Seeing from faraway

“This part of optics, when well understood, shows us how we may make things a very long distance off appear as if placed very close, and large near things appear very small, and how we may make small things placed at a distance appear any size we want, so that it may be possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distances, or to count sand, or seed, or any sort of minute objects.”

-Robert Grosseteste ( 1175 – 1253)

I left my prescription glasses behind in Johannesburg. So for the first couple of days, England was blurry (and a sort of attendant anxiety from not being able to see properly) – until an optician fitted me with new ones.

I have only been away from South Africa for a week and matters near seem less blurry than matters faraway.

Or at least, at times: an intermittent aberration. A switch of focus.

This morning, the place I left behind is blurry. Even when I look in familiar places – at Daily Maverick articles on my mobile, Zapiro’s political cartoons, images of President Cyril Ramaphosa or the EFF in their red dungarees – things are somehow blurry at a distance.

It’s not a blurriness of insight, of interest, or a failure to engage. I daily flick through the plethora of news sites for word of my old country.

Its like a lens: adjust it to see things at a distance and the foreground goes out of focus. Adjust it to bring things close by into focus, and objects in the distance go out of focus.

This blurring is not altogether a bad thing. The depth of field of a camera lens permits a controlled focus for intimate portraits; extraneous detail is softened. It remains an essential part of the picture, but the emphasis has shifted. (The human eye is no different: peripheral vision has a different function to central vision.

The optician used a sophisticated imaging machine to photograph the retina of both my eyes. On the screen hovered two orange, planet-like orbs with dark canals spreading out from their poles – which turned out to be the optic nerve surrounded by blood vessels. The optician confirmed that both my eyes were healthy. Looking at the images on screen it occurred to me how we assume that seeing is all about the eyes, and of course in one sense this is accurate. But seeing is also how the brain reconstructs and processes the images which pass through the eye. When we feel we understand a concept, we may say I see. The seeing is inside us.

So what is the blurring within me, of deep concerns, hopes, fears, loves? 

From what I have read of and about exiles, refugees and emigrés, for many the focus of their lens remains on a point on the horizon, the place from which they came – the gaze of nostalgia, regret, or consolation and relief.

Nikos Papastergiadis writes of “…the pain of uprooting and the insight gained from ‘another way of seeing’” when analyzing John Berger’s writing. He argues that displacement, migration and exile are not merely economic, social or political facts, but “… an inner condition, central to the postmodern self.”¹

In a sense, distance may actually augment one’s vision: the face of distant loved ones in the bright circle of the lens has an intensity about it.

But outside the bright circle, all is dark.




1. Modernity as Exile: The Stranger in John Berger’s writing by Nikos Papastergiadis





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