So, puss, I shall know you another time

Peter Campbell

  • The World through Blunted Sight by Patrick Trevor-Roper
    Allen Lane, 207 pp, £16.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9006 6
  • Visual Fact over Verbal Fiction by Carl Goldstein
    Cambridge, 244 pp, £40.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 521 34331 3
  • Hockney on Photography: Conversations with Paul Joyce
    Cape, 192 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 224 02484 1
  • Portrait of David Hockney by Peter Webb
    Chatto, £17.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3401 1

Evolution does a wonderful job on eyes. In the matter of seeing in dim light, for example, we are not just supplied with a good tool, but with the very best the system – the rest of the body – will allow. A recent paper in Nature describes work on human and toad perception. Humans are very sensitive – a dozen or so photons are enough to trigger dim sensation; but toads will make a strike at a moving target at light levels where humans can see nothing. The best explanation of the difference between ourselves and toads seems to lie in our higher blood temperature. This sets the level of random change in the photoreceptor molecules – the level of background ‘noise’ – which in turn determines the level below which seeing is impossible.

An imaging system with a specification as advanced as this is intolerant. If the ratio of arm length to height varies by a few per cent nothing very serious follows, but an eyeball which is a little too long prevents the focusing of distant objects and one which is a little too short makes close ones blurred. Short and long sight are the first disabilities which Patrick Trevor-Roper discusses in The World through Blunted Sight, his newly-revised exploration of the effect of eye-defects on personality, art and literature. He endorses T. Rice’s epitomes of short and long-sighted personalities which, made some sixty years ago when the climate was more favourable to psychological determinism, are still cogent, if comical summaries.

The long-sighted, Rice suggests, are likely to be outgoing, socially adept, lazy and inattentive at lessons, caring little for books or fine detail, but also ‘tanned, masculine, very aggressive, and likely to be a devil with the women’. The short-sighted (a sixth of the population) will tend to be swots, to have no taste for the theatre, to be quick to notice error in class (and therefore unpopular), and will get ‘the reputation of a know-it-all and a grind’.

A recurring problem for Trevor-Roper is to determine how far such stereotypes, derived from clinical observation or test statistics, relate to individual character and performance. He is at pains to point out that eyesight never explains everything, and often explains very little, but as pathology gives access to good quantitative evidence – sometimes preserved very precisely in spectacle lenses – of the degree and kind of eye-defect suffered by men and women whose work and character is well-known, it offers a particularly valuable test of medical determinism. Assuming that most people chose spectacles which were reasonably efficient (Trevor-Roper does not say how accurate he believes early prescriptions were) and that not too many heirs followed Mrs Holman Hunt, who changed the concave lenses of her husband’s spectacles for convex ones to conceal his myopia from posterity, a spectrum of close to long-lookers can be drawn up: Hindenburg (+4.5D), Edward Gibbon (+4.37D), Martin Luther (+3.0D), Bismarck (−3.0D), Schopenhauer (−3.5D), Schubert (−3.75D), Beethoven (−4.0D), Gregor Mendel (−4.5D), Marie Antoinette (−4.0D), Goethe (−6.0D). The figures represent dioptres, which express the strength of spectacle lenses: minus when concave to correct myopia and plus when convex for hypermetropia. Very strong glasses for the 3 per cent of the population who are very shortsighted reach – 20D or more. Most spectacle lenses are less than 5D in strength.

Thinking about the differences in individual sensory worlds is salutary. Imagine, for example, the myope’s world, limited to a blurred sphere a few metres across, in which the details of close things are seen in microscopic detail. Trevor-Roper quotes an eye-surgeon saying: ‘But you don’t understand, we myopes are different people.’ Yet the most striking conclusion one draws from this book is that language, and even visual art, disguise more disabilities than they display. That a painter is colour-blind or a writer blind is not immediately evident from their work, and if this is the case at the extremes, other differences (which are, moreover, often corrected by spectacles) should be even harder to identify in writing or painting.

Correction has a long history. With the invention of writing, and even more of printing, presbyopia, the long-sightedness which develops in middle life as the ageing eye has progressive difficulty in focusing became a real disability. Although it is difficult to be certain when cheap glasses first became available on a regular basis, a few bits of evidence – the record of 1151 pairs being imported through Port of London in 1384, for example – suggest that the literate were less often cut off from books by bad sight than by vanity. Pepys only found relief when allowed in old age to use the glasses which had been denied him earlier as ‘unsuitable for a young man’; and in Johnson’s account, the wilful refusal of optical amelioration was the prime cause of Swift’s self-isolation. ‘Having thus excluded conversation, and desisted from study, he had neither business nor amusement; for having by some ridiculous resolution or made vow, determined never to wear spectacles, he could make little use of books in his later years: his ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away, and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness.’ But cases like that of Monet, who preferred a blurred world, suggest that vanity cannot account for all coyness about seeking obvious remedies. There are positive aspects to the creative effort which goes into resolving what is dim, blurred or fragmentary.

Trevor-Roper is careful to isolate logical flaws when looking at the possible effects of ‘blunted’ vision and spontaneous and drug-induced hallucinations on poetic imagery and on form and colour in painting. If the world of the astigmatic is drawn out in a Greco-ish way one would expect the same astigmatic’s drawings automatically to correct the distortion. (El Greco himself was a mannerist – about his eyesight we know nothing.) Trevor-Roper shows that this is partly, but only partly true. A preference among short-sighted poets for descriptions of detail and tactile imagery could doubtless be tested statistically; more usefully, writers with a visual handicap may be stimulated to stretch the connotations of words. Trevor-Roper quotes Tennyson’s ‘the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls’ as an example of short-sighted imagery, and the translation by the blind poet W.H. Coates of a stanza from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound shows how distant visual phenomena can be described in close physical terms:

The point of one white star is quivering still
Deep in the orange light of widening morn


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