The Paris Review – New Eyes

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Lucy, 1625–1630; Francesco del Cossa, Saint Lucy1473. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Maybe you know this, if you’re Catholic or hang around in churches: in paintings of Saint Lucy, she’s usually holding a pair of eyes. In most cases they’re on a plate, like some sort of local delicacy she’s about to serve up to a tourist. These are her old eyes, the ones she plucked out when a man wanted to marry her, because she wanted to marry only God. She looks down at them with her new eyes, the ones God gave her to say thanks. The version I like best is Francesco del Cossa’s, from 1473. In it, Lucy’s eyes hang drooping from a delicate stem, a horrible blooming flower. She pinches them gingerly, pinkie out like the queen. To me they look like the corsage I vaguely remember wearing at prom; later, who knows, she might put them in the man’s lapel, a consolation prize.

I have been drawn to this painting for nearly a decade, though my feelings toward it, toward Lucy and her two sets of eyes, have changed over the years. The first feeling was a slightly delusional but sharp sense of envy. I was seventeen or eighteen, seeing the painting for the first time in the National remember Gallery in Washington, DC, and for as long as I could I’d wanted what Lucy had: to pluck out my eyes and get new ones. I believe this is the sort of fantasy often held by people with certain ailments, a childish notion that makes no sense but is still somehow grippingly tantalizing—like how the chronically congested dream of one triumphant nose-blow that clears them out for good, or those with bad backs imagine some kindly giant pulling them apart until every vertebrae gives a magical crack and their pain is banished at last.

I wanted new eyes because for almost as long as I could remember I had frequented migraines, which were, I believed, caused by light. I won’t pretend that this is particularly remarkable or interesting to anyone but myself. (A memory: A doctor listens blankly as I describe the particular contours of my pain, how my head feels like a balloon and all I need is the prick of a needle. A small part of me hopes he will be fascinated, be spurred to action, and recommend a lobotomy on the spot. Instead he says, “Well, some people get migraines, yes,” and sends me home with a large co-pay.) But I will say this: the pain and ritual of these migraines , and the many futile measures I have taken daily to avoid them and consequently to avoid light, have been since childhood the unfailing constant of my life. I’ve worn sunglasses every day, sometimes inside. An unexpected flash is all it takes. The sun’s sudden gleam off an ocean wave, headlights passing on a dark country road; these are the things that have left me crumpled in bed, a damp towel over my face, writing. It begins with a spell of blindness, my world tunneling down to black. The pain comes soon after. In old family vacation photos my face is always hidden. There we are on the beach in Maine: my brother and sister, my mom and dad, their faces shining, smiling, thrown open to the brilliant light of the world—and me, under a hood and a headscarf and Maui Jim wraparounds, some sort of NASCAR babushka.

***

What is it with the saintly and their eyes? It’s not just Lucy, though she’s the patron of both light and of eye ailments. Paul—the saint formerly known as Saul—fell trembling to the ground after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, went blind, and then later got his sight back and went to heaven. It’s a good metaphor for conversion, the restoration of sight. The scales fell from my eyes; I was blind but now I see. “The change made by this spiritual opening of the eyes in conversion,” wrote the seventeenth-century American preacher Jonathan Edwards, “would be much greater, and more remarkable, every way, than if a man who had been born blind, then at once should have the sense of seeing imparted to him, in the midst of the clear light of the sun, discovering a world of visible objects.”

Migraineurs are, I think, a superstitious lot. I know others who secretly nurse the same flimsy beliefs as I do: that we are actually the ones causing the pain, through psychosomatic delusion or mental weakness or—this, really, is the reason—a shadowy and ineradicable sinfulness. Joan Didion saw her migraines as “a shameful secret, evidence not merely of some chemical inferiority but of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink.” This is the kind of thinking that only makes sense within the narrow, spectered cosmos of the migraine. I should confess, though, that I’m not much interested in other people’s migraines, nor in their superstitions. Nor have I ever particularly developed of myself as within a group of people bonded by our common ailment. (I don’t speak for any others here; I wish them good health.) It’s just that my migraines feel so deep-stained into, hard-etched into, wherever it is in my mind that I sit manning the controls as to seem inseparable from myself—mine alone, like a childhood memory everyone else has forgotten, existing now only in my head. In my head. How could I not be fussy and quibbling and irrational painful about a thing at once soly real and, like the monsters in the closet, all in my head?

What I’m trying to say is that the simplest explanation for these migraines—what the philosopher and psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience would call the “medical materialist” explanation, or a neat chemical chain of cause and effect that begins with the play of light on my retinas and ends with a pain-inducing dilation of cranial blood vessels—doesn’t satisfy me. Migraines, instead, have made me feel somehow chosen, guilty, doomstruck. I know this is embarrassingly grandiose. I prefer to think of migraines in the way James thinks of religious experiences: occurrences better understood through “tracing [the] practical consequences” of one’s notions about them, rather than by dwelling on causes. I don’t believe in God on most days, but I can’t shake the sense that migraines represent an intelligent and malign visitation, an obscurely deserved punishment. If I were saintly—if I were Lucy—I wouldn’t get them. So went my reasoning.

So it went, at least, until last fall. I got a migraine on Friday, September 3, 2021, and another the following Sunday. Then: nothing. A week without pain, a month, a winter and a spring. I stopped wearing sunglasses. I got new eyes.

***

Imagine it—the slow, fragile flowering of those first few weeks, my wariness growing into confused delight. After a couple of months I began telling people, sharing it over dinner. A fun fact. Friends weighed in with theories. Had I given up dairy? Started yoga? Had there been some momentous internal shift in my worldview? No, nothing, I swore. An acquaintance languishing in graduate school pointed out that I’d recently abandoned a PhD program. Look, she demanded triumphantly, look at what leaving behind the stifling halls of academia can do for a person! My therapist declared a breakthrough; a vegan friend wondered if I’d cut back on meat.

In time this reprieve began to feel like a genuine miracle. Not unlike a religious convert, I began eagerly to conceive of my life in two parts, before and after. I supposed, only half joking, that I had always been ripe for a religious experience of this kind. “There are two things in the mind of the candidate for conversion,” William James wrote. “First, the present incompleteness or wrongness, the ‘sin’ which he is eager to escape from; and, second, the positive ideal which he longs to compass.” The wrongness, I figured, was the migraines, and whatever obscure sin it was that brought them on. What I longed to compass was a state of pure and permanent cure.

It didn’t take long before this reasoning began to wobble. Nobody, and certainly not God, had handed me a little certificate saying NEVER AGAIN. I passed a paranoid winter, eventually growing more fearful and irrational than I’d been when migraines had been so reliable. The streak came to feel like a fluke; I wanted it to end so that I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore when it would. In moments of madness I even missed the migraines themselves, recalled the wonderful stretches of clarity and calm that always followed them—why not think of the migraine as a trial with a reward, I thought, paid passage back to this golden after-hour? I realized that the thing about Lucy that I envied—even resented, to the extent that one can resent a person who exists as a painting—was not just her new eyes. It was the smug certainty in her downward gaze, the security and finality of her cure, the knowledge that God thought she’d earned it.

A cure is a slippery thing: you have to know what you want. Sometimes this is obvious, when health is easily envisioned as the absence of illness. But other times such a notion of cure can seem too knowing, too permanent, a hangover from the old days of religious redemption—you were a sinner, now you’re saved. Freud struggled with this, trying to work out what the goal of psychoanalysis was. What sort of cure was on offer? What did health look like? If you could say what it was in advance, you were already wrong; the cure was in the finding out. “Much will be gained,” he wrote, hedging his bets, “if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” This doesn’t sound all that appealing. But I know he’s right, because for so many years I have chosen the opposite, preferring the romance of hysterical misery—marooned in the comfortingly predictable regime of superstition, ill-fatatedness—to drudgery and uncertainty.

This, I think, is what was meant by common unhappiness: a recognition of the impossibility of knowing the future, of a complete and final cure. Perhaps it’s a cure for wanting to be cured in the first place. James, it’s worth adding, aimed at the same thing. He wondered how a religious conversion could be an opening, not a foreclosure, of possibility—how to make “converts without self-stultification.” The ideal, he believed, was not to end up like Lucy, uncommonly happy and secure for all eternity. It was to be something lowlier, a creature of ambivalent freedom, deserving neither punishment nor salvation. People don’t deserve either; deserving isn’t the point.

***

On a Thursday night in May, I stood alone on a subway platform, waiting for a train. I heard a far-off rumbling and looked out into the dark of the tunnel. There were the train’s headlights, a pair of angry eyes. I looked away, but too late. By the time I got home it had begun. I lay awake until the sun rose, the stabbing in my head as bad as it had ever been, and for a time I imagined I felt the presence of a vengeful thing, like some awful magic had returned.

But in the morning that feeling was gone. I drank coffee, read the paper, called my sister. For some reason I wanted to laugh. All that day it was as if I saw a different brightness in everything, in the leaves, in the eyes of people passing on the street. Perhaps another migraine was on its way, perhaps it wasn’t; I had an overwhelming sense that from then on, either way, migraines would simply exist as something deeply inconvenient, like living in a country where frequent and unforeseen rain often ruins one’s picnics. This, I think, I can manage.

My reprieve lasted eight months, almost to the day. I am grateful for it.

Charlie Lee is an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine.

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