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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Seeing, unseeing, seen, unseen

My thinking about tragedy reminded me of some thoughts I'd considered years ago about blindness within the texts. In King Lear, poor old Gloucester has his eyes taken out and is left to wander around blind. This is a harrowing scene. I saw Lear at the Barbican a few years ago and I recall the visceral horror of the enactment. It was done well enough to be utterly and horrifically convincing.

Now, I've not looked at the play recently and so the memories are pretty hazy - as are my recollections of Oedipus Rex. That play, I read when in 17 year old on a school trip around Greece to visit ancient sites (sights?). I read it aloud in the coach - and one of the teachers remarked afterwards that it was her strongest abiding memory of the tour. Anyway.

In both cases, the characters have seen what they should not see and failed to see what they should have seen. After the blinding, both come to see what they should have seen. Another Greek character, Tiresias, is a blind seer. There seems to be a powerful connection between deep insight and physical blindness.

It's interesting in that in English we say, 'I see' to mean 'I understand.' In Greek, as I mentioned before, the word for 'I know' is the same as the past tense 'I have seen'.

We are visual animals, and sight is our prioritised sense. I recall attending a Royal Society lecture on just this subject. Where there is a disparity between what we see and what we hear, our brains choose sight. The visual cortex takes up a great deal or neuronal real estate.

And though the Greeks seemed to have this concept of knowing being related to what can be seen ('I saw it with my own eyes so it must be true!'), our vision can deceive us. After all, we do not see what we think we see. There is a huge blind spot, which the brain fills in. Our eyes move all the time in saccades and yet we see a consistent image of what we are 'looking at'. The brain predicts what is likely to be seen and likes it when reality conforms to expectation. The whole area of peripheral vision is monochrome and hazy and yet it seems as though clear and technicolour reality is a wrap-around. Oh yes, and colour is a kind of fabrication. The moon looks big when it is close to the horizon, but is, of course, always the same size. The world really isn't as we see it.

So the blindness is perhaps removing a deceptive veil. We see most clearly when we can't see.


In these last weeks and months, I have felt that I have been able to see myself more clearly. This was struck home to me painfully when I learned that my work is soon to resume and I felt the wave of despair wash over me. In this shut-down world, I have opened up to myself - but in a curious way.

I have felt the thrill of ideas. It is like this: Sometimes when I paint in watercolours, I introduce a colour next to a damp area already painted with another colour. Say the paint is very granular and a little iridescent. The colours merge and wash together on the wet paper and there are islands of predominantly one shade and islets of the other in a sea of the mix which gradually separates on either side into the two distinct shades. This merging is a happy accident - there's some will, in that I placed the two colours adjacent to each other - but what happens between grain of paper and angle of easel and amount of water and tint just happens. Ideas do the same in my brain and I feel an excitement of fertility and creativity and happy accident. It is joy and awe and wonder and the newness and unexpectedness of the thrill is a moment of spirit in substance.

Then I sit to write and I try to grasp this ephemeral thing, this phenomenon, light revealed in language and sometimes I've lost it, the firework has flashed and the sky is dark again. And sometimes, I'm capturing water, droplets but not the full amount, in my hands. And sometimes the process of writing acts as another element of the magic and the idea becomes a text. Maybe different, maybe similar, maybe better, maybe not.

All this and I, the judging self, is not judging self, but is focused on ideas and fireworks and the sky of the mind in its patches of light and darkness. The thoughts are not 'mine'. They are thoughts living free. I am not I. I am a locale of thoughts.

When walking with the dog, the same: I am not I but body and senses being in fields and woods.

I think, now I think of it, and in contrast to what I fear in the world, that the feeling of eyes on me, judging me, leads me to focus on me. I become the object of my subjectivity, instead of just the subject.

Of course, as a rule, no one is watching me or judging me - unless they wonder if I am watching or judging them. Otherwise they too are the objects of their own subjectivity.

I am just as unseen in work, in crowds, as I am in my home, in fields and woods. And yet I turn my eyes on myself and the ideas are in my peripheral vision - monochrome and hazy. I, I, I am in the centre of the field. I see myself but fail to see what is me.

What makes this all the stranger is that in these weeks of not looking at myself or feeling that I have been looked at, I have felt seen. Seen, known, understood, choose your word - they mean the same. I have felt seen in the absence of gazes, the absence of attention. In the world, where I feel the non-existent eyes of others and turn on myself my own inner eye, I feel unseen, unknown, and so tragically far from being understood or of understanding.

Those eyes are the ones I need to blind.

The Duke of Cornwall removed the Earl of Gloucester's eyes one by one. With one left, he could have seen more mischief and so...

Cornwall:  Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vild jelly!

Where is thy lustre now?

Gloucester:  All dark and comfortless!

Yet if I remove these eyes, the darkness will recede and comfort remain. Blindness can be a blessing.

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