One of my husband’s most requested critical thinking exercises among his teenage students are his famous “would-you-rathers.” In these exercises masquerading as games, students are asked to decide between two equally horrendous—or equally appealing—circumstances and must explain the reasoning behind their choice with sufficient evidence. Would you rather be God or God’s friend? Addicted to cigarettes or loneliness? Incredibly smart and incredibly ugly or incredibly dumb and incredibly pretty? What’s interesting about these explorations is what the answers reveal about the person who answers; in choosing a person is forced to align her or himself with a value system that buttresses their choice. Even more interesting, one can, from that, extrapolate a cultural value system in play that makes some choices inherently more popular than others. (Sadly, almost everyone under the age of twenty is pretty okay with being dumb and pretty.) I can still remember the tantalizing “would-you-rather” of my youth that came to me today while constructing the topic for this post: Would you rather be deaf or blind? I seem to recall that almost no one, myself included, ever picked blindness.
In no small way, I think that vision’s linguistic tie to knowledge and verbal experience is what makes it such a crucial sense. Although we may pinch ourselves to make sure we’re not dreaming, we don’t have to touch it to believe it or open our mouths to taste the truth. We elucidate truths, radiate confidence, shine a light on important concepts, illuminate ideas, and learn to see with clarity. The way in which we speak of vision elucidates the ways in which we see it.
Wolfram Von Eisenbach’s brilliant German lyric Parzival, a thirteenth century re-telling of Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Grail romance, is a veritable wealth of visual metaphors. In the first chapter alone, I counted at least fifteen references to radiant looks, eyes telling hearts what to do, and beauty outshining all others. The opening sequence, in which Wolfram responds to his detractors, compares their “unripe wits” to “a dull mirror or a blind man’s dream.” Here, seeing is inextricably linked to a psychological clarity. A “seer” is not just someone born with the gift of sight, but a person able to accurately discern the wisdom of poetry. Throughout Wolfram’s work, beauty and radiance are associated with goodness and chivalric nobility. Night is a place of weariness, death, and sorrow, while when our hero wakes from nightmares, “indeed the sun was shining through the windows.” Perhaps, as has been suggested by other scholars, this connection reflects medieval art’s depiction of saintliness with bursts of light and halos, but I also think it elucidates the metaphor of vision as so central to Western epistemology.
Equally interesting is the text’s conflation of visions; in the description of Parzival’s birth, for example, a depiction of visible light is entangled with his mother’s psychological vision. In discovering a vision of “things unknown in her before,” she feels “as though a shooting-star swept her to the upper air where a host of fiery thunderbolts assailed her…and crackled with sparks.” These visions foretell the death of Parzival’s father and are consequently anguishing, but it is not the visions themselves that carry negative connotations, as evidenced by the reliance on luminescent imagery. The light of vision may bring with it presentiments of terror, but radiance itself is the realm of the divine.
Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought dedicates a scant few pages of his 600+ page masterpiece to medieval vision, but this account in no less instructive for its brevity. Many scholars, it seems, have viewed the medieval age as one in which a different structuring of the sensuous hierarchy was in place; hearing and touch, not sight, is said to have taken precedence. Citing studies by Lucien Febvre, Robert Mandrou, and others, Jay shows that often “there is an assumed contrast, sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes not, between medieval and modern visual cultures.” Though works such as Wolfram’s Parzival scream evidence to the contrary, unfair dichotomies of this type proliferate general thinking about pre-modern peoples; they, in common thought, are most certainly not us. And yet, the more I look to pre-modern texts, the more I see the us in them. It is, it seems to me, a fruitless endeavor to attempt to draw a definitive line separating the modern and pre-modern. Rather, a view of pre-modern work as art on its own terms would serve us better to elucidate the lessons such visions contain.