Not This Crude Matter
Art by heartmush (IG: @hrtmsh)
This essay by C.D. Frelinghuysen appears in our ISSUE III Features section.
So with not a little satisfaction at defeating a recessive gene and raising my survival chances in the end times, I had my corneas seared with lasers and two friends walked me home to convalesce, loopy on Valium...
Lord of the Flies, for those who haven't read it, is a warning about the scarcity of glasses in the future primitive. For the vicious Jack and chivalrous Ralph are the sorts of Protagonists and Antagonists that exist only in fiction -- most of us are the wallflower Piggy, whose damaged spectacles mirror his own fragility. I required glasses at six and so I fully endorsed his instinctual cowardice. Once, before I fully understood tacking, a sailboat boom hit me in the face and snapped in half my supposedly titanium frames, compelling me to hold them like opera glasses in front of my eyes. Soccer balls and low branches were also apparently equipped with identical homing technology. Thus at a young age I began to perseverate on the apocalypse, when my current pair would have to last me the rest of my life, scampering from one anti-intellectual purge to the next.
As a teenager I prevailed on my parents to get me contacts specific to my sui generis astigmatism but they were so expensive I rarely wore them. It wasn't until medical school that I finally learned my warped corneas were to blame. It seemed incredible to me that a few malformed layers of collagen could so thoroughly cripple my most valuable sense. Shouldn't the thousands of generations of hominid evolution have eliminated this flaw?
So with not a little satisfaction at defeating a recessive gene and raising my survival chances in the end times, I had my corneas seared with lasers and two friends walked me home to convalesce, loopy on Valium. At the time I lived in a studio that gave onto Lake Michigan and the morning sun would reflect off it and sequin my ceiling in painful white shards. But after a week of twilight quarantine with drawn blinds and wraparound sunglasses, I could see! I would close one eye, then the other, marveling at their sudden competence. This is how my body was supposed to work all along.
The ophthalmologist informed me that the healing could be irregular and so that first month I kept assiduously to the schedule of anti-inflammatory eyedrops, terrified about scarring. Thankfully, ten years later my eyes have held up. But even now, at the end of a long day when the words on my computer get hazy around the edges I still shut one eye, then the other, applying the ancient fix: turn it off, then turn it on.
Little did I know that I was reenacting one of the minor tenets of a hundred year-old book written by a disgraced ophthalmologist of the Rousseauian faith. In 1920 William Bates published The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses, a manual for the myopic in which he compiled his heterodox beliefs, all of which proceed from the central idea that it is not the lens and ciliary muscle which focuses the vision, but rather the extra-ocular muscles -- the muscles that swivel the eye. According to Bates, these muscles distort the eyeball itself, shifting the retina backwards and forwards in space like the stage of a microscope. Because the eyes at rest are focused at distance, any effort or mental strain, even that caused by telling a lie, will contract these muscles and blur distant objects. The prevalence of this needless myopia is increasing because, as Bates informs us: "[u]nder the conditions of civilized life men's minds are under a continual strain. They have more things to worry them than uncivilized man had . . ."1
Bates's proposed etiology is audacious. We are not shortsighted despite our best efforts, but because of them. This is the biomechanical basis for the Bates Method to cure shortsightedness, which besides a few eye exercises also included instructions to look directly at the sun and to daily read fine print in dim light. He demands that we discard our glasses, as they preclude a full cure. Bates's contemporaries promptly denounced him, and subsequent editions of the book have omitted the most outrageous recommendations.
But Bates surpasses the patent quackery of Pemberton tonics and healing crystals. In Chapter 12, Bates claims that closed and relaxed eyes should see a field of the purest, deepest black. This is the indication that the eyes have attained perfect acuity. Strained eyes will only manage an imperfect grey. Shutting and resting your eyes for a moment will give flashes of improved vision, but the secret to sustained acuity lies in memory: Bates says that you must remember "perfect black" to achieve relaxation. Again Bates disintegrates causality. One both sees black at rest, and rests by seeing black. He therefore directs us to visualize a black period next to whatever we need to see, and it shall snap into focus. He coyly admits the difficulty:
Thus patients find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. The relaxation indicated by the memory of a period improves their sight, and the things they see with this improved vision cause them to lose their relaxation and their memory. It is very remarkable to me how the difficulty is ever overcome . . .
It is a tempting teaching, unfalsifiable in its construction (i.e. the "you're just doing it wrong" defense), and which recapitulates the old contest between rationalists and empiricists. The former believed truth was found through deduction or intuition, but the latter only trusted the senses. David Hume was an empiricist of the skeptical variety -- the sun will only "likely" rise tomorrow, we shall have to wait and see. In a text exchange my upstairs neighbors revealed themselves rationalists. Through their own "internal discussion" they concluded that they were not being that noisy.
Kant asked why not both? He offered that objects were "things-in-themselves," forms that exist independently of observation, that indeed cannot be truly known with our crude sensory organs. The operating system of reality is soldered down with a priori circuits along which our minds process our a posteriori sense inputs. Kant says, “I call all knowledge transcendental if it is occupied, not with objects, but with the way that we can possibly know objects even before we experience them.”²
A path to transcendence is what Bates offers. Now, while perfect black is not a priori knowledge as such -- Bates insists it is remembered as qualia from the senses³ -- it represents a clever reassignment of the task of transcendence. Bates is relatively unconcerned with the epistemic validity of our eyesight but rather with anatomic purity: "The eye possesses perfect vision only when it is absolutely at rest." The eye does not see perfectly, but possesses perfection. This recalls in turn Plato's Theory of Forms, in which earthly objects are mere shades of their corresponding class-ideal. Every dog inherits some "dogness", a pure universal dog-form which exists on a higher plane. For Bates, every eye aspires to the true "eyeness" in utter repose, the uncorrupted, unstrained eye that can fully engage with the sensible world of appearances.
But transcendence begets hierarchy. Heidegger, commenting on Nietzsche, explains that “[e]very metaphysics of the sort that posits a transcendent world as true above a sensible world as a world of appearances springs from morality.”4 In other words, transcendent systems authorize value judgements. In fact, they demand them. For example, Bates invokes a moral Aesthetics when he says that "[m]ost human beings are, unfortunately, ugly enough without putting glasses upon them, and to disfigure any of the really beautiful faces that we have with such contrivances is surely as bad as putting an import tax upon art". And taxes, as everyone knows, are unspeakable evils.
For the postmodernists, transcendence implicates almost all of Western thought. To briefly sum up their claim: the Enlightenment framed Nature as a dark but navigable fog of unlearned fact, and by insisting the Truth was out there, science acquired a moral imperative to clear the fog away. To discover something -- a chemical process, a disease, an exoplanet -- dispels its mystery with the satisfaction of a secular, sacred duty. "Knowledge for knowledge's sake" is the new devotional. As the fog lifts, scientists anticipate more E = mc2 revelations, those occult equations that join disparate fields in search of more fundamental principles. This hierarchical truth-model runs deep. Who among us doesn't believe that after enough giants hoist us on their shoulders, our cheerleader pyramid of research will reach the Ark holding the origin of life and the grand unified theory and the secret of consciousness? The final society and the "end of history". Civilization according to Sid Meier.
The first flaw with this model is the trivializing of the sensible world below the transcendent. Pay your dues now, and you shall be rewarded later. Marcuse, also channeling Nietzsche, describes it as selling an "unreal reward for real suffering."5 This is a reliable domination tactic, inventing frameworks in which the system assigns (avoids, abdicates) responsibility downwards: Dred Scott v. Sandford, the News Feed, privatized medicine, adjunct professors, the CRASH unit, anxiolytics, the assassination of Marcus Drusus, Prop 22, the WTO, Dublin Castle, the rez, diets, sin. One can easily pick out the operative truth in each example, since there are ever only three: God, Profit, and Order. Famously, the latter two have since killed God. Bates wants to liberate us from this new management, in which he says that "civilized children are shut up for hours every day within four walls, in the charge of teachers who are too often nervous and irritable. They are even compelled to remain for long periods in the same position". When I read this I nodded and thought, "Even a broken clock". The workplace is the same. My office computer pops up timed reminders to perform stretches and exercises, the first two of which are the very Batesian "Scanning the Horizon" and "Eye Blackout" to relieve the strain on the eye muscles. How many of us receive in our work inboxes similar exhortations to self-care, as if ten minutes of daily yoga or a bowl of quinoa would make all the difference? The implication is that our burnout is an ergonomic matter, not the lack of parental leave, jocular sexual harassment, and that we do not "work" so much as we are "managed". Marcuse says that "[w]ork relations have become to a great extent relations between persons as exchangeable objects of scientific management and efficiency experts."
This alienation in service of productivity is why Deleuze and Guattari warn about “[t]he State’s pretension to be a world order, and to root man [in hierarchy]".6 It makes one nostalgic for the times when the corrupt were guided by voices. The Church at least draped itself in fine liturgical purple and hung sublime art. Our modern clerics are Constitutional originalists and libertarians of the Reddit School.
But I don't think that Bates would be making the corporate circuit today, selling blue light filters and screen timers. Instead of gadgets he prescribed introspection. The Method requires one to close one's eyes and plumb the dark depths of the interior for perfection. One must turn sight off, then turn it back on. This has literary precedence, a forced blindness as prerequisite to ultimate clarity: Saul on the road to Damascus, Tiresias glimpsing Pallas, Luke Skywalker with the blast shield down, Marvel's Daredevil. Bates, while treating a pompous surgeon, suggests that "another method of gaining permanent relief . . . [is] to make his sight voluntarily worse". Foucault says that "Descartes closes his eyes . . . the better to see the true brightness of essential daylight."7
Aldous Huxley, blinded by keratitis at 16, was a Bates adept. He distinguished between "passive relaxation" and "dynamic relaxation", the latter of which being his solution to the dilemma of sustaining perfect black. Huxley describes it like trained muscle memory, but in Freudian terms. Performance anxiety from the ego will disrupt the body's intuitive “psycho-physical skill" but enough practice will overcome the subconscious. Such a victory must have profound benefits beyond acuity, for Huxley adds, "[w]ith the achievement of dynamic relaxation and normal functioning, the habit of frowning will disappear of itself."8 Bates himself says that "the memory of perfect sight relieve[s] pain and the symptoms of disease"; among which he lists whooping cough, rheumatism, hay fever, and glaucoma. By remembering perfect black, one becomes a sage immune to life's vicissitudes.
Hume would have facepalmed. Even if one accepts the improvement of his patients' eyesight, Bates cannot expect us to follow the wacky syllogism which concludes that memory is panacea.9 Just because our knees can un-sprain themselves with rest does not mean our eyes can un-blind themselves or our lungs disinfect themselves. This is the second flaw: hierarchical truth-models encourage the consolidation of sundry fact into "rules for life" that outpace the evidence at hand. The hosts of the podcast "You're Wrong About," while discussing John Walker Lindh, muse on the tendency for young men to seek "theories of everything". It is far easier to adopt a rubric, a party platform, that judges all phenomena as either normal or pathological than it is to neutrally process and continually update your opinions.
But Bates pushes even a little higher than transcendence. There is a third method of truth-forming: that of faith. Kant says that neither reason nor the senses can account for the knowledge imparted by faith, but that we freely assent to it out of a "pure practical purpose". For it is insufficient to merely affirm the benefits of morality. One must speak the oath out loud. The mutual ritual completes the truth: "I do" at the altar, signing on dotted lines, rising for the Honorable judge -- these are things-of-faith, societal constructs, what William Gibson calls "consensual hallucination". They are not magical or imaginary but essential for living pragmatically as beings in a moral society. Bates defends his results by comparing them to "some of the remarkable cures reported by Faith Curists and Christian Scientists. Whatever the explanation, however, the facts . . . are of the greatest practical value".
So there is Gospel in Bates -- the trinity of transcendent grace and earthly healing renewed through faith ritual. All three pistons of knowledge firing simultaneously. Remember that Jesus had to first heal the blind man before showing him the Kingdom of Heaven and telling him the words to activate his faith. Some research indicates that the placebo effect may be traced to analgesic enzymatic activity, and a combination of personal attention and transmitted confidence modulates that activity upward. Bates, coaxing a suffering patient towards perfect black, achieves the cadence of a kindly hypnotist. This combined with his deranged obsession with his own doctrine may have boosted his ability to induce placebo, especially when graded on the dismal curve of early 20th-century physicians. He likely would score high on the patient satisfaction scores that hospitals today equate with competence.
Just before the cold dawn of Lord of the Flies's final chapter, the evil Jack has ambushed the heroes in the night and stolen Piggy's glasses. The prophet Simon is dead. The island's signal fire has gone out, and Ralph in vain is trying to revive it. "The twins watched anxiously" but the long-suffering Piggy "sat expressionless behind the luminous wall of his myopia".10 Just as at school, the island is a hell for him. The little society the boys have made was "a closed circuit of sympathy with Piggy outside". He has achieved repose through despair, but there finds his resolve. He suddenly declares that he will climb back to the castle rock, where the Beast rules over his tribe of killers, and demand his glasses back: "'I'll say, not because you're strong, but because what's right's right.'" To paraphrase Brené Brown: after waiting on the sidelines, our myope decides that no matter what he can see, he deserves to be seen.
Ralph tells him that he must carry the shell that represents order. To this Piggy "sought in his mind for words to convey his passionate willingness to carry the conch against all odds. 'I don't mind. I'll be glad, Ralph, only I'll have to be led.'" Though transcendence ends in domination and its miracles cures all false, we have each other. Bates gives the same fine advice my ophthalmologist gave me to find my way home, my eyes scorched and aching: "If you fail, ask someone with perfect sight to help you."
¹ Bates, William H. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses. Central Fixation Publishing Co, 1920.
² Kant, Immanuel. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
³ Bates actually says that the perfect remembrance of "any phenomenon of the senses", including odor, taste or a "bar of music" will, when the eyes are open, result in perfect sight. Perfect black is merely the most expedient out of all the other phenomena to recall in its pure form.
4 Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche. Pfullingen: Neske. Translated in 4 vols. by David Farrell Krell, as Nietzsche, London: Routledge, 1981.
5 Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry in to Freud. Beacon Press, 1955.
6 Deleuze, Gilles, et al. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Bloomsbury, 2019.
7 Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization; a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Vintage Books, 1988.
8 Huxley, Aldous. The Art of Seeing. Chatto & Windus, 1943.
9 The eminent Dr. Duke-Elder, in a review appearing in the British Medical Journal, remarked that Huxley “treats all visual troubles as one all-embracing unity, all amenable to one sovereign remedy”. The simpler the doctrine, the more suspicious one should be: in medical school a chiropractor informed us that vertebral subluxation was responsible for all manner of neurological disorders, including depression. Joseph Kallinger, a cobbler and serial killer, believed that "the feet control the brain" and that orthopedic heel lifts would heal our minds.
10 Golding, William (1958) . Lord of the Flies (Print ed.). Boston: Faber & Faber.