One-Eyed Jacks

From the Giant Polyphemus and the God Odin to the Man in the Hathaway Shirt and Robert Wernick

"My father-in-law came down for breakfast," said the pleasant lady beside me in the eye-doctor's waiting room. "He sat down at the table across from me like he always does, and I began to scream and scream. I never screamed so much in all my life." She paused to spur the interest of all of us in the waiting-room. "Here I'd been living under the same roof with that man for 16 years, and I never knew he had a glass eye. And what did the old fool do that morning, he put it in upside down."

I was only having my eyes examined that day, but it was not long before, after a couple of botched operations for a retinal detachment, I joined that father-in-law in the great silent uncounted minority of the one-eyed.

I know our numbers are great because every time I mention my own state ,I am apt to learn that somebody else whom I always regarded as perfectly normal is one-eyed too. This one had an eye kicked out in a football game, that one a cable snapped on an oil rig. My own family physician was born with a congenital cataract. At a recent dinner party I met one lady who had lost an eye pulling weeds in her garden, and another whose retina was jolted loose while she was bicycling too fast on a bumpy road. An eye doctor in New York tells me he suspects there are hundreds of thousands of us. But how many, no one has the slightest idea. No computers, no punch cards are programmed for this interesting statistic.

We do not even have a name, a noun to define us, a privilege accorded to other disadvantaged groups like hemophiliacs, diabetics, lunatics. I suggest we pick one out of Greek mythology: Arimasps.

The Arimasps are known to us from a few lines in Herodotus summarizing a tale told by the poet Aristeias, a remarkable bard who came back from the dead in order to read his own verses. Aristeias says the Arimasps were a tribe of barbarians living in the Scythian steppes north of the Black Sea. They were one-eyed horsemen, and they were all thieves; they spent their lives on daring desperate raids to loot caches of gold which were guarded night and day by winged lions with eagle beaks, griffins.

Unlike them, we modern Arimasps, though living in a morbidly minority-conscious age, have little desire to stake out a distinct position for ourselves, collect disability insurance, get preferred treatment when we apply for a job; most of us are content to "pass," to merge quietly in the great binocular majority, unnoticed by all but the most keen-sighted of our neighbors until the day we put our artificial orb in upside down.

It is really quite easy to do so, as I discovered almost immediately when the bandages came off. The field of vision was diminished much less drastically than I had imagined, I could navigate a crowded sidewalk, drive a car, hit a golf ball. It is true that children, bicycles, dogs and such did develop a habit of turning up with disconcerting suddenness on my blind side. There are some people who never get used to this phenomenon: there was a lady notorious in Boston society lady for her habit of, when friends or neighbors approached her from the wrong side while she was taking tea at the club, snapping around and biting them. :

A little prudence and a little practice can take care of this problem most of the time, In fact have to take care of it: two eyes are a blessing but a single eye is an irreplaceable resource.

I had plenty of time to reflect on this when my surviving retina began to go (this happens all too often) a year to the day after the first. I had learned a little about eye care in that year, and I knew what to do.

Half a century earlier, and I would have had no idea what to do. Neither would anybody else.

For the eye was one of the most refractory elements in the human organism. In the old days there were no eye doctors, there were eye ear nose and throat doctors, and the eye was the orphan in that group.

For a very simple reason. While it was comparatively simple to treat the outer, mechanical parts of the eye, the cornea, the iris, the crystalline lens, and so on, no one knew how to handle the retina, which is the heart of the eye, the multi-layered film that absorbs light coming through the pupil and translates it into electrical signals which are transmitted through the optic nerve to the cerebral cortex to become vision, the world as we see it. To handle the retina, to poke into it with sharp steel instruments and adjust it and cut it and sew it, you first have to see it, really see it and study it in all its infinitely delicate detail. But the only way to see into a living eye is tot look through the pupil, which even when dilated by drops of belladonna is never more than eight or nine millimeters in diameter, which means that looking through a pupil is like looking through a keyhole into an unlit room. It takes some ingenuity to look and simultaneously shine a light through such a hole. But to precisely judge all the contours of a damaged retina, which is crinkled like a ply of wet Kleenex, you have to have stereoscopic vision, you have to have two eyes at the hole. And in the old ophthalmological textbooks that was described as a physical impossibility..Eminent men of science had repeatedly tried to design such an instrument, and they had all failed. When a case of retinal detachment turned up in a hospital, the interns would say, with the gallows humor which comes with the territory, "Let's send out the youngest resident to see if he can find a seeing-eye dog."

Like other impossibilities, this one would presumably have been taken care in the progressive development of modern science over the centuries. But in 1945 an impatient young doctor in London, Charles Schepens, was sure he knew how to build such an instrument, with a light like a miner's lamp clamped to his forehead and two lenses in front of his eyes connected by mirrors and prisms to a lens in front of the patient's eye. But he had nothing in the way of glass and metal, severely rationed materials in wartime, to build it with. He was a Belgian refugee who had come to London after many perils in the Belgian resistance, in the French resistance, in crossing the Pyrenees with German patrols on his heels. He was scheduled to begin service a residency in Moorfields Hospital, and when he reported for duty discovered that the hospital had been blown to m by a German V1 buzz-bomb. He would spend the next few days prowling through the rubble, picking up lenses, brass screws, aluminum tubing, till he had enough to go back to his room and put them all together.

And so was born the world's first stereoscopic ophthalmoscope, of the kind which thirty-four years later would permit a student of Dr Schepens, William Jarrett, to diagnose my poor torn retina and later operate on it (it was a little difficult, he said, because I have deep-set eyes, and working on them was rather like reaching down to work things around at the bottom of a well) and restore it to somewhat better condition than it was before the trouble started. And attach the white of they eye to it with a silicone-rubber spheral buckle (another invention of Dr. Schepens) which spares the patient the traditional necessity of remaining flat on his back in bed for weeks with sandbags hanging on each side of his head to keep it motionless.

I had learned in school that having two eyes gives us stereoscopic vision, combining two slightly different images in way that provides accurate perception of depth, enabling us to place things exactly where they are in the outer world. This is a great evolutionary achievement of the primate order, the early apes monkeys and their kin, whose eyes millions of years ago began moving around to the front of their heads, one of the things, like upright stature and opposable thumbs, which has enabled man to win mastery over all the beasts. A hawk may see much further than we do, but all a hawk sees is an abstract pattern of shifting grays which send a message to its pea-sized brain that there is food down there. But only man can see the full furry pink-eyed complexity of a rabbit. Almost all beasts are color-blind, and depend for their survival more on smell and hearing than on sight. In some instances it is hard to see what use is sight at all: what in thunderation could Moby Dick have made of what he saw out of his two little eyes staring at two diametrically opposite and totally dissimilar seascapes, perhaps a school of herring on one side and Captain Ahab brandishing a murderous harpoon on the other?

I hardly expected to go back to an earlier evolutionary stage when I was reduced to one eye. But I expected the earth to be flat. I expected the perception of depth to be gone, or badly distorted. Not a bit of it. I soon learned that a lifetime of experience is just as good as stereoscopic vision at telling me how any car lengths that truck is ahead of me on the Interstate.

Perhaps I give my head an imperceptible unconscious wiggle to produce parallax. Perhaps there is some imperfection of detail: I would not recommend a one-eyed brain surgeon. [But when this article came out for the first time in 1979, I received an indignant letter from a reader telling me that his one-eyed father-in-law was the best brain-surgeon in Tennessee.]

On average jobs or occasion, a single eye is no real handicap. In some situations it may even be an advantage. You don't have to waste energy by squinting the other eye when you are aiming a rifle. You may have noticed that drinkers have a tendency to let one eye droop after a certain number of glasses. This is an unconscious reaction of the body which, finding itself no longer capable of coordinating the differing visions of two eyes, removes one of them temporarily from the scene of the action; just as the same drinker will consciously close one eye when he is driving home and sees double red lights in front of him. The one-eyed drinker avoids these problems.

Now that you know that I am an Arimasp, do you think the better of me, or the worse? Or does it make no difference at all?

The world has given varying answers.

In mythology and popular superstition, there is likely to be something abnormal, ambiguous, unsettling, threatening, about any character who turns up with a single eye. In some European languages, the adjective one-eyed has secondary meaning of disreputable - un hôtel borne (a one-eyed hotel) in France is the kind where you sleep in your clothes and put the legs of your bed in your shoes.

If its is the right eye that is lost (like mine), the left one may well turn, in many parts of the world, into an Evil Eye, capable of blasting crops, infecting cattle, causing train wrecks, If the left eye of a corpse will not close, it is well known that someone else in the family will die soon.

Even if not regarded as wholly evil, the Arimasp may still bear a lingering reputation for being more sly and devious that his or her neighbor. An old folk-tale has a one-eyed man say to his two-eyed neighbor, "I bet you a hundred crowns I can see more than you can." "Done," says the other, looking to pick up some easy income. "Look at me and pay me," says the first; "you see only one eye and I see two."

A similar sharpness was displayed in the bright light of history by "the greatest sailor since the world began," the great admiral Horatio Nelson who lost one eye fighting the French at Calvi in Corsica in 1794. Seven years later he was commanding a squadron outside the harbor of Copenhagen. His superior, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, reluctant to take his heavy ships of the line through the treacherous channel under the Danish guns massed on ship and shore, sent in Nelson with the smaller ships. Seeing one frigate run aground on a shoal, seeing the clouds of smoke from the Danish batteries, Sir Hyde panicked and hoisted the signal for a general withdrawal. Nelson clapped his spy-glass to his absent eye, saw no signal, and sailed on into the harbor to sink the Danish fleet, silence the Danish guns, and cower the French government into forgetting about declaring war on England.

(A hundred-and-one years later Admiral Sir John Fisher the First Sea Lord was urging the British government to "Copenhagen it" by letting him attack and destroy the German fleet in its home ports, without any declaration of war, before it had time to grow into a menace to British control of the seas. It was not considered a very gentlemanly thing to do, and the British government paid no attention to the proposal -- unlike the Japanese government which.forty-six years later enthusiastically the suggestion of Admiral Yamamoto to Copenhagen the American fleet in Pearl Harbor) .

King Philip II of Macedon lost an eye in battle for having impiously peeked through a chink in the door to see his wife Olympias performing religious rites of the Orphic sort. "Zealously affecting these fanatical and enthusiastic inspirations," says the biographer Plutarch, she "was wont in the dances proper to these ceremonies to have great tame serpents about her, which sometimes creeping out of the ivy in the mystic fans, sometimes winding themselves around the sacred spears, and the women's chaplets, made a spectacle which men could not look upon without horror." It was generally believed that on the occasion of Philip's ill-timed curiosity, the queen was copulating with one of these snakes -- really a god in disguise -- and out of this union came the child Alexander, who was to conquer so much of the world.

Some peoples have held that God himself is one-eyed, perhaps because they felt that an imperfect world like our could only have been made by an imperfect Creator. In one version of ancient Egyptian cosmogony, Ra, the sun god of Heliopolis who created first himself and then (by masturbating and spitting) other gods and earth and sky, had a divine eye which was separable and capable of wandering off by itself. This eye went off one day to look for two of Ra's children who had strayed away. During its absence, it was replaced with a substitute eye, and when the genuine one came home it was enraged, but Ra placated it by placing it on his forehead and appointed it to rule the world which he was about to create. (A version of this all-seeing Eye can be seen on the Great Seal of the United States which you will find on every dollar bill in your pockets.) Another account has it that Ra sent his two children Shu and Tefnut to bring back the wandering eye. It fought with them, and wept with rage when it was captured, and from those tears sprang the race of men.

In cold distant Scandinavia, the top god Odin (German Wotan, Anglo-Saxon Woden, to whom we pay homage every Wednesday) knew that under one root of the ash-tree Yggdrasil which holds up all creation lay the spring of Mimir, in which was hidden all wisdom and understanding. He went there to ask for a drink from the spring, and could only get it by giving one of his eyes as a pledge. He went on to become the wiliest of all gods, a magician, a poet, a shape-changer, a divine Arimasp. He was banished to Hell when the Scandinavians were converted to Christianity, but he has been known to come back. Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic poet-historian, tells in his Heimskringla how one day Olaf Tryggvason, the first Christian king of Norway was greeted during Easter festivities by an old one-eyed man in a broad-brimmed hat who kept him spell-bound most of a night with tales of distant lands and marvelous events. It was only at daybreak, when the storyteller had mysteriously disappeared that the king realized that it had been the God Odin himself, come to let people know that though he was temporarily out of a job, he had not given up and would be around for a long time yet.

In ancient Greece there was a tribe of brutish sullen giants called Cyclopes with a single horrid eye in the middle of their foreheads who lived off goats' milk and human flesh in solitary caves. Odysseus and some of his men wandered into the cave of the Cyclope Polyphemus at one point of their wanderings, and found themselves barricaded there until Odysseus found a plan for escape. He got the giant drunk with a skinful of wine, then whittled a stake of olive wood to a sharp point, reddened it in the fire he used for cooking dinner, and drove it into his single eye. Odysseus and the other survivors were well out into the Mediterranean before Polyphemus figured out what was going wrong. He was still strong enough to pluck the peak off a mountain and throw it out, just a little short of its target. He was also stupid enough to have believed what he heard when, some time previously, he had asked his Greek guest for his name and he replied Outis, which in Greek means Nobody. Now all the other Cyclopes who had heard his howlings of pain and rage came out of their caves and howled back to ask Polyphemus what was happening to him. When he howled back that Nobody had blinded him, they shrugged their mighty shoulders and went back into their caves.

We need not be ashamed of counting Polyphemus among the noteworthy Arimasps. In Homer's Odyssey he is a savage brainless and altogether repellent figure. But the poet Theocritus portrays him more gently in his youth, a blundering awkward downy-cheeked giant, tongue-tied for love of the nymph Galatea, unable to understand why she will not come to his bed though he can offer her eleven fawns and four little bears.

There are other fearsome one-eyed giants flickering through the folklore of many lands. The Tartar hero Bissau and the Celtic hero or god Lugh both used red-hot weapons to burn out the single orb of such giants during their ancient wanderings. So did Sinbad the Sailor on his third voyage.

There is no evidence that prehistoric figures who lost one eye took any steps to replace it. Presumably they left the socket empty. Modern man finds this unsightly and has adopted different techniques for concealing the loss.

Often, perhaps in a majority of cases, there is little to conceal. Except to the very observant, the dead eye you see across from you in a subway train or at a cocktail party looks much the same as a live one, and few people are very observant.

However, when there is marked physical deterioration, it is usual to put in an artificial eye. Glass eyes date no further back than the late Renaissance, when Venetian glass makers ingeniously created the art. It developed prodigiously in the following centuries, particularly in Germany. The craftsmen there could make a product so natural looking that a popular tale sprang up which has been repeated in many forms throughout the world. The most modern version I have come across is in a book by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte who claims that when he was a war correspondent in Poland he came across an SS officer who in the line of duty found himself one day called upon to shoot a ten-year-old Jewish boy. This officer was very proud of his glass eye, a real masterpiece, glittering with life, and since he was feeling genial that day, he decided to give the little chap a sporting chance for his life. He told him that he would send him home if he could identify which of his two eyes was man-made. Without a moment's hesitation the boy pointed to the right eye. "How the devil did you know it?" cried the SS man. "I have fooled people for years with this eye, how could you possibly have known right away?" "It was simple," said the boy, "I just picked out the one that looked human."

[Ed Thompson, editor of the Smithsonian Magazine in which most of this text originally appeared, had heard the identical story in his childhood, except that the central figure was a banker in Fargo, North Dakota, and the stakes were somewhat more modest, they were concerned with lowering the interest rate on a mortgage.]

Glass eyes are rarely made these days, plastic is preferred. Traditionally artificial eyes were made by old family businesses which handed down trade secrets ever the generations, but today you can find manufacturers everywhere. They are generally secretive about their clientele, for most people who wear artificial eyes see no reason to make the fact known. Only occasionally do the publicity apparatuses of some public figure like the comedian Sammy Davis jr. feel that it adds human interest to their client.

Unlike most other consumer goods, the principal if not the sole function of the artificial eye is to not be noticed. But there are those who scorn pretense and would just as soon call the world's attention to their infirmity by sporting a patch, usually of a shiny somewhat sinister black, of the kind worn by General Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh's Men at War. Arimasps everywhere must have a warm feeling for this old scalawag who goes to a hero's death in German-occupied Yugoslavia, his one eye fixed balefully on the enemy lines he is storing, quite unaware that his men have all stopped following him and he is attended only by a Life photographer.

Horatio Nelson had such a patch. So did Ana de Mendoza, a lovely lady of sixteenth-century Spain, of a family so old and proud that she could regard King Philip II as a Flemish parvenu. She is said to have lost an eye at the age of 14 while dueling, and the silk patch she wore over it was considered a perfect complement to the striking but irregular beauty of her features. She plunged into a succession of political and amorous intrigues which added a lurid sparkle to Philip's gloomy court, and inspired a popular novel and a play which describe her final days, locked in an apartment of her palace by the king with the windows walled up so that her one lovely eye should never see the light of heaven again.

In more recent times, patches have been favored by pirates of the Spanish Main and desperadoes of the Wild West, by movie directors, war correspondents, generals like Moshe Dayan (who lost his when he was fighting with the British against the Vichy French in 1941 and the telescope through which he was peering at the enemy lines was stuck by a bullet).

Rakish romantic images like these came floating into the mind of a young advertising man named David Ogilvy in 1951 who had been given a modest budget of $30,000 to whip up some publicity for a small old-fashioned shirt manufacturer. It was pitiful in comparison to the $3 million which Arrow spent every year on its advertising campaigns. But Ogilvy, in one of those flashes of inspiration which make history, seized upon the dashing disillusioned worldly-wise figure of Baron George Wrangel, a White Russian refugee who had been working as greeter in a New York hotel, clad it in a Hathaway shirt, put a black patch over the perfectly good right eye, and sent it out to stare at fifty million potential customers across the United States. Both the Hathaway people and Ogilvy rose forthwith into the top income brackets.

Victor Hugo, who had something profound or something profoundly silly to say about just about everything (he was once accurately described by Jean Cocteau as a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo), took on the subject of monocularity too. The one-eyed man, he said, is more incomplete than the blind man because he does not know what he is missing.

The old fool got it all upside down. The one-eyed man, the Arimasp, is if anything, more complete than either the blind or the two-eyed man, precisely because he knows all too well what he is missing. He has been to the edge of the pit, and he knows what lies inside.

This may lead to some unease, a certain nervousness. Modern life is apt to be spasmodically punctuated by flickering electric lights and popping flashbulbs. At such moments I must always stop for a flection of a second to check that it is indeed an external event and not something unpleasant happening inside my remaining eye. I cannot forget the occasion when, shortly after the operation, I was at a friend's house in the country, there was a snowstorm, and when I poked my head out of the window in the morning there was nothing but an unbounded expanse of white with, in the foreground, three identical deck chairs turning their backs to me. For a panicky instant I was convinced that the buckle had snapped, my eye had turned into a bay window and that I would thenceforward see everything in triplicate.

But neither can I forget the time the bandages came off after my last opeartion and I knew that one eye at least had been saved. For countless days and tranquilized nights I had been in darkness, free to "see" what I wanted or what some unknown programmer in the brain wanted for me. When now I opened my eye to the world of light, the panorama was not very rich: a couple of struts and some wires and some tubing and a blank whitish expanse of hospital ceiling. But it was so gloriously precise, orderly, everything in its appointed place.

After the chaos of the dark here was the army of unalterable law. And every since, it has seemed to me that every line in the outer world, the world of light, - the "hard and wirey line" which Blake saw surround all things - is a little sharper, every color a little clearer, than it was before.

"Don't be alarmed," said the nurse who had just taken off the bandages, "if you don't see anything for a day or two, it is just something that happens after this type of operation." "But I see you perfectly clearly," I said as she bent over me to wipe something off my cheek. "Don't try to kid me," she said. "You have green eyes," I said, "and I can see a few red hairs reaching down on your forehead under your head-band." Her mouth dropped.

I believe that all of us Arimasps have had moments like this They give us a certain sense of superiority over the ordinary herd of the double-eyed who are unaware of their extraordinary luck and let so any riches of the visible world, struts and ceilings and wisps of red hair, slip by half noticed if at all. We are indeed more complete than they are. For all the growling of the griffins, the Arimasp gets the gold in the end

©1980 Robert Wernick

Smithsonian Magazine January 1980