English Wednesday April 4, 2012 “Perspective Matters” As children, we learn that there are five human senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Upon reflection and memory, I realize that sight is always listed first in the list of senses. It may just be a reflex or a habit to do so, or maybe it’s just human nature to place high emphasis on sight. Sight is taken for granted by most of us, and when we encounter non-sighted individuals, we have an emotional and physical reaction that we’re relieved the non-sighted cannot see.
Reading Oliver Sacks’ case “To See and Not See”, about a man named Virgil, gives me a new and interesting perspective on blindness. I have a friend who is partially deaf. She and I communicate with visual cues and our communication is helped by the fact that she can hear some sound and can read lips. In contrast, I cannot say I have had an occasion to spend time with a non-sighted person. While reading about Virgil, however, I felt that I was given an opportunity to learn about the life of someone who lives in a world of only four senses.
Virgil was born with sight, he briefly lost it at the age of 3 while ill, and at age 6 developed cataracts which blocked his vision and made him functionally blind. The life he lived was a modest one. He “had a steady job and an identity, was self-supporting, had friends, read Braille papers and books... Life was limited but stable in its way. ” (112) He accepted his blindness as simply part of his existence; Virgil’s life was imbued with passivity. At the age of 47, Virgil became re-acquainted with an old girlfriend named Amy. Their relationship evolved into a committed one within 3 years.
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With Amy’s insistent encouragement, Virgil assented to have surgery to remove one of the cataracts, despite his family’s misgivings over the disruption to his already stable life and identity as someone who is blind. There is a distillation of Virgil’s state of being; as I see it, his life is not his own, other people are making choices for him, and he is not asserting himself. Amy and his mother have strong opinions about if he should live with sight or without sight. Virgil himself sits, waiting for them to make a decision about his destiny.
And so began Virgil’s passive journey into seeing – again. Virgil’s situation is not unlike Greg’s from Sacks’ case “The Last Hippie. ” While Virgil was about to regain his vision, Greg, by contrast, was losing his; the result of a stealthy tumor slowly stealing his sight. But Greg, like Virgil, initially had concerns when confronted by his differently sighted future. For Greg, he accepted the explanation of his swami about the loss of his vision being due to “a deeper spirituality, an inner light. ” He was “an illuminate,” a great honor. 43) This explanation pacified him about his vision, as it also brought him to a deeper spirituality. Despite their concerns, both Greg and Virgil came to accept their destiny being written by other people in their lives. Amy brought Virgil to her ophthalmologist who reviewed his case and ascertained that the old diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa may not have been accurate and he agreed to operate. Before the surgery, Virgil “could still see light and dark, the direction from which light came, and the shadow of a hand in front of his eyes…” (108) Dr.
Hamlin did the cataract removal on his right eye, inserted a new lens implant and after the bandage came off, Virgil could see but only after hearing the surgeon speak to him to attract his attention. The first thing that Virgil saw was not concrete or a firm image, but light, motions and colors. This was only a brief indication of the tangled web of sight that was ahead. Sacks states: “Everyone, Virgil included, expected something much simpler. A man opens his eyes, light enters and falls on the retina: he sees. though there had been a careful surgical discussion of the operation and possible postsurgical complications, there was little discussion or preparation for the neurological and psychological difficulties that Virgil might encounter. ” (115) While reading about Virgil, I have to come reflect more upon myself and the sense of sight. Very recently, I was diagnosed with early-onset glaucoma. I received this news from my doctor with heightened emotion and anxiety about what I would do if I lost my vision. I am lucky that my doctor immediately did a procedure to stop the progression of the glaucoma and keep my vision at its current state.
I try to put myself in Virgil’s place and have become more empathetic to him and his particular circumstance. I think of my friend who is partially deaf; she says she wouldn’t change it for anything; it is who she is. Is Virgil conflicted about his identity now that he can see? When Dr. Sacks meets Virgil, Sacks is struck by the way he acted; that Virgil was exhibiting behavior of someone who looks but does not grasp the full picture. He is “mentally blind” or the definition of agnosic – the partial or total inability to recognize objects or persons by use of the appropriate sense – in Virgil’s case, the sense of sight.
For example, he sees in pieces: notices facial features, not a composed face. Virgil still continues to use the actions of a blind person for everyday living, having Amy, now his wife, to establish lines for him to walk from room to room in their house. He even says he finds walking “scary” and “confusing” without touch, without his cane. (120) Virgil is dealing with being disrupted by massive changes: having surgery and getting married. The confusion he feels about walking without his cane is understandable.
The cane was his support for a basic of life; another aspect that is taken for granted, putting one foot in front of another. Virgil’s independence is being encroached upon and there is an erosion of confidence in his abilities that were part of his identity as a sightless person. Additional aspects of his new life were just as jumbled, as disconnected. Virgil couldn’t identify his cat and dog without touching them while visually investigating them. He’s confused by distances, light, sizes, angles and perspectives. Sacks says that “Virgil was blinded for a minute, until he put on a pair of dark-green sunglasses.
Even ordinary daylight, he said, was too bright for him, too glary, he felt that he saw best in quite subdued light. ” (131) During the initial testing Sacks’ conducted with Virgil, they went to a zoo for an outing. Virgil was only able to make out an animal by either the way it moved or by specific visual features, such as height. His heightened sense of hearing was noticed when he heard the lions roaring in the distance. He had a request to touch an animal, and was able to examine a statue of an ape. When he touched the statue, “he had an air of assurance that he had never shown when examining anything by sight…. emanding that he renounce all that came easily to him, that he sense the world in a way incredibly difficult for him and alien. ” (132-33) Virgil’s non-sighted and sighted worlds joined briefly in the moment when it became apparent he could visually identify more features of the ape only after touching the statue. In Virgil’s journey to see again, he appears to be finding his way by adapting his skills from his past life to his current existence. There must have been a necessity to do so, so as to bridge the gap and to glue together who he was with who he is, and who he is going to be.
Otherwise, I could see the confusion, disruption and erosion of independence would become overwhelming to Virgil and could therefore stymie any potential for improvement after the upcoming second surgery. Virgil was experiencing periods of severe visual fatigue and spontaneous distorted vision. The fatigue was understandable; his visual system was weak and unstable, not yet practiced and strong. The periods of distorted vision that lasted for hours or days were not as easy to understand, and therefore more of a worry.
The continuation of the distorted vision became apparent with displays of what Sacks calls psychic blindness: “speaking of seeing while in fact appearing blind and showing no visual behavior whatever. ” (136) He exhibited another type of withdrawal of sight, emotional, as well. When his family came to town for his wedding, Virgil began to need Amy to lead him around due to blurred vision. His family did oppose the surgery and despite the verity even then they did not believe he could see. Virgil’s emotional withdrawal of sight only ended after his family left post-wedding.
Virgil was treated by his family as his former self instead of as his current self; his past passivity returned and he gave them what they wanted: Virgil as a blind man. His current visual identity must have felt threatened. Due to Virgil’s unpracticed and weak visual state, “that either neural overload or identity conflict might just push him over it. ” (138) After the surgery on Virgil’s left eye revealed that his acuity was the same as the right eye, there was some improvement but not as much as had been hoped for. He was able to focus somewhat better and was able to go back to work after the 2 months since the first surgery.
Massage therapy was different for him now that he could see his clients. In order to do his job comfortably, he had to close his eyes and function as a non-sighted person. This experience for Virgil made him revert to functioning as blind rather than sighted, continuing his identity confusion. His continuing experiences for the next few months were memorable: experiencing the holidays with sight, seeing his family and home in Kentucky, seeing the ballet with Amy. He interacted with his family while exhibiting visual behaviors, a big step towards change for Virgil. The change was arrested by his becoming critically ill with pneumonia.
The result of the illness was lack of oxygen to brain, and Virgil’s vision was receding. He acted as though he could see even when he couldn’t; by reaching for things but saying he could not see. Sacks indicates “This condition – called implicit sight – occurs if the visual parts of the cerebral cortex are knocked out, but the visual centers in the subcortex remain intact. ” (146) At this point for Virgil, he is now experiencing even more change; after his health improves and he leaves the hospital, he is attached to an oxygen tank which leaves him unable to work, and therefore having to move from his home.
Of course, these changes have an effect on Virgil’s visual and emotional states, as they would on anyone. Virgil is now blind – again. Even though Virgil has rare moments of minimal sight, he has returned to functioning as a non-sighted person. After the all too-human reaction of rage, Virgil himself has expressed an acceptance of his visual situation. Sacks notes, “Virgil for his part, maintains philosophically, ‘These things happen. ’” (151) As Virgil says, things do happen. My friend lost her hearing as a toddler; I will be losing my vision and prepare myself for this inevitable future.
All of us deal with these stages of life and envelop them into ourselves, our identities. There are different definitions of perspective: point of view; representation of objects as they might appear to the eye; a mental view or prospect. To apply them all to Virgil is to see him as he should be seen, without a need to change him and to accept him with and without sight. Works Cited Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print. ---. “The Last Hippie. ” An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Vintage, 1996. 42 – 76. Print.
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