home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

in the blink of an eye

21 november 2021

I first got glasses at the age of six. The mid-1960s were probably the height of eyeglass-wearing in the first world. Glasses had become inexpensive even as they got better at correcting vision; contact lenses were uncomfortable and something of a luxury; routine corrective surgery was a ways off. So a rite of passage for many kids was their first pair of glasses.

My frames were ungainly black plastic things that were fashionable at the time (as well as practical because bendable but virtually unbreakable). 1960s black plastic frames have gone through several fashion cycles since, periodically trending hideously embarrasing, periodically retro-cool. In the 1970s I went to "tortoiseshell" plastic, reinforced by metal. Though wire was all the rage in the '70s thanks to John Lennon, it was deemed too fragile for me and I had to wait for adulthood to get metal frames – by then as indestructible as any plastic.

And then a few years ago I stopped wearing glasses again, except to drive or watch a movie. Cataract surgery fused artificial lenses into my eyes, and the implants seem to have made me "middle-sighted": I need glasses to see into the distance, and I need a magnifier to read the date on a coin. As if anybody used coins anymore or cared what date was on them.

Stefana Sabin's In the Blink of an Eye isn't about contacts or implants; she is interested in the lenses held some distance from the eye that helped me read in the 1960s, and helped millions of users read, do fine crafts, appreciate beauty, and interact socially with their better-sighted fellows for centuries before the 1960s: in other words, spectacles.

Though tantalizing references to vision aids survive from antiquity, spectacles proper seem to be a medieval European invention. The original vision enhancers were made of beryl (whence the German term in Sabin's subtitle: Brille, eyeglasses). Beryl is a transparent mineral, and if you put a suitable lump of it on a page of a book, it will magnify the text. This kind of reading aid is still widely available, though usually made of plastic now and sometimes containing tiny built-in reading lamps.

As their origins suggest, Brille were closely related to reading and thus a feature of clerics, scholars, and functionaries: people whose careers with the written word could be enhanced or extended via prostheses. Via incremental adaptation, beryl lumps on a page became beryl, and then glass lenses held closer to the eye: with the advantage that you could see not only your book but somebody across the street, too.

It took a couple of centuries, though, to hit on the idea of fixed frames secured by earpieces. Early eyeglasses pivoted in the middle and had to be held by at least one hand (like later lorgnons, which were as much fashion statements as functional items). Fixing the central pivot resulted in pince-nez, which were hands-free but pretty uncomfortable. Next came temple glasses, pressed to the sides of the head instead of the nose. Eventually humans either evolved ears or realized they already had them, and glasses became so unobtrusive that you could forget you had them on.

Evidence for this progression comes not just from texts but from a tradition, in art, of picturing spectacles, often as emblematic of learning. Joshua Reynolds "was obliged to wear glasses and opted for a pair that could be fixed in his wig" (62) because of course everybody BITD wore a wig; but this factoid also reminds us that a lot of painters wore glasses because of the demands of their work, and liked to sneak images of them into that work.

A century before Reynolds, Felix Murillo slapped a pair of glasses onto one of Four Figures on a Step, a picture I see every time I go to the Kimbell art museum in Ft. Worth. Sabin suggests that the woman, gazing out at the viewer, wears glasses because she is short-sighted. But I've heard a theory that she is delousing the child she holds by the head; in that case, she might be wearing them as magnifiers. Aside from the weirdness of seeing them in a picture from the 1650s, her glasses are also literally attractive; they draw your attention. Every few cycles, glasses like hers reappear as attractive accessories.

Although they stand for nerdiness and lack of sex appeal, and sometimes became racist tropes for Jews or Asians, eyeglasses could acquire appealing connotations. Much 20th-century rhetoric was devoted to noting the seldomness of passes made at girls who wore them, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, but just about anything can become a sex symbol and glasses were ultimately no exception. Sure, Donna Reed donned specs in It's a Wonderful Life to connote the spinsterly horrors that would have accompanied the non-existence of Jimmy Stewart; but not long after Sue Lyon would make heart-shaped sunglasses an icon of sexual magnetism in Lolita.

Politicians, except for the occasional Rick Perry, have been shyer than movie stars about being seen in glasses. Contact lenses have largely eliminated this problem, but it surfaced briefly in the 20th century, Sabin notes, for leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, who were sometimes seen with spectacles and sometimes preferred to pretend they could do without them. Pince-nez were more integral to Woodrow Wilson's image, but he lived in an age of more rudimentary visual media and he was a professor, anyway. But Teddy Roosevelt, who could presumably have beaten Wilson up without a second thought, wore iconic eyeglasses too. As always, the cultural import of objects is highly arbitrary.

Sabin, Stefana. In the Blink of an Eye. [AugenBlicke: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Brille, 2019.] Translated by Nick Somers. London: Reaktion, 2021.