For Christmas, I received The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens. So far, the most interesting among them has been “The Elegant Eyeball” by John Gamel, originally published in The Alaska Quarterly Review.
Despite being slightly astigmatic, I had never given much thought to eye health or ocular diseases. What was most startling and unsettling about Gamel’s account was the description of the pain associated with maladies like dry corneas or glaucoma. For some reason, I had assumed that eye illnesses simply involved the painless loss of sight, not the sort of agony he describes.
Ultimately, the essay is a reflection on the inevitability of deterioration and death in human bodies – the way time invariably takes away the most precious, necessary, and appreciated of human faculties. Gamel describes one patient – a professor of anthropology at Stanford – who responded to Gamel’s ultimate inability to stave off his macular degeneration with a mixture of realism and humility: “Why so sad, doctor? You look like you just lost your best friend. Who do you think you are – a magician, a god who turns old men into young men?”
Gamel does describe one area where there has been significant progress: in the use of intentional retinal scarification using lasers, to reduce the rate and seriousness of sight loss associated with diabetes. He describes how the treatment has helped hundreds of thousands of people to read and drive for years after diabetic retionopathy would otherwise have blinded them.
Such successful extensions aside, the resounding message of Gamel’s piece is that our own sense of the inevitability of our extending lives and vitality is an illusion. As such, we had best make full enjoyment of our vision while it remains acute.