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Gerry Turcotte: Opening windows into the soul

  • February 18, 2022

The opening to Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou is predictably impossible to watch. An eye is open, observing the viewer, and then a razor blade is sliced across its surface. Few could watch this without blinking or looking away, something the director depended on as he “cut” from a human to a cow’s eye. And yet, as I lay on the operating table, with a mask covering my entire face except for my exposed right eye, I remember thinking, as I watched the scalpel move towards me, and then felt it press on and into my eye, that this was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. I hoped it wouldn’t be my last.

My eye, of course, was anesthetized, and the light from the operating room was diffuse yet intense, so that I was looking at a kaleidoscope of images. All I could feel was the pressure of the knife inside my eye, but no pain. And soon I was unconscious.

The next morning, after more than 20 years of blurred vision, for the first time in my life, I read the bottom line of the optometrist’s chart. Radial keratotomies, which preceded laser eye surgery, were in their infancy and involved cutting the pupil some 16 times in a circular pattern in the hopes that the eye would flatten as it healed. In those days the success rate was mixed, but for me it was worth the risk. Perhaps not surprisingly, given my occupation as an academic and a writer, I prepared myself mentally for the ordeal by studying the issue of vision among writers and was not shocked to discover that it dominates the western artistic canon.

The Bible, which shapes much of this tradition, is itself filled with horrific accounts of blinding done as retaliation in war, though it is also a sign of Christ’s healing ministry. I think, for example, of the scene in John 9:4 and Christ’s words, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” So many of our current biblical sayings reflect this wide view of vision, from the ubiquitous “an eye for an eye” to lesser-known concepts such as “eye service” from Ephesians, that urges us always to do good, “not only when being watched” (Ephesians 6:6). Vision is a metaphor for human failings as well as the promise of salvation and hope. It is also emblematic of creation, so it is not surprising that artists have been drawn to this to represent the creative act.

One of my first loves was the work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who had a life-long fear of going blind, even though, by the time he died, his vision had pretty much remained unchanged. Not surprisingly, one of his great obsessions was the poet-seer Tiresius, the blind prophet from Greek myth. It is Tiresius who has the task, in Oedipus Rex, of advising the King that he is guilty of patricide and incest. The blind seer’s foresight sees him banished from society. Tennyson found this tragic price strangely appealing as a metaphor for poets and intellectuals who suffered in their quest to bring truth to power.

Not surprisingly, the converse of courageous vision and grace is “turning a blind eye” (Proverbs 28:27) to an issue, with short-sighted politicians or selfish citizens often being accused of myopia or worse. Psalm 146:8 reminds us that “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind,” but it takes courage to accept this gift and to see what is before us. It is far easier at times to ignore those in need, or to forget blemishes in our personal or societal behaviour and to choose to do nothing rather than confront an ugly truth.

In the end, though, our guidebook is easy to read and we are all fully capable of following its instructions. The Bible tells us to put others ahead of ourselves, to cast aside selfish and evil ways and to look upon those who are less fortunate than we are and to play a part in raising them up.

Whether it be confronting the ugly history of our residential schools, the unforgivable levels of homelessness and poverty or honouring our commitment to other individuals and nations that are most in need — our guidebook is clear. Do better. Do more. Let us open our eyes and see — and seeing, let us share a vision for an empowered world where none of us have to walk in darkness. That’s what we should have in our sights.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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