Eyes. The earliest daguerreotype portraits were executed with the eyes shut. . . Barthes' punctum is also the punctum caecum, the blind spot on the retina, the spot that cannot see itself but is the aperspectival blindness at the heart of sight. . . . In the 1847 daguerreotype, Dickinson's left eye can already be seen drifting slightly to the right, evidence of the condition of exotropia--from the Latin, for the turning out of the eye--that affected a long line of Norcross women, including Dickinson's mother. "The photograph," writes Barthes, "sometimes makes appear. . .a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor" (103). By 1862, the constellation of symptoms associated with exotropia--inflammation of the eyes, an abnormal intolerance to light, blurred vision--had become nearly debilitating for Dickinson. Fearing the early onset of blindness, she sought treatment from the country's most eminent opthamologist, Henry Willard Williams. The physician, famous for his use of the newly-invented opthalmascope, an optical device capable of penetrating and illuminating the interior of the human eye, prescribed a term of darkness: "He is not willing I should write" (A 628). Her letters to her sister Lavinia, written entirely in pencil, and sent from Cambridge, Mass., home to Amherst, constitute a daybook of blindness: "I cannot write but this" (A 628); "I have not looked at the Spring" (A 628); "I have been sick so long I do not know the Sun" (A 631); "All is foreign to me. . . the World is dead" (A 631). Like the letters, the poems of this period show an obsessive concern with the failure of vision. (See, for example, F P 336, F P 427, F P 428, F P 442, F P 484, F P 500, F P 591, F P 648, F P 696, F P 839, F P 869.)
Although Williams treated Dickinson's eye disease for brief intervals over three years, she never experienced a complete relief of the symptoms, and terminated her therapy without explanation in 1865.
Dickinson's eye problems point not only to an intimate family anxiety, but also to the cultural crisis surrounding vision. The extension of the human eye's range over the course of the nineteenth century into formerly invisible spheres by means of technology--prostheses such as the microscope, telescope, etc.--necessarily exposed its limitations and defects. In his 1855 treatise "Accommodation," for example, Hermann von Helmholtz, the inventor of the opthalmascope, made it clear that the eye was neither a perfect nor a perfectly powerful organ of perception: eyes, he concluded, "have a slight but perceptible defect of centering which produced the so-called astigmatism" (qtd. Beer 90). The emerging study of the pathologies of perception in the nineteenth century "revealed," moreover, a series of new disorders described by the general term "agnosia" and characterized by the breakdown and fragmentation of the integrity of perception. More alarming still, perhaps, were the results of optical experiments conducted into the retinal image and its variance indicating "that the subjective contents of the eye had no external correlate" (Lalvani 174). As Jonathan Crary observes, one effect of the pervasive concern with the defects of human vision was the imposition of "a normative vision on the observer" (94-95). The aberrations--deviations--of the eye, once known and identified, might also be subject to control.
In returning the gaze of the camera's mechanical and perfectly focused eye with her own deviant eye, Dickinson disrupts the perceptual mastery implied in the pyramid of sight guaranteed by linear perspective. By registering her dis-ease with and estrangement from normative models of vision, moreover, Dickinson's wandering, exotropic eye opposes, perhaps even undoes, the system of fixations communicated in and through her "bound" hands. Though she is a still--immobilized--"target" or "patient," she escapes the framing of the camera and its invisible operator, roaming, during the long time of the exposure, outside of a fixed position. Like Bayard's early, haunting combination prints of clouds with their multiple compositional vanishing points, Dickinson's daguerreotype blows wide open the closed field of forces defining the conventional portrait-photograph.
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