“She was not one for emptying her face of expression. ” ― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Before I got contact lenses (i.e., before I could see properly on a regular basis, since I always hated that fishtank-feel glasses have) I thought I had some kind of idea of what my life had been lacking without them.
In some respects, I wasn’t far off. My visual field lost its previous oiliness, where only things close up were concrete and distinct and the backdrop slipped and shimmied at will. I wandered around supermarkets, suddenly thick with texture, muttering Macneice (“I peel and portion/ A Tangerine and spit the pips and feel/ The Drunkenness of things being various.”) And it was a kind of drunkenness, a constant immersion in a strange and almost hallucinatorily bright world, that I couldn’t quite believe was just the normal day-to-day one that other people experienced.
After a while though, other, darker side-effects starting coming through. Bus stops were the first. I would be cycling my bike and unexpectedly catch the eye of someone at a bus stop, looking dejectedly rightwards, eyeing the way they hoped it would come. Their boredom and tired misery and general disgust with the world would hit me, so hard that I often felt resentment at being assaulted by the emotional lives of strangers in this way. People leaving work in crowds, not bothering to re-arrange their faces in public, the bleakness and dullness of what they were feeling, I suddenly knew and felt as well.
It wasn’t as if before I could see other properly, people’s emotional lives were a mystery to me. Friends who got in physically close I could read and understand, but often this came with verbal expressions of emotions as well so it was easy to downplay the role of sight in emotional understanding. People I worked with, casual acquaintances, people behind the checkout- all of these were close enough to see, but people tend to empty their faces of emotion when interacting in those kinds of contexts, and all I’d got previously from them was a kind of collective calm or blankness.
No, it was understanding the often depressing emotional lives of strangers that really disturbed me, the expressions they show when there isn’t any point to lying or pretence.** The fact that against my will these suddenly became unignorable facts about the world that I cycled through, in much the same way as cars or traffic lights. And this was often a horrible, horrible experience. One which, if I was feeling particularly fragile or tired, would make me remove my contact lenses in the office toilets before I left.
Descartes is often seen as the poster boy for the kind of dualism which involves two worlds; the physical one containing “matter, and energy, and all the tangible contents of the universe including human bodies” combined with “another psychical world: mental events and states belong to a private world which is inaccessible to public observation.” (From Kenny btw***) I’ve become pretty convinced that this is far from what he actually meant****, most relevantly here because he had the tendency to say things like “ “all animals easily communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger, and so on”.*****
But Descartes aside, there’s more than enough philosophers out there who don’t think it’s obvious that bodies “easily communicate” emotions. Philosophers who then start trying to squeeze their grubby little fingers into the gap they’re sure exists between the purely physical world of bodies and the strange ethereal land of minds, emotions and impulses, only so they can then try to patch it up again with phony philosophy.******
Mill, an early Zombie-worrier, is one among many who can’t resist this kind of unnecessary reconstructive surgery. (For the fortunate and uninitiated-; a philosophical zombie is a being which is indistinguishable from human beings, but without conscious experience, designed to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world .) “By what evidence do I know or by what considerations am I led to believe” Mill writes “that there exist other sentient creatures; that the walking and speaking figures which I see and hear, have sensations and thoughts, or in other words, possess Minds?” Indeed. What evidence could we ever have to persuade someone unconvinced that these strange lumbering human forms could ever possess a mind? Mill solves it by saying that we infer other minds from introspection into our own, giving us another one of those arguments that philosophy tutors like to give first years for them to pull apart.
Of course it’s possible to combat these kinds of strange, dualistic conceptions within the realm of philosophy, and I’ll go out on a limb and say not just possible but probably also a worthwhile thing to do. But I look at all these philosophers, particularly the ones who lived before contact lenses became widespread in the 1970s, and think about the difficulties I used to have understanding the emotional lives of strangers from their vague, furry movements. How could I possibly feel that these creatures who look like sullen, ghostly cows moving through thick fog had lives of any sort, let alone inner ones? And although I don’t doubt all the great, dead colleagues had unrivalled intellectual brilliance, according to the College of Optometrists 74% of people in the UK either need corrective eyewear or have had laser surgery ******, so I find it hard to believe they managed to all escape that particular deficiency.
Of course many philosophers, particularly modern ones, wear and have worn glasses. but even before TV was around our collective art forms taught us that things with a frame around them were less real (or more distant) than things which just hit us straight on and unmediated. Hence the fishtank feel (or reassuring buffer) that I mentioned at the beginning of this post
I just want to say to anyone who is unconvinced, anyone who still thinks that the way facial muscles move and convulse could possibly be a fake, or a pretence, or just clever programming; get your eyes tested, redressed and then drop me a line. I’m more than happy to take you on a tour of the most depressing bus-stops in the south west. That should definitely change your mind.
** PI 249. “Are we perhaps over-hasty in our assumption that the smile of an unweaned infant is not a pretence?—And on what experience is our assumption based? (Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one.)”
***Kenny 1989: 1
**** Just read Descartes Dualism by Baker and Morris. Please. It’s worth it.
***** (CSMK III: 366.)
****** Sticking with Salinger here.