Staring Into The Sun
The leash pulls taut, slacks, then pulls taut again as my fawn pug Whitney explores the world at ankle level. Though she spends a lot of her time in my arms, carried in an embrace resembling a full-frontal papoose—rows of doggie nipples leading the way—she is in her world at the end of this retracting leash. She masters her world, zooming from bush to tree, sniffing and stopping—prancing. We round the lake at the time before dusk, about thirty-eight minutes before the sun finally sets, when the sky is still bluish, but hinting at the summer pink it likes to show off this time of year. Joggers and walkers and poets and readers pass at varying speeds; other dogs pant hello.
With one good eye—she was born with a cataract that has left her half blind—she leads me, then follows, then walks in my shadow. She doesn’t know she’s half blind; we’ve never told her and we whisper about it in her presence when friends ask about the cloudy haze that so obviously obscures her sight. She doesn’t need to know. She cannot know.
At ankle level, with a flat nose and a long tongue, half-sight is plenty good. With four paws touching the firmament, she can feel at least twice as much as I do—even when I’m barefoot. She hears songs of creatures that I’ve never seen, she hears songs that I’ve never heard. She doesn’t need to know she can’t see in three dimensions. She tastes and smells and hears and feels her world. If she could, she would pity me. She cannot.
Conventional wisdom, the wisdom of the third-grade teacher—conventions epitomized—foretells blindness following sun staring. The one or two times in a lifetime when one personally witnesses—actively views— a solar eclipse presents increased occasion for this cause and effect to occur. For some reason, and no one was ever able to satisfactorily explain why, it is far worse to stare at a sun obscured by the moon than it is to stare at a whole sun: conventional wisdom.
“How do we know it’s actually happening,” I would ask with a third-grader’s innocence, “if we can’t see it?” Certainly, there are those who have seen this happen, otherwise how would we know about it? Always afraid that it would be the last thing I would see, I have blindly followed the convention. I intend to see the next one, if it is the last thing I see.
Given that the other activities that I’ve taken pleasure in and mastered since I was told that they would certainly cause blindness have not done so, my trust for the conventional wisdom—as told me by Ms. Mary T. Pengov (my third-grade teacher), my grandmother, and various other women—regarding the causes of blindness has lost its preventive power. That women seem to be the noted authorities and purveyors of conventional wisdom on blindness and its causes is probably merely coincidence. Despite the probability of coincidence, part of me wants to believe that women have some vested interest in the mythmaking surrounding male blindness. The other part of me believes that, without a glimmer of a doubt, women—such as third-grade teachers, grandmothers, and aunts—maintain their tenuous control over the male gender through such myths. The conventions and myths perpetuated by generations of women seem to maintain this control at least as effectively as breasts and thighs: Southern fried chicken, myths of Homeric quality—an odyssey of blindness.
As Whitney encounters and pulls toward some congregated ducks, I decide to stare at the sun. This is a beginner’s exercise, I posit, because it is a setting sun and not a high-in-the-sky two o’clock sun. Nonetheless, I stare. Whitney wraps her leash around my ankles as I stand in defiance of conventional wisdom, in defiance of the power of battered and deep-fat-fried drums and wings. Dancing spots of light form around the sun’s corona. The purpling sky is flecked with these dots errata. Cooling me from over the lake, a breeze picks up my scorching eyelashes and tickles my face. I look away to the trees that canopy the path around me. The light spots continue to dance and then they are gone. Whitney is now lying at my feet, her tail curled, her tongue tasting the air around her. The ducks are back in the water. I am not blind.
That I can still see is both joy and disappointment. I was not ready to feel my way home, or to trust Whitney, whose frighteningly zig-zagged trail may have just as easily taken me to a duck’s nest as my own. I was not, though I took the calculated chance, ready to give myself over to blindness. I was not ready to be blind, or even half-blind. I was disappointed in only the way disappointment can be mixed with relief in knowing that the cause of disappointment would have ultimately been unwished for in its immediate aftermath.
My first relationship with blindness took the shape of television’s Little House on the Prairie. Over the course of a couple episodes, Laura’s big sister lost her sight. Mary’s new handicap was never treated as such. She continued to teach and to love her family, and later fell in love with a blind man who never knew just how beautiful she was. Mary Ingalls grew from a blind girl into a blind woman and became a blind wife and a blind mother and eventually blind was just another attribute like two-legged, bonnet-wearing, or blue-eyed. There was something about her new countenance. It was more than essential womanness; she appeared to experience feelings and say words, to be aware of sounds and sense emotion with an inscrutable intensity. Even in reruns and in syndication, Mary Ingalls emoted in a way that I coveted.
Blindness meant more than a new way of seeing; it meant a whole different way of sharing. Blindness was affective. I grasped my grandmother’s hand as she walked down the stairs from her bedroom to the living room. She was breaking in yet another set of glasses. The prescriptions, she explained, had gotten stronger and stronger over the years. Glasses were her pharmakon: each stronger prescription further weakened the muscles in her eyes—like going to the auto mechanic for a fourteen-hundred-thirty-seven-dollar oil change. She could no longer see well enough to drive. Walking down those treacherous steps, I could feel my grandmother, whose hand I held for support only, squeezing with different levels of pressure. Without saying a word, she sped me up and slowed me down tenderly with silent hands. She emoted differently. “Never look straight into the sun,” she’d say intently at the bottom of the stairs, a stream of non sequiturs following closely as her crooked finger pointed out the bay window.
One year for Christmas, I received a telescope. “Look into the night sky,” the instructions read. Mrs. Pengov explained that the stars were like suns for other worlds. They were not actually smaller than the sun or the moon, only farther away: more ungraspable. Dotted upon the black canvas of night, cradled by a moon’s sliver, other worlds and galaxies invaded my eyes; other worlds and galaxies consumed my mind. My grandmother’s explanation of the stars was far more spiritual: “They are all of the people who have died and gone to Heaven.” Where science met spirit, my eyes, my mind, and my soul wandered. Why, if I gaze upon our sun, will it make me blind? Why, if I gaze upon the face of God will it make me blind? What of others’ suns? What of others’ gods? Night after night, I gazed upon those other faces and souls; I brought those far-off suns closer. They were all yet ungraspable. The spots I saw were there and I could see them without fear of blindness and yet I yearned for some plenary tangibility, some kind of physical consequence to prove my galactic study.
The image of a telescope is relayed upside-down and flipped by a mirror just before it meets the eye. While the image, then, is brought closer, the translations of that image are richly intermediated and ultimately deceptive. Deceptive, of course, only if the intermediation happens transparently, unrecognized, which—to the eye of a third grader—is certainly the case. Doubtless, I was fooled. It is improbable that I ever saw through that telescope what I thought I saw. Isn’t that blindness: not seeing?
Annie Dillard wrote an essay about "Seeing." In addition to the personal anecdotes that she relayed regarding the process of seeing, she told of a study that she’d read in which formerly blind people—people who had never seen—were, through the miracle of some scientific-medical procedure, given their sight. The study was absorbing because of the troubles that these newly sighted humans encountered. They could not discern borders between objects. Because these individuals had not been trained in the skill of seeing, they had never learned how to perceive colors, shadows, or depth. The language and signification implicit in the process of seeing had gone unrealized. Though the world for these people had not changed, their ability to perceive it certainly had. As if wandering up the stairs of the tower of Babel, most of these failed seers revert back to their other senses rather than undertake the cognition of a new sensibility. “Going blind,” we might infer, may not be very different from “going sighted.” The underlying problem, it seems, is that of translation: from one set of signs and symbols, in their apprehension, to another.
My eighty year-old grandfather joked last Thanksgiving, after my grandmother underwent just such an operation, that, “Cataract removal surgery is responsible for eighty percent of divorces over the age of sixty.” My grandfather doesn’t tell jokes often. My grandmother instinctively rolls her—still myopic—newly cloudless eyes. My grandfather’s deep and congested voice is punctuated by loud and gargling coughs well-timed to join our respectful chuckles. What my grandparents see in each other has little to do with what their eyes relay as pictures of each other. What my grandparents see in each other are the beauties of their respective pasts. What they see in each other is jointly lived sacrifice. What they see in each other is the need for the familiar sounds, smells, and routines that they have intertwined together in this—the overlapping dusks of their lives. My grandparents are the twenty percent.
Watching their interplay, after years together, is a study in the senses. My grandparents' lives are not haphazardly intertwined. They not only rely on each other for companionship, but they are each other’s eyes and ears. They are each other’s tastes and scents. They are touch. As younger couples can, early in a relationship, complete each other’s verbalizations, my grandparents share their senses knowing what the other is seeing and apprehending independent of the seemingly separate bodies they inhabit. They are society in microcosm. They see and are seen; simultaneously subject and object. They have melded into a body held in a house that my grandfather built with his own hands and that my grandmother has kept alive through her force of will.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault develops a theory of the growth of civilization which is predicated upon seeing. The panopticon, as Foucault describes it, is a model in which the strictures of a society's norms and relationships are upheld through the power derived by surveillance. With one eye, a million eyes focus. The eyes both control and liberate. With a million eyes, the one eye focuses. The eyes of civilization allow my grandparents to see each other and to see the world around them in the same way. They share their senses and their souls. With their own eyes they see deeper into themselves in this political and sentimental relationship.
How can this collective eye be reconciled, then, with the freedoms and liberation of the personal eye? Indeed the most base instinct of all animals, humans included, is the survival of the self, not the herd. The most basic tenet of consciousness is the recognition of the I. When a child first sees himself in a mirror and develops a recognition that that creature at which he is staring is not his mother or father, that the being into whose own eyes he is looking has gone from other to self, that is when the I and the eye merge. That humans consciously interact with themselves through a lens of otherness is what separates them from the other animals whose selfishness is instinctive.
When she was a puppy, Whitney saw—in the reflection of a full-length sliding-glass door—herself. She barked and howled and reached out to touch it with her little black-socked puppy paw. She studied the image and finally realized that the creature on the other side of that glass was untenable and lost interest. She and her reflection parted and it is likely that she quickly forgot about that other scentless dog. The same incident has played out a few times since then—a scene in which she spasmodically greets her reflection with the same tenacity with which she greets other four-legged creatures. She did not know that she was barking at herself. It is likely that she does not know that she, too, is an I to herself. Her world—seen hazily through those cataract-covered lenses—is defined by all of the things that are around her: her bed and her daddies, the couch and the windows. She does not place herself in a context of what she sees, she merely exists within a space contented by food and kisses and belly rubs. Certainly, and this is well studied and documented, she senses smells and tastes differently and more richly than her daddies do; there are sounds that we will never hear with her. She will never act in a conscious and self-liberated way toward these sensory intrusions; the best she will ever muster is the ability to react to a series of naturally recurring stimuli.
Gabe sees sounds. He is a twenty-two-year-old DJ friend who has come of age in the digital world. He is a synesthete. He likes to be called a “producer” nowadays, which means he creates mixes of existing songs that are to be played by DJs. This is not dissimilar to the difference between a theatrical producer and director: scene setter versus front lines: forest and trees. Recently, a “production” of his was featured on a Britney Spears album.
When I was earning B minuses in penmanship—words as empty vessels—in first grade, Gabe was glinting his father's eyes. He mastered a keyboard before he could "write." His and my interactions with words markedly differ. Our perceptions diverge; our abilities to assimilate data into personal contexts deviate in drastic ways.
This digital world has allowed—perhaps precipitated—the convolution of human senses. The ability for anyone anywhere to access information, to convert and appropriate that information—more generically, data—into different forms, and then to redund that data into codes for others to appropriate and convert is having a physical effect on the human body. No longer can humans be contented to recognize the I: meld the sense of self through the searing realization of mirror imagery. Once the eyes have done their work to dislocate and decenter a human from his surroundings, the conscious being looks for other uses for the I. I asked Gabe to describe what he sees when he hears certain sounds, mostly dealing with music. He sees the causes of sounds, the representations of a tire screeching or a horn exclaiming. He sees these causes in colors and lines and pulsating orbs. These symbols constitute another way of hearing and of seeing that the new language and discourse of digitization makes possible.
How, though, is Gabe's ability to see sound any different from the phenomena captured by Picasso in his early Cubist renderings? The vision of things as they appear to one set of eyes is not always the same for all eyes. While we can never know if Picasso's work was an experiment in possibility and simultaneity or an accurate rendering of what he saw through his own eyes, we can marvel at the reality that we can see it and wonder. Were the Damoiselles d' Avignon occurring to Picasso through an abstract context in which they were merely seen, or were they converted through some synaptic miracle in Picasso's mind that made them a part of him? How did Picasso see? What did he see? Did he see sounds—are those his reds and blues? Are those his colors and triangles and distorted symmetries? Picasso and Gabe have different eyes. Perhaps, on second sight, they have the same eyes.
So, what of this panopticon? Surveillance is a unitary process meant to weed out these errant eyes. In the digital age, then, when the eyes can hear, the panopticon will be turned upon itself and re-defined. The interface becomes the unifying feature of the discipline model: the shared eyes of my grandparents, consciously eschewed in favor of the separate eyes of Picasso and Gabe; they meld along the lines of individuality. The limits of our bodies are no longer defined by those things that we see as separate from ourselves. The shadows and limits of the language of sight begin to seek out the unity that is at once convoluted. We, concurrently, see ourselves as distinct from a politick that we have created and yearn for the connections from which to escape.
This paradox of sight takes shape—is made real—through the interface of the computer. Watching fingers dance upon a keyboard in the periphery of the data that appears on a screen is not so different from a visit to New York City or perhaps Las Vegas. What we see is intimately intertwined with what we feel and hear and smell.
Feel, here, in the symptomatic sense: like romance. We like the feeling of romance. Romance intoxicates: it surpasses the senses in such a way that the senses are instantly cognized by the body and translated into immediacy. A tangential narrative conducted in the moment can be described only in terms of senses. When a new set of symbols that link the increasingly natural senses of taste and sight and orality, when we can describe a bright sound or a garnet feeling, we are given the tools to expand consciousness nearly exponentially. With a new discourse comes the liberation that Picasso anticipated. The power of the interface is transforming the eyes and the skill of seeing. New York City and Las Vegas are early incarnations of this transformation of the human body. The panopticon turns upon itself and liberates the senses. Indeed, the cities take on their own souls with their own senses and their own discourses and languages. They are, themselves, seers and seen. My grandmother never warned me not to stare into the neon lights. I was never given the opportunity to hear the neon lights until I visited the City. Other sins and blindness-causing activities certainly abound unseen.
Intimately linked with the progression of civilization has been the progression of language systems from the oral to the written. Walter J. Ong, in Orality and Literacy, posits that, "Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well." The current movement is transforming all of the senses, indeed it is breathing life into our context: our cities and our space.
The eyes of a city are myriad. They are connected and disconnected. They are individual and they are one. The eyes gaze upon their objects and beg to be seen. Blue eyes and brown eyes and green eyes, the hazel eye, and the occasional gray eye surrounded by eye shadows and lashes seeking themselves in shiny storefronts and mirrored glasses: in exchange for blindness.
The nature of blindness, like sight itself, has been transformed. Again, the interface, even in the absence of its visibility, has changed the songs of Homer into the precise and gripping words of Borges. In a pre-literate age, the exactness of historical fact played a secondary role to the melodic ebb and flow of epic. When finally captured by the written word, the Homeric tale was stultified by linear narrative force. In a postmodern—ambitiously post-literate—sense, Borges has undertaken the translation of the written word into that same melody. Surrounded by a million books in the Argentine National Library, the blind seer worked to manipulate the signs and symbols of a written language that was rapidly escaping him. Homer, surrounded by an aurality, limited by the cluttered memories of Heroic Man battling fallible gods, feeling his way from one performance to the next, spoke to his world from behind a veil of limitation. He could not see the grimaces of his audience, the pained pity with which they greeted his handicap. He was not surrounded by a library of ideas, including his own, which were frozen by the eyes which he could not see freezing him. For Homer, there was but one language. For Borges, that same language was one of many. The nature of not seeing the word has changed along with the word and the depth of that word's meaning. Indeed, the whole of human knowledge that evaded Homer's eye was a much smaller set of data than that which Borges missed.
I think I know: blindness is a sense as much as sight. The I comes from a collective distance from the self; from an individualized proximity to the politick. If we are liberated from the eye, we can join this paradox. We may join in this consciously and with full knowledge of our own internalized surveillance. Hence, I stare at the sun and seek out the eclipse. I shall refuse the device that Mrs. Pengov insisted we build, a device that provides an evidentiary narrative of the moon's passage before the Sun. Gabe will hear this passage, and evidence: a factual post representation, uncluttered by the millennia of linear training. Picasso saw this eclipse; he may have caused it. I shall covet Mary Ingalls’ affective blindness to it. Homer may have named it and my grandparents shall never know it—they will not know it together. Whitney will either eat or sleep or play through it and I:
I will stare into the sun with unabashed and sinful pride. I will consciously practice my blindness with the same efficacy as I instinctively practice my sight. I will sing the lyrics that I smell and taste. I will taste the words. I will stare into the sun as though it were a mirror and as though it were a library and wait patiently for the liberating darkness for which I'm sure I will ultimately un-wish.
Read more of my poetry, essays, and stories at Momentitiousness.com
Read more of my poetry, essays, and stories at Momentitiousness.com