When I got my first eye exam, I was a soon-to-be senior in high school, spending the summer at a very strange summer camp in Ann Arbor, Michigan.1 I was wearing a dress and some fabulous makeup because one of the few traditions of the otherwise remarkably flexible inheritance we enacted during that hot and humid season was Cross-Dressing Day.2 In a floral print dress, some sandals that were frankly too small for me and a pink leather purse, I went to get my eyes checked out. I don’t have anything profound to say about the experience of going out into the wild, dressed like a woman (you should try it, though if you haven’t), but the memory is forever embedded into the pair of glasses that resulted from that journey.3
That’s frightening, because I lost those glasses for about six months and was shocked to get them back. You too have probably lost something once or twice, so you can recognize those months as an improbably long span of time from which to retrieve — pluck out of the void, so to speak — my glasses.4 If, more uncommonly, you too have retrieved an item from such a distance, you know how strange it is to do so. When we lose something, after the initial frantic search, we begin to think, “Did that ever exist at all?” It fades, imperceptibly, into oblivion(5). So what happens when we snatch it from the maws of existential obliteration? Was it ever lost at all? This is a silly set of rhetorical questions: of course it was lost! So much is lost! “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.”6 Loss is realer than possession.
We should expect this to be the case, even intuitively, but this is a Yale publication, so why not throw in some leftist mumbo jumbo too, huh? Judith Butler, pondering a sort of loss slightly more solemn than mine(7), wrote: “It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am … Who ‘am’ I, without you?”(8) Or, even more esoterically: we all know that mind-body duality is bunk, but probably so is world-self duality. The objects, people and places we hold dear are nodes in the matrix of meaning, which wraps all around us and from which our self emerges(9). A loss is a hole in the matrix — a hole in our selves. Which is to say that my glasses came back from the void imbued with a little bit of death.
Death subverted, of course, which is the best kind of death. Christianity would have been a pretty boring religion if we were all just in Eden forever, and it was great — but add (not one! but) two deaths (the death of innocence, the death of Christ) and subvert those and, hey, you’ve got a winner(10)! When, come the Rapture, we are all having a great time partying in Heaven with our lustrous, naked, maybe 777-stamped-on-the-forehead Human Bodies 2.0(11), I’m sure our nasty, brutish and mortal first lives will seem, with the glow of celestial-tinted glasses, like a whimsical aperitif.
With my spent-six-months-outside-getting-battered-tinted glasses, I see things even more imperfectly than I would with celestial lenses or even just reasonably good vision(12), but I wouldn’t like to see any other way. I don’t consider my glasses representatives of any deep, syrupy truth. But they do glow a little — a little glitch in the system, a pleasant, swirling eddy in the never-ending river of loss that will sweep us all into nothingness one day(13). “Behold, I shew you a mystery.”(14)
1. I once proposed to the camp’s governing committee — which was everyone, pursuant to the ruling doctrine of self-governance and “intentional community” — that anyone who profaned the large laminated poster of our founding figure, L. L. Nunn (which I had also proposed), be struck by lightning because L. L. Nunn had been an electrical engineer. I was shouted down because some of my peers were superstitious, and that apparently extended to high schoolers having the power to legislate lightning. Like I said: strange.
2. Cf. note 1, supra.
3. Some horn-rimmed, “whiskey tortoise” Warby Parkers. Yeah, yeah.
4. In fact, I plucked them from the digital Lost and Found of Yale University on Facebook: one search for “Warby Parker” revealed a picture of them, scuffed and dirty. They were stored for all that time by the person who found them, which was kind. Thanks!
5. Quite literally, if I’m correctly remembering my AP Psych understanding of how we remember. Objects in memory are “use it or lose it.” The inevitable could be temporarily forestalled, I suppose, by some sort of death cult: circle the shrine three times. Remember the glasses. Recite, in solemn tones, their prescription: -.75. -1.25. (I know—weak.) But then, of course, you would gradually create a new set of glasses, only ever existing in memory, ineluctably different from the original glasses. The only constant is change!
6. Joan Didion wrote this — an essay about loss that doesn’t quote Didion is roughly equivalent to a Calvinist text that doesn’t remind you that you — yes, you — are the worst. Nice!
8. Hey, the glasses were “attached” to my face pretty much all the time.
9. Also, alas (the world is imperfect, ridden with sin) objects, people and places we hold less dear. I will probably celebrate the hole left behind by, among other things, the Trump presidency.
10. And several holy wars — regrettable, but, on the bright side, Europe got spices a little sooner than it otherwise might have. (Not soon enough to avert the tragic fate of European cuisine, it seems. Jesus wept.)
11. Some medieval Catholics really thought this. The Middle Ages were a party (if you weren’t getting burned at the stake, etc.).
12. Remember though: I would never see things perfectly because things aren’t perfect, because life is suffering, and we’re living in Hell.
13. I just have so much weltschmerz! So much! It’s overwhelming!
14. Corinthians 15:51. After a whole essay spent having fun at the expense of Christianity, I should note that I thank that fine religion for many things daily, not the least among them the happy fact that it is largely thanks to the efforts of William Tyndale (burned at the stake), the KJV translators (not burned at the stake) and others (mixed) that this essay did not consist of sentences several hundred words long. I love Greek and Hebrew syntax!