The broken windows of their souls
I wonder about Huxley, Joyce and Milton. How they coped with their terrible malfunctioning eyes. From what I have read of Milton and Huxley, not a lot of it is visual. They are telling me ideas from inside themselves, but not painting pictures. Joyce is the complete opposite. The fact he suffered with is sight from six years old, makes his detailed visual work more incredible. We can absorb sights around us through osmosis, but he had to look to see.
I’ve just started Ulysses, which so far I can tell, is going to be one of my favourite books. I started off listening to the audiobook as a way to capitalise on my commute and get more books swallowed, but as it is essentially an epic poem, of sculptured line after sculptured line, I had to pick up the book today as well, for the purpose of underlining, post-it marker plastering, and intense studying. How someone with such poor sight saw so much is a beyond my feeble mind. The loose strands of tobacco burning up at the end of a cigarette, a woman’s fingers stained with the blood of lice picked from clothes, mouths stained with wine.
Joyce’s eye problems started when he was six, and only got worse, as described in John Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark.
No single problem made Joyce’s eye operations, most of them on the left eye, necessary. With varying constancy between 1917 and 1941, he suffered from glaucoma, synecchia, iritis, conjunctivitis, episclerotis, retinal atrophy, and primary, secondary, and tertiary cataracts—all of them painful and incapacitating disease whose gravity and scariness no healthy-sighted person should underestimate. Iritis, in early stages it is said to give the sufferer the sensation of having gritty sand in the eye, and so it forces him into incessant, involuntary tearing and blinking whose unrelieving effect is only to exacerbate the condition. Closing the eye, far from relieving the pain, deepens it, and in severe cases, the pain radiates into the brow, the nose, the cheek, and the teeth, ultimately to bring on severe headaches. While sand can be washed out of the eye, iritis cannot. It either goes away or it doesn’t, and in the latter case it can spread. Left untreated, it can ravage the affected eye entirely and overtake the second by “sympathetic infection.” Advanced cases of iritis were “cured,” in Joyce’s day, by removing the entire eyeball. Hence the earliest of Joyce’s eye operations: an iridectomy on the right eye (his “good eye”) in 1917 was followed by two iridectomies on the left (“the broken window of my soul”)
Joyce was also believed, by Carl Jung, to be schizophrenic, like his daughter, Lucia. Jung said she and her father were two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that James was diving and Lucia was sinking. Joyce was never really financially comfortable, needing day jobs like teaching and working as a bank clerk, from which only the patronage of publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver freed him. He ended up dying from surgery on a perforated ulcer.
It all seems gloomy, but I can’t get past the eyes, and the permanent misery they must have brought him.
I was going to get a fabby new (dead person’s, so new to me) cornea, as due to Bell’s Palsy and not blinking, mine got all sore, gritty, and scratched up, like a CD case in a car glove box. But it seems blinking is now permanently out, and as I’d just ruin the new cornea, I can’t have one. If my eye properly dries up and becomes a raisin in my socket, I can have a glass one. I can’t feel sorry for myself with that, as firstly, my other eye is just grand and it’s nothing compared to what Joyce went through, and secondly, we’ve seen Pirates Of The Caribbean. Fake eyes are comedy gold. Monkeys run off with them and everything.
I attempted to read this a few years ago and found it way too dense to commit myself to it. It’s waiting in my bookshelf for another time.
The audio book is really helping me. It’s like being a kid and reading along with a story, but really helps when there’s three people talking at once and the narrator keeps breaking into song!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading your post. It’s made me wonder how much Joyce’s reduced vision impacted the way he wrote. It would really explain the way every moment is captured and honed in ‘Ulysses’. Time is slowed and every moment crystalline. Also, I wonder whether the shift from life observed in ‘Ulysses’ to the literary and language play of ‘Finnegans Wake’ was partly due to that gradual dimming of Joyce’s outer world.
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I’ve thought that too about Finnegan’s Wake, and read recently that he had to write it out large, in crayon, on cards, peering out of a tiny slice of sight. That would definitely explain the disjointed, random nature.
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