America is having a hard time seeing from up above like Nils Holgersson did

— From “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” by Selma Lagerlöf.

When he was 16, the writer-thinker extraordinaire, Aldous Huxley, was struck with an eye disease that left him blind for 18 months. Years later he recalled, “I had to depend on Braille for my reading and a guide for my walking with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with enough vision to permit of my detecting the two-hundred foot letter on the Snellen Chart.” That’s the long black and white rectangular chart doctors and government agencies use to measure sightability.

Huxley did regain some sight but had to rely on thick-lensed glasses that wore him down as the day wore on. And this a man whose calling in life was reading and writing books for nearly half a century. (His “The Doors of Perception” is about sight’s relation to mental health.)

In a similar way, the great Irish writer James Joyce had trouble with his eyes. He underwent 12 operations. In his biography of the Dubliner, Gordon Bowker says after those operations Joyce couldn’t, “see lights, suffering continual pain from the operation, weeping oceans of tears, highly nervous, and unable to think straight.”

Like Huxley, he became “dependent on kind people to see him across the road and hail taxis for him. All day, he lay on a couch in a state of complete depression, wanting to work but quite unable to do so.”

In the classic photos of Joyce, the first thing you see are the glasses (maybe the hat) fitted with thick-hazed lenses.

Gradually biographers have come to reveal that Joyce contracted syphilis and that that affected his eyes. In 1931, Joyce said, “I deserve all this on account of my iniquities.”

There are many differences between the two writers but one that stands out is that Huxley wrote a book on sight called “The Art of Seeing.” It came out in 1942, thirty-two years after he was first struck.

To help himself, Huxley adopted a sight-improvement module developed by a certain Doctor William Bates; he adhered to Bates’s regimen and his eyes improved. He became a devotee.

But some doctors raised concerns about Huxley’s claims; one reviewer of the book said Huxley “borders on the ridiculous.”

Pasted on the inside cover of my 1943 Chatto & Windus cloth edition is a small newspaper clipping with a headline that reads, “A council bans Huxley eye book.”

The text says, “Southport [England] libraries committee have refused to purchase Aldous Huxley’s book, ‘The Art of Seeing,’ in which he describes how his sight was restored, on the ground that it is more likely to do harm than good.” Whammo.

It does not say who the committee members are, whether librarians following doctors’ orders or taking a stand on ophthalmological health in accord with the ethics of their profession: a meaningful difference.

Bates deals with the psychological dimensions of sight and Huxley goes a step further. He says a lot of the “mal-functioning and strain” people suffer comes from their psychological make-up; that is, a person’s emotional gestalt affects what he sees.

Sounding like Freud, Huxley avers, “The conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use.” That is, constrictive ideologies set up a mental framework that ambushes biology: the cornea, lens, all the parts of the eyeball that allow people to see (straight).

He says people try “too hard to do well … feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes.” Not at home with themselves, they worry about failing which affects their sight.

The reviewer who criticized Huxley did say the philosopher was “quite right in saying that visual disabilities are often muscular and often psychopathic in origin”; thus people can help themselves by adopting protocols like Bates’ [not an endorsement].

The reviewer concluded “The Art of Seeing” would be good for psychiatrists “as an intimate and revealing self-study in psychology.” Which can be taken two ways: (1) that “The Art of Seeing” is a memoir worthy of attention or (2) that Huxley needs a psychiatrist.

One example Huxley gives of how psychological make-up affects vision is a woman who’s terrified of snakes: Walking along one day, she does a double-take thinking she just saw a snake; she looks again and sees only a piece of rubber tubing.

Huxley said memories of snakes had imprinted themselves on her imagination and were ready to surface when called upon. It’s the psycho-philosophical-biological condition of (1) seeing what is not there or (2) not seeing what is.

A lot of people reject examining these issues because it requires considerable self-analysis, and America hates self-analysis.

It’s such a coincidence that, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the Polish poet-writer Czeslaw Milosz took up the matter of sight.

And he gave as an example the stories of the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf in her “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” (She was the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1909).

Nils is 14-year old Nils Holgersson who flies high above the earth on the back of a gander and sees the whole of life in context.

He sees “both distant and … concrete” at once, which Milosz calls “double vision,” seeing from up above and up close simultaneously. He says that’s how poets see, and it is the apex of clarity.

The slovenly neurotic sees up close but has no overview, lacks perspective; the abstractionist on the other hand sees from up above but cannot see what’s in front of him.

Giuseppe Tucci in his classic “The Theory and Practice of the Mandala” (1961) says those forms of neurotic blindness cause “spiritual sterility.” But, when a person sees from up-above and up-close simultaneously, like a poet, a “new consciousness” arises. Simultaneity is key.

The up-above stands for wisdom and the up-close the discipline of daily life. Without the union, the simultaneity, Tucci says, there’s never a “return to the summit of consciousness.”

As America struggles to find the words to regenerate Her self, She’s also having a hard time seeing from up above (like Nils Holgersson) — She lacks perspective — and that is why ideological skirmishes keep flaring up.

Way back in 1938, the two great American songwriters, Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren, described the eyes of the double-vision-seer. Their song begins:

Jeepers creepers

Where’d you get those peepers?

Jeepers creepers

Where’d you get those eyes?

Gosh all, git up

How’d they get so lit up?

Gosh all, git up

How’d they get that size?