It used to be said that the eyes were the window into the soul… even if no-one can quite remember who said it first, the quote being variously attributed to the usual suspects of the Bible, Shakespeare, and various other historical luminaries. What is certain is that the eyes remain an source of vital information for the astute observer of non-verbal body language: the so-called Pan-Am Smile where lack of emotion is revealed by lack of movement in the muscles around the eyes; the sideways or downwards involuntary glance of the nervous, distracted or dissembling; the glazed expression of the average student in a mid-afternoon class and bored beyond redemption.
The blind Ancient Greek Tiresias even has two separate myths to account for his loss of sight. In one he was said to have been blinded in retaliation for seeing the goddess Athena naked while she bathed. Later relenting, Athena, unable to reverse the loss of his vision, gave him sight beyond sight: the power of prophecy. Another tale suggests that he displeased the goddess Hera by taking Zeus’ side in an argument over sexual pleasure, resulting in Hera blinding him and Zeus making partial amends by bestowing him with precognitive ability.
It is interesting to note that both these Greek Myths feature a female causing a man to lose his ability to see the world due to being too interested in sex but I leave the sociocultural implications of this to the ethnologists, or possibly the modern therapist.
Another similar aside requiring a dedicated specialist to fully interpret the meaning behind the symbolism would be that (depending on context and part of speech) we use the same word – “vision” – for the ability to see, for having a strong sense of imagination and purpose, and for experiencing visual hallucinations whether of psychatric, religious or pharmacological origin.
More prosaically, sight remains the sense most of us fear to lose the most, due to its primacy in how way we acquire data from the world. Three separate news stories over the last couple of days show we remain fascinated by stories of restoring sight, enhancing it, or even finding ways to abolish it altogether.
The painting above depicts an event from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The nymph Liriope brings her infant baby Narcissus to Tiresias, so that he may foretell the child’s fate. Tiresias gnomically pronounces that Narcissus would live a long life provided he did not come to know himself. Narcissus pined away to death after seeing his own reflection, perhaps demonstrating that vision and insight are not always the same thing.