Thursday, July 28, 2011

The World Through Blunted Sight: An Inquiry Into The Influence of Defective Vision On Art and Character by Patrick Trevor-Roper

This book has gone through a few editions since its first publication in 1970. I first read it many years ago (I seem to associate it with a rather enthusiastic recommendation by Anthony Burgess), and was pleased to find that my enjoyment has not diminished on a second reading. Written by a renowned ophthalmologist, it looks at specific visual deficiencies and their effects on art and artists. In another sense, it is also an examination of how our perception of the world is influenced by the brain’s interpretation of sensory, particulary visual, stimuli.

Trevor-Roper is an enthusiastic author, with a knowledge of evolutionary biology as well as art history, and writes particularly well on ophthalmological conditions with a minimum of jargon. The book is loaded with anecdotes and interesting divergences (for instance, it is remarked that Aristotle, Milton, and Goethe shared the belief that there were only three colors evident in a rainbow), although I would have to say that some of Trevor-Roper’s assertions and conclusions strain credibility (I believe that his identification of personality types based on visual acuity are rather broad and clumsy, ignoring much more significant factors). He also has a Eurocentric - or rather a latent Imperial - bias that is too easily dismissive of “primitive” art in favor of the “high” art of Constable, Turner, El Greco and Cezanne, although, admittedly, those artists are more instructive for his purposes. Still, there is much in this text that is fascinating, and it deserves its reputation as a sort of overlooked classic.

Image: Brueghel's "The Blind Leading the Blind" or, "The Parable of the Blind". Trevor-Roper notes "the five beggars...representing, from left to right, ocular pemphigus with secondary corneal opacities, photophobia possibly from an active kerato-uveitis, phthisis bulbi and corneal leucomata. A similar painting by Hokusai has the blind man descending from right to left, possibly reflecting his racial directional gaze."