Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why "normalvision"?

George Bernard Shaw relates to the readers of the Preface to his first collection of plays (Plays Unpleasant) an anecdote about a visit to his physician. His physician was pleased to inform Shaw that his eyesight was “normal.”

I naturally took this to mean that it was like every­body else's; but he rejected this construction as paradoxical, and hastened to explain to me that I was an exceptional and highly fortunate person optically, normal sight conferring the power of seeing things accurately and being enjoyed by only about ten per cent of the population, the remaining ninety per cent being abnormal. I immediately perceived the explana­tion of my want of success in fiction. My mind's eye, like my body's, was “normal”: it saw things differently from other people's eyes, and saw them better.
Shaw’s ironic stance is the opposite of another great ironist, Socrates. The latter did not claim the knowledge that “normal” vision granted; just the opposite—he insisted that he knew nothing, an assertion that allowed him to question (and prove wrong) those who laid claim to knowledge.

The problem for Shaw (which he alludes to in the above quotation, “my want of success in fiction”) is that if the overwhelming majority of people (having blurred vision) do not see things as clearly as you do, they are not going to believe you, but their own vision. Shaw said that in order to get a hearing, he tricked his audience by donning the cap and bells of a court jester, thereby following the example of the great Roman satirist Horace, ridentam dicere verum—to tell the truth laughing.


I am too vain, even for the purposes of satire, to adopt the pose of a Socratic ironist, pretending that I know nothing. I have, however, appropriated Shaw's idea of a "mind's eye [that sees] things differently from other people's eyes, and [sees] them better" and become "normalvision." But being particularly myopic in actual fact, when I see the truth, it is all rather blurred. So, when I don the attire of a court jester, think "fool."