Losing Sight

John Haber
in New York City

The Retina and the Rules of Art

The art off the doctor's waiting room was a blur, but a comforting blur. And then I opened my left eye.

The haze before my eyes

I did not need the reminder of why I had come. I knew. I was losing my sight in one eye. Thirty-six hours before, in early evening, I found myself fumbling to finish the Sunday paper or even to begin the crossword. The words were there, but as if through a haze, one that gathered around artificial lights into a cloud. I even knew why. Jasper Johns's The Critic Sees (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1964)

I found myself blinking, instinctively, to correct the distortion. It was what I was supposed to do. Ever since cataract surgery in that eye, in July, I had to expect dryness, but now, I knew, I had to expect something more. I moved the paper closer and further away, and with each movement the words would become clear again—and then, in a moment, once more part of the haze. To rub it in, the symptoms came suddenly the day after Christmas, a weekend for gifts and for celebration, plus a day at last just for me. The haze had a haunting echo in the gathering blizzard outside, and it shook me to realize that I had been reading José Saramego's Blindness.

Art in a doctor's office is always soft and familiar. It had better be, and this could be the first time I knew that I would remember it. Dentists and internists run to posters, most often Impressionism. Do not expect an ear, nose, and throat specialist to pick Vincent van Gogh. But this was a retinal specialist, who can afford something anonymous and original. It just has to play by the rules.

I tried to concentrate on the rules. I had reached my eye doctor on Monday, a snow day, for advice and a referral. Now it was Tuesday, and I had gone to the bathroom for the chance to concentrate, away from the others talking, reading, waiting, coughing, or falling asleep. This doctor knows his worth, which means everyone waits at least ninety minutes to see him. About halfway through, a technician offers a moment of summary attention and two eye drops for dilation. Then one returns to the haze.

The rules were clear enough. The blue verticals stand for a picket fence and the white at left for a house. The green and red stand for vegetation, all in the bright colors of summer near the sea. How easy it has become to learn the rules, so long after John Singer Sargent, with Sargent's watercolors and Sargent's portraits, and Winslow Homer. Was it silly to ask if anyone would have recognized the scene a hundred years before? Was it silly to ask how the blur of modern drawing differed from the haze now in front of my eyes?

I could read in the waiting room, but slowly and with difficulty. I needed my left eye for that. Cataract surgery and a follow-up with laser six weeks later had left the eye nearsighted but serviceable. With a contact lens, the right eye, still very nearsighted, could serve for distance—a compromise to avoid the nightmare of glasses over contact lenses. The agreement or disagreement between the eyes had now broken down. One eye was no longer going along with its side of the bargain, and the other was refusing to help.

Staring and waiting

In the privacy of the bathroom, I opened both eyes and stared. The watercolor looked pretty decent after all. In a crisis I had to fall back for sheer life on my role as critic, but this time the examination of art was self-examination. No flashes or floaters—until I closed my "good" eye, the one that required only a very strong artificial lens to see. Then I could see the shifting, irregular thread that wove its way through the haze. It was a dull brown, the color of old blood.

The specialist confirmed the obvious diagnosis, a horseshoe-shaped tear. The retina had not quite detached, although some fluid leaked through, causing the partial haze. The doctor called it debris, which sounded like no big deal. The eye's sanitation department would duly clear it away, right? The color of blood came from slight bleeding mixed into the eye's messy fluid, probably because I had swallowed enough aspirin for two weeks to kill the pain of thinking, if not of moving or trying to sleep. I had thrown out my back two weeks before by jogging, when my bare t-shirt hit a damp, cold rain.

I knew that a detached retina is serious business, and I knew I was at risk. It would mean no more haze, but rather darkness. I could be going blind. The risk comes with extreme nearsightedness and with cataract surgery. I hated myself for having gone through with that. I had seen pretty well with just my right eye last year, after all. But that was while the left eye behind my glasses did not get in the way by sending its own mixed signals.

For now, the imperative was to avoid detachment. Regaining my mental detachment was another matter altogether. The doctor took another hour for two rounds of laser bursts on either side of the tear, to scar the retina and hold it down, for now. He did a good job, too, I learned the next day, but the debris was not going anywhere without stronger surgery. That meant another day and seven hours of waiting. It meant a surgeon's draining some of the fluid by suction, scarring the surfaces again, and adding a gas bubble to hold the retina in place while it approximated healing.

It means at best a seventy-five percent chance of seeing again without scarier measures, and the two people ahead of me in surgery were onto their second procedure. I am still scared. It means waiting from four to six weeks for the bubble to dissolve even to know whether I shall see again (although, as I edit myself a month later, it is healing). For now, my left eye sees only the bubble, which jiggles if I so much as move my head. I do not know if I am getting used to seasickness or to being blind. Either way, I am learning new rules.

I started learning that very Tuesday, at home after the first burst of scarring light. I need to read, and I needed the right eye to start reading again. That meant returning to eyeglasses, but with a difference. For one thing, I now have a reduced field of view. Even before retina surgery, though, I had made myself blind in my left eye when wearing glasses, by popping out the lens and replacing it with a patch—a yellow circle cut from a Post-it note, like Groucho eyeballs on the cheap. Instead of a blind man, I look like an ill-behaved child who has broke his glasses.

To seek a newer world

That Tuesday evening, over a drink, the bartender asked me what it was like to have lost stereo vision. I had to talk just to keep from crying, and I had to explain the rules. For starters, I had to explain the patch. Back with a cataract, the left eye was simply weak. Now it was frighteningly strong and dysfunctional. The old lens would only make it worse, and popping out the lens made me see double.

Nearsighted or farsighted, the eye takes on a distorted shape. It no longer focuses the image in the right place, on the retina. A contact lens corrects the focal point, and so do eyeglasses—but at a cost, of magnifying or diminishing what one sees. With just one lens, for my "good" but almost helpless right eye, the difference in focal point and magnification is dizzying and crippling. Better to cover the left eye until it can see. Better to see nothing at all.

Then I had to explain the rules of depth perception. I was back to playing unpaid art critic, whether I wanted to or not. In the land of the blind, a one-eyed critic is a tedious joke. For The Critic Sees, Jasper Johns preferred his critics blind in both eyes—behind Sculp-metal eyeglasses, with biting, insatiable mouths as eyes. He of all people should complain. Versions of this go at auction for record prices.

He knows something, though, as he always does. Seeing is about talking and understanding, but it is also so much more. Cues to space include not just parallax from two eyes, but also simple overlapping, linear and atmospheric perspective, and most of all light and shadow. That is why art works and why it takes work—and why, before 3D movies, no one spoke of 2D movies. The bartender interrupted me to thrust his arm into my face. I tried to smile.

Vision, like all of cognition, is active and constructive, and it involves the active brain. The brain takes shortcuts and makes mistakes, but in the interest of efficiency. That is why, I hope, art needs critics, critics need art history, and why I write. It is why art takes words. It is also, I learned the hard way, a relentlessly optimistic conclusion.

Neurologists and psychologists revel in anecdotes and, often, optimism. Yes, the brain is plastic, especially in children, it is creative, and every case is unique. Blind eyes in their dark can day. Oliver Sacks, an unflinching observer, describes blind patients who have amazing memories. They can solve crosswords in their heads without seeing. If they cannot quite recreate the world, it is not too late to seek a newer one.

Living in a bubble

Right now, I do not feel creative. I try to concentrate, but it is as if I have lost memory for all the things that I can still see. I went to the Met the day after surgery, to see if its latest upgrade of a portrait from the Velázquez workshop to Diego Velázquez makes sense—and to see if art really can revive the soul. I could almost feel the comfort of the familiar, but the familiar had slipped out of reach. I could not judge the portrait, which admittedly is a close call with its own bitter, untidy history. I could not remember names right and left.

I feel the regrets and temptations of blindness. Sacks himself has lost vision in one eye to cancer, along with part of his visual field. He writes of no longer knowing that someone close to him, both in space and in emotions, is even there. When I think of my left side, where the bubble and the patch block seeing, I keep imagining instead that something is there. I call it my dark side, and I wish I could go over to it. It seems to hold something vital—something more than objects or thoughts of revenge.

Without the dark side, I feel stuck with the passive, uncreative act of vision. An image still has to fall on the retina, as on an unresponsive movie screen, focused by the lenses of the eye. One can inspect the eye's failures by dilating the pupil with drops and simply looking. One can measure intraocular pressure, and one had better not disturb the pressure by flying until the retina heals. The brain, too, is still a physical organ subject to damage. It is organ capable of the chilling reminder that, in Saramego's Blindness, blindness is, inexplicably, a field of white.

Would someone in the Renaissance have made out the doctor's watercolor? It is easy to speak of meaning as purely conventional, and it is easy, too, to speak of art as something primal, but both taken alone are also sloppy. Pablo Picasso spoke of drawing like Raphael but having to learn to draw like a child. He actually did barely acceptable imitations of J.-A.-D. Ingres, and children make pretty boring art—as, in fact, does much of the Outsider Art Fair. No one can run the experiment, but I suspect that someone back in the Renaissance would have needed only a few hints to decipher the watercolor but would have been puzzled as to why anyone would value it as art. The Renaissance invented the modern ideal of artistic genius, with stories of Giotto as a boy sketching sheep, but also the ideals of realism and of art as a field of learning on a par with scholarship.

Art, vision, and understanding are bound up in one another, and not even the blind can pull them apart. I was reading more slowly, and I could not know yet if I was losing sight in one eye. I could not know if I was losing perspective or losing sight. Those are powerful idioms for good reason. For now, my emotions and vision are equally uncertain and equally fragile. For now, I am living in a bubble, and the bubble is in me.

The day after retinal surgery, the surgeon pronounced his work good—but also told me to come back again the very next weekday, the day after I write this. He repeated the instructions on how to sleep (not on my back) and not to fly. He also told me to beware of, yes, losing depth perception and to take special care walking down stairs. Sacks reports overlapping images that somehow become a single plane, like late modern art on the wall. The Met's stairs seemed to me more than long enough, however. Then again, I can try to convince myself that a critic knows the rules.

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The retinal tear became evident December 26, 2010, surgery took place December 30, and I tried to reacquaint myself with the Met and myself on New Year's Eve morning. I drafted this on January 2, 2011, without knowing the answers, but a month later vision seems to be returning. I had the same procedure on the other eye, alas, in 2013, and a full-blown detachment in 2014, from which vision has not fully recovered.


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