bag the optometrist gave me. I may have been blinded by the sun, but I wasn’t about to look like an idiot while I did it).
Even through this, what I could see was amazing—an overexposure that beat anything I’ve ever seen through a camera lens—but ultimately unrecordable. Of course this also kept me from being able to mark, write, read, so it was remarkably welcome when a friend dropped by to join me for a while. She left when I was finally able to see ‘properly’ again, and I was relieved to be able to work, but left aware of the potential for my visual reality to be very different from my norm.
I hadn’t yet thought of Monet.
The next day, I couldn’t find my lightweight glasses that I use when I do hot yoga—light enough that I can keep them on for balancing postures, so that I can focus on myself in the mirror. No problem, I figured. I’ll just go without, and set up right by the mirror.
I couldn’t get close enough to the front mirror, so I spent the class looking in the vague direction of my blur in it, but two things happened that I didn’t expect. First, I was able to go deeper into some postures than I normally do—suddenly, I was going past visual boundaries that I had established for myself at some point, letting my muscles lead the way. On the other hand, I was also finding it remarkably hard to balance, and fell over a lot. My visual contact with my body was distorted in both positive and challenging ways.
Now I kept thinking of Monet.
Monet’s vision underwent a remarkable set of shifts throughout his later career. First diagnosed with cataracts in 1908, a series of gradual and then more dramatic changes through until 1922 saw him eventually threatening to give up painting altogether. Unable to distinguish many colours, and eventually shape, much of his work leading up to his cataract surgeries in 1923 became virtually unrecognizable as his own, and he began destroying canvasses, saying that he could ‘no longer make something of beauty’.
Even after the surgeries and his recovery, Monet had to become used first to glasses with cataract lenses, and then to the changed colour perception that was a result of the removal of the yellowed cataracts. It wasn’t until 1925 that he found a suitable shade of tinted glasses to restore his colour perception to what felt normal to him.
Monet’s painting was directly connected to his vision, throughout his career. He was always dedicated to an attempt to reproduce what he saw, instead of what he had been trained to see. We hear this in his advice to a young artist: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field… Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.’
Monet’s ‘Impressionism’ is, in a way, a visual thought-experiment—purposefully eschewing the pre-packaged interpretation even of our sensory data, Monet’s artistic style constantly problematized the conceptualization of sight. His struggle with cataracts in the years before his death in 1926 is simply the last chapter in an artistic life dedicated to unfiltered representation. (Of course, this is no call to some sort of Platonic aesthetics—there are complexities aplenty in the notion of ‘representation’ even here, but let’s leave those for another day.)
It boggles my imagination that the entire history of visual art—and the vast majority of aesthetic theory—simply assumes that eyes (and the rest of our senses) are functioning at the same baseline across all of humanity.
Altered perception is, of course, something that artists have long experimented with, and drug use of various kinds is an easy way to produce recognizable variations. The synaesthetic pianist Bryan Wallick has even tried to reproduce for audiences the display of colours that he sees as he plays. Much like Monet, with a little help from our friends, we are able to challenge our preconceptions of visual and other sensory data.
Yet. How ephemeral is our dedication to the human body as arbiter of meaning and sense. Our experience of our world is wondrous. But it is not universal.
My dilated pupils and naturally blurry vision ironically made this point very clear to me this week. Our tendency towards universalization, towards ignoring those pieces of information that are considered to be ‘irrelevant’—these speak to a generalized function of scripts in human culture that organize our experiences for us. Roland Barthes’ treatment of this in ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’ in his Mythologies speaks to this. Writing of the 1952 murder trial of Gaston Dominici, convicted of the murder of a family of three who had been camping near his land, he examines the way in which the octogenarian Dominici had been constructed as a character in a drama during the trial:
…the Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse…it depicts you as you should be, and not as you are.
Philosophers like Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze emphasize the function of philosophy in transforming our perceptions. The implications of such an approach to the world around us—whether that transformation take place through accident, intentional aesthetic manipulation or philosophical discourse—are far-reaching. The kind of power that accrues to accepted narratives is not often visible.
Sometimes it takes damage to our vision to make hidden things appear.