The Irish Savant’s Problem

Julian Bell

  • Blindness and Enlightenment: An Essay by Kate Tunstall
    Continuum, 238 pp, £17.99, August 2011, ISBN 978 1 4411 1932 2

That, I suppose, must be my mother’s eye, up there on the monitor: that bobbing dark yolk, fringed by wriggling capillaries and the stainless steel of the speculum that holds her lids apart. I’m down the corridor from the operating theatre, waiting to drive her home with her patch and new lens. On the live action screen, I watch a scalpel take aim at her pupil and pierce the cornea at a point on its circumference, opening up for the instruments that will detach the cataracted lens, scrunch it to pieces and hoover the pieces away. After that moment when the metal first nicks the jelly, it’s all commandingly impersonal. The servicing of ‘the soft machine’ (as William Burroughs called the body) proceeds to anaesthetising muzak, and tomorrow or the next day my mother, only a little sore, will start to see the world again through her new synthetic lens. For me, there will just be a faint twinge, thinking how this keyhole to the soul, so deep and so watchful, can abruptly translate into a probed gelatinous mass, quivering like an egg as it fries.

Do they hook the monitor to the operating theatre to educate, or overawe, or amuse us, or what? Well, ‘the Eye, that most amazing, that stupendous, that comprehending, that incomprehensible, that miraculous Organ’, is always going to hold our attention: our psychology dictates as much. I don’t suppose the premises involved in this peculiar form of ‘theatre’ were either more or less confused in 18th-century Europe, when townspeople flocked to watch the oculists perform. John Taylor was the superstar of sight restoration, taking his show around England, Germany, Italy and France: many purblind celebrities would be subjected to his oratorical preambles (I quote from one above) before the scalpel plunged in. How far did Taylor’s ‘couching’ (i.e. stuffing the cataract away within the eyeball) serve the needs of the sight-deficient? It’s said that he managed to blind first Bach and then Handel. Even so, his reputation stands higher than that of Joseph Hillmer of Berlin, who travelled around pulling in patients with the promise of a treatment ‘that works in minutes’. A few days after he left town, a 19th-century historian reports, ‘almost all of them were inoperably blind.’ His surgery was performed in the days before anaesthetics. ‘When one woman shrieked in pain, he gave her a clip round the ear, when he already had his needle in her eye.’

Between Hillmer and the contemporary eye clinic stands the Enlightenment. By any construal, it stands for the development of a public arena, one in which impostors with presumptions to authority could be critically examined. The Enlightenment also implies progressive practical amelioration, delivering eventually anaesthetics and acrylic lenses. Equally, we might refer to it for the ancestry of that live-action monitor, that watching-machine. ‘The Enlightenment and the Revolution it helped spawn,’ Martin Jay wrote in Downcast Eyes, his historical survey of the rhetoric of vision, may ‘be justly said to have expressed that privileging of sight so often taken to characterise the modern era in general.’ By ‘so often taken’, he is referring to the impact of Foucault’s pessimistic interpretive schemes, which ascribe to the 18th century a belief in ‘bringing to light’ and ‘the open naivety of the gaze’ that would eventually deliver systems of surveillance. But immediately Jay qualifies that reading. Turn to some of the era’s seminal texts, he writes, and you see that such ‘visual primacy was by no means without its complications’. And he refers us to Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who Can See, written in 1749.

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