The Mixed Lens Metaphor
Movie still from “An Andalusian Dog,” 1929, directed by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel.
I recently had a new lens put in my right eye. This was an artificial lens, replacing the original, it having developed one of the least troubling conditions of living long enough, cataracts. The reason I mention it is that the-week wait before the second lens get plopped into place. Out with the old, in with the fabricated. I used to read sci-fi stories about semi-human, semi-robotic composites back when I first started wearing glasses in 1966. Of course, movies and TV have played with that trope a million times, and I still react to the depiction of the Borg that the Star Trek series came up with in its best iteration, “The Next Generation.”
What I know at this point is that Joe Biden, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and United Nations General Secretary António Guterres, speaking at the first U.N. General Assembly since the pandemic, present a contrast to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump that fit with this momentary state of my vision. We get clarity through the speech and actions of the first trio, distortion from the latter pair. The U.N. and attendant national and international governments and organizations form a powerful infrastructure that is like my corrective lens. Over time we have been able to invent and then improve upon the primitive lens that Roger Bacon came up with over 700 years ago to the point where we are now able to replace our own eye lens with an effective facsimile. The primitive governments of the ancient and medieval worlds have been supplanted by the American model of democracy, which the U.N. is designed to distribute globally. Conflict resolution by non-military means is the foremost initiative undertaken by the institutions of democracy. The path to a peaceable global environment comes into sharp focus.
President Joseph Biden speaks to the U.N. General Assembly,
September 20, 2022, video still courtesy of the New York Times
That’s not why the two-week wait has become an important event for me. During this brief stretch one eye sees the world with a 20/25 resolution. Without glasses on. For 56 years glasses allowed me to perceive the world nearly the way you lucky non-myopic people get to. Without glasses, many of us see the world in some variation of blur. So, thank you for your service. Goya and El Greco had something that neither David nor Ingres could ever have achieved. That quality transcended astigmatism, reaching to passion, to intuitive insight, to an emotional stress that touched my heart and was sympathetic to my eyes because I knew that is what happens with one’s glasses off. When Claude Monet developed cataracts he passed on the far more primitive surgery option of the day because he feared its effect on his color perception. As the condition progressed it had a dramatic effect on his paintings, as seen in a late version of “The Japanese Bridge” (1922). Edgar Degas gave up painting in favor of sculpture and pastels as his sight deteriorated. And with those glasses removed, I can assure you, the world is a more dangerous and exciting place. Without the glasses, no automobile license for me. And keep in mind, corrective lenses were not an option until the 14th century. Lenses to correct astigmatism did not come along until 200 years ago. Artists generally used the tools provided by nature until they simply stopped working.
El Greco, “The Resurrection,” 1596-1600, oil on canvas, 127 x 275. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado Madrid
President Biden spoke to Russia’s “violation of the UN charter,” which led into Mr. Zelenskyy’s call for the veto power of a Security Council member to be suspended. The day before Mr. Guterres warned that the world is “gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.” These are clarifying remarks, not scare tactics. How well the world does is based on inclusion, but “inclusion” is much more than “everyone gets to be here.” To work there must be mutual respect and trust. That is the real task at hand, and that ain’t easy when that one eye has terrible vision problems that are taking it off the deep end. But the eye with the corrected vision does see what is going on.
So, for two weeks I am experiencing the world through that 20/25 right eye, and the 20-God-knows-what dysfunctional left eye. I am delightedly covering up one eye for a few minutes, then covering the other eye for a few more minutes just to soak up the contrast. It’s dramatic, but that’s not why I have not put the glasses back on since the first 24 hours. I could remove the right lens from the glasses, that’s what they suggest that you do; then the left eye would also be corrected. And it is not because I’m so anxious to ditch that extra weight on the bridge of my nose and my ears, although that definitely contributes.
It’s a feeling that has been driving some of the current crop of Big Stories. A New York Times headline in a story about how the UN dealt with Russia’s attempted murder of Ukraine, and other world problems, proclaimed “Colossal Global Dysfunction.” The General Assembly had not fully convened for the 2 1/2 years of the Covid pandemic. Secretary General António Guterres stated that “We cannot go on like this. We have a duty to act.” One hopes that young people will flock to this banner in the way that so many were drawn to the race to space over half a century ago.
It’s because I want to remember this bifurcation, and to think about the profundity of small differences. Really, it’s two weeks to view a world that registers as singular, but which is rendered starkly different depending on where you cast your attention. We have a number of solar lights strewn around our backyard. Because I often prefer to work at night, I also like to stroll once or twice around the yard after dark. I can see those lights, all clear and resolved, with one eye. The other eye registers a fireworks display. It’s a beautiful illusion, but one that without proper adjustment would make my life much less manageable, definitely less pleasant.
Philip Barlow, “7th at 12:30,” oil on canvas, 47 x 86”.
Courtesy of Galerie LeRoyer, Montreal
Richard Phoenix, portrait painting from his book “Astigmatism: Sight Paintings”
Claude Monet, “The Japanese Footbridge,” 1920-22, oil on canvas,
35 1/4 x 45 7/8”. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Claude Monet, “The Japanese Footbridge,” 1899 oil on canvas,
32 x 40”. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
The most chilling and outrageous contrast to the U.N. session, so deeply draped in the mission of a world free of military conflict, was the recovery of bodies in the northeast section of Ukraine from which the Russian army had been very recently expelled. The enduring images of WWII, the war against the Nazis, and the mass graves and the gas chambers. Industrial-scale killing elevated to legal status, endorsed, made legal and overseen by Germany’s own government, stands as the signal moral signpost in our history. Yet the conditions have arrived by which it may be we, America itself, that reincarnates the most evil regime ever to wield the power of a major state.
To say goodbye to a lifelong condition such as this both lifts my spirits and renews what is possible. To have aged beyond 70 and yet feel fresh new possibilities at least temporarily reverses the slow deterioration that accompanies aging. This type of corrective lens and the attendant surgical procedure did not exist a mere decade ago. It is not the first time many of us have personally benefited from medical advances that did not exist until recently. It has been barely a half century since the advent of modern open-heart surgery. The plethora of drugs designed to combat mental illness replaced the electroshock therapy favored in the mid-20th century — and I will not delve into the horrific and ineffective methods used in previous centuries.
Attendees at Trump rally, Youngtown, Ohio, September 17, 2022. The one-finger salute signals their QAnon alliegence to a slogan “where we go one, we go all.” Courtesy of Aaron Rupar
Donald Trump’s idea of good political salesmanship.
The access to such technology is unfortunately limited, even defined, by cost and access to insurance. That means a whole lot of people can’t take advantage of such options. My emotional and moral instincts are classically liberal: Well then, let’s find the way to make this available to everyone. Not really to make a pile of money, and certainly not in order to force anyone to use something they may not want for their own reasons. It’s just the right thing to do. Just as blurred vision is the closest thing to a disability I’ve suffered so far (sooner or later time catches up), this is a brief moment during which I can experience the intoxication of new powers, while at the same time also taking a final draught of the vulnerability and perceptual distortion of a disability. The co-existence of these two states will fade into abstraction in the weeks and years following the insertion of that new left lens. So, I am paying attention, and hope to be able to recall as much of this two-week window as I can. You artists reading this will probably think about how to depict it in terms of both image and media. I literally never know what I might end up doing with such an experience because I don’t want to know until I find myself doing it. This commentary may be it, or … who knows?
Which is the reason that I’m sharing my personal eye story through the shutters. At his September 18th rally in Youngstown, Ohio, a former president who is the most deeply felonious person ever to grace our public life, spun a tale in the style of an evangelical minister to a background of the QAnon theme, against a foreground of his flock gathered before him in a posture of mutual safety from a world gone mad in just the ways that the former president described it, most pointing an index finger in the direction of their liege. Afterward this miniature corporal posted a heroic portrait of himself wearing the requisite pin of the American flag on his left label, and a “Q” pin on his right lapel. Stamped across his broad chest and torso: “The Storm is Coming / WWG1WGA.”
So I am savoring something that the doctors all assume you just want to get through as quickly and safely as possible (I am good with safety). I like being a bit of an outlier, and that hasn’t changed since I was maybe 12 or 13. Athletes call it slowing the game down. You feel more relaxed addressing the problem at hand (to win a game), and are really not concerned about the outcome. The irony is that by lifting
concern it becomes a bit more likely that in the end you’ll win. Once I’ve settled in with both lenses I will have won; but I will also be left with a vivid recollection of what was lost. Man, I love that counterweight. It’s like the difference between seeing things in two-dimensions versus three-dimensions; but it is a very different thing.
If we end up with this nutball QAnon warlord, that legacy will lead our country to the kind of infamy that adheres to Nazi Germany. Count on it. If anything, worse. Thank God America was there to help bring about that government’s ultimate and final defeat. A century later Germany is a credit to the rest of the world, thanks in good part to us/U.S. and our Marshall Plan that financed the recovery of Germany and Japan. They remade themselves into two of the world’s leading liberal democracies. While our government currently operates with imperfect clarity and purpose to serve the public interest with the resources available, there persists that left eye that is in need of correction. As it happens indictments and other obstacles may end up thwarting the next attempted usurpation of the power of the American state. But the surest remedy is what we already have: the best educated, most diverse, most media-savvy population on the planet, with nearly 250 years of free and fair elections as a central feature of our legacy. We can work with that.
Yoko Ono, “Season of Glass,” 1981, record cover
I do not want to return to having to wear glasses again — or worse, doing away with them without having my vision corrected. It looks like I will soon enjoy 20/25 vision out of both eyes without ever having to put on another pair of glasses. It’s great, and lucky me. That this is possible, that the procedure’s effect is a fact ... that’s great. By no means perfect, but we can work with that.
We can work with that.