I find my old stash of comic books in the attic. Flipping through them, I’m suddenly inspired. I send away for the eyeglasses advertised in the back. I’m certainly no teenager — perhaps I just regret that I never sent away for them when I was.
With these X-ray Specs, the ad claims, I can see through fabric and skin, through an eggshell, even through walls. The ad’s picture shows a young man with peppermint-swirl lenses directing his vision at a silhouette of a curvy woman, the outline of her dress transubstantiated into a dotted line.
Another ad for the lenses (in a different comic book) portrays a young man exposing the bones of his upheld hand. Still another ad shows several faces, each ravaged into skeletal figures, a chiaroscuro of gaunt eyeless mummies. The ad asks, “Dare you look at your friends and stare into the throbbing coils of their brain matter?”
The ads present a phantasmagoria of adolescent sexuality, erotic striptease confused with anatomical decay and memento mori. To look into another’s brain might reveal that it’s as diseased with such fantasies as one’s own. And yet, the glasses also conjure the metaphysical delirium that grips one during adolescence: a suspicion that underneath the polite surface of adult respectability there lurks an alluring depth of folds and flaps, curlicues and coils.
With the frames on, perhaps the inner workings of that universe could be rendered legible. Gaze past its swirling orbs and watch the spurious façade of illusion melt away. With the right equipment, you’ll behold some nascent form, enraptured by a promise of underlying significance which, up until now, has always remained but mystifying surface.
Yes, veil upon veil would be revealed. We want the truth which is hidden from the naked eye. We want the naked truth.
But the muddle of different pictures in the ads also makes me wonder just what degree of surface is worth seeing through: fabric, flesh, bone, or brain? The intellect’s frustrated groping for clarity amid a world that always seems half-veiled may itself be the registration of meaning’s seedbed, a level of necessary opacity if anything is to be seen in the ongoing process of sight or insight.
Maybe, I think, we should value not the secret text but the sacred texture of things, immanence rather than the immaterial.
The glasses arrive a few weeks later, little more than flimsy cardboard. The lenses each have a small peephole punched into them — squinting through these, the glasses obtrude the normal stereopsis of vision to produce a woozy twofold image, one slightly displaced from and darker than its twin.
Diffraction blurs the eyes from seeing in parallax. It’s as if each object contained a more substantial nucleus inside, one that is nevertheless identical to it, an obscure if somehow more solid duplicate, a haunting double. Or maybe I see a vision of how each thing emanates a tenuous hidden nimbus, which can only be perceived by means of this apparatus.
I seem to have access to a privileged wavelength. I walk around with the goggles for an hour, adjusting myself to the view. Squinting and setting aside my qualms, I begin to imagine a new way of seeing. Not the phosphorescent bones of radiography or shoe-fitting fluoroscopes — rather, I see with thermal vision, a perception of the subtle energy that’s exuded everywhere. Yet, a flattening occurs, a reduction by gradients of slant and flux.
I grope through the house, as if I, too, were a mutant from a comic book. All superpowers have their built-in kryptonite. My ability to sense the increments of heat — to see the world in all its burning glory — means I’m partly blind as well. This faux-Predator vision lacks solidity.
Taking off the glasses, the ghostly film around things vanishes. I’m reminded that light itself is ubiquitous, bouncing and refracting about the ambient environment. The world, once occluded, divided, and dim, seems newly present, alive. Singular. No more halo and blur. Colors fill the globe of my eyes, and, looking down a hallway, I can once again recognize the cues for depth.
I no longer want to see past the surface — a surface that is lucent and opaque. Sharp, angular, precise.
Now, only now, things appear exactly that degree of transparency which affords me most delight.