Recently, I wrote about Annie Dillard’s piece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and how she commented on the little pennies of life. The piece had another dazzling portion — detailing how patients cured of cataracts saw the world for the first time.
She references Marius von Senden’s book, Space and Sight, which says that such people had “no idea of space whatsoever.” The patients could not tell what a cube or pyramid looked like, and one patient indicated that she thought her mother was only a few inches big.
Dillard claims that “for the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.” To the formerly blind, vision is “an extensive field of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, and in motion,” or “nothing but a confusion of forms and colors.”
These people “see the world as a dazzle of color-patches.” Only with time do they start to realize that these color-patches have form and substance. Only with time do they start to understand the meaning of depth.
To me, this was mind-boggling. “Form is condemned to an eternal dance macabre with meaning,” says Dillard. Indeed, it was. Everything I have seen, everything I am seeing, is being edited and interpreted by my mind. A football flying toward my head is just a football flying toward my head, not an increasingly large dark splotch. A field of flowers is a field of flowers, not a dazzling collage of bright colors. It is still hard to believe that people cured of cataracts, however temporarily, could see so purely.
On a recent hike through the Green Trail with the class, we each sat down, alone, at periodic points along the trail. It was a chilly day with few clouds in the sky. It had snowed the day before, and the balmy sun caused a rhythmic drip of melting snow from the trees. With each light breeze, tiny flakes swayed down from the trees, dusting my jacket and the ground around me. At first, the woods were mostly silent, but overtime, more and more birds began to sing in one beautiful symphony. As I sat, journaling and still, the woods around me had begun to wake up from its snowy slumber.
Once I had written enough notes, I wanted to see purely, the way Dillard described. I wanted to forget shape and shed meaning, and just see the color patches (it just so happened that taking off my glasses to rid at least some precision was helpful). In the ten minutes that I sat focusing on my sight, I found glimmers of hope. For a second here, or a second there, I saw the color-patches. In front of me appeared a thin, horizontal, shimmering white sliver, with a thick, dark, horizontal band beneath it, and then many black, roughly-vertical lines shooting through the foreground. But, just as soon as I had seen the patches, they were gone again. Better luck next time.