The Ecphorizer

Having a Look-See
Joan Tobin

Issue #69 (August 1987)


Rhett Butler's eyes when he looked at Scarlett O'Hara in a new bonnet he had brought from Paris confirmed Scarlett's assumption about how pretty she looked. Scarlett's eyes were as articulate, if not more so, than Rhett's. From the very beginning of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett's eyes are "turbulent, willful, lusty with life." They even surrender information that she would prefer, by her "decorous demeanor," to keep to herself.

It is an uncommon work of fiction that does not take some note of people's ability to express feelings by use of the eyes and to [quoteleft'/>"read" the information available in other people's eyes. Tom Sawyer "glowers" and feels Aunt Polly's "glare." Captain Ahab and Starbuck, when they part for the last time, shake hands and "Their eyes fastened; Starbuck's tears the glue." Robinson Crusoe describes "a great vivacity and sparkling sharpness" in Friday's eyes. And this is Othello describing Desdemona: "What an eye she has. Methinks it sounds a parley of provocation."

In the realm of art, no one doubts that eyes are articulate; in the realm of science, no means by which such articulation can be produced are acknowledged. In the realm of science, the eye is an organ of sight, a receptor, an optical system, but not a speaker, not an expresser. You may think that eyes articulate as well as sense, but information about the articulatory operations of the eye seems to be non-existent.

Gray's Anatomy, to begin with, describes only the sensory work that the eye does. The only reference the Encyclopedia Brittanica eye entry makes to the connection between the eye and the emotions is in its list of the various conditions that set off tears. To wit: "The secretion associated with emotional upset is called psychical weeping."

A lot more could be included here, but for the sake of getting on with it, this list will be limited to just two more books. The Tell-Tale Eye, by Richard H. Hess, notes the common assumption that eyes reveal emotions. Its subject is the observable and measurable change in the size of a person's pupil when he or she is reacting to various sights or pictures. Two drawbacks keep the book from being particularly helpful to the investigation at hand. One is that the change in pupil size is an automatic response and not the volitional articulation being discussed here. The other reason is that when we scan someone else's eyes for information, it is not the size of the pupil vis-a-vis its normal or relaxed size that we are studying. (Is it?) If someone is looking at you warily, or if a child is looking at you trustingly, it is not by a 2% change in pupil size that you know it.

The Eye — Window To The World, by Lael Tucker Wertenbacker, although describing the eye as a "highly polished mirror of self" that has the "power of wordless speech," does not contain any information about how this speech power is activated. Once again, only receptive mechanisms are illustrated.

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C.P. Snow, outlining the disunion of the arts and the sciences in The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution (in 1959) said, "It is bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art." Also bizarre is how often eye language appears in art without being explained by science. Artists speak of eye expressiveness; anatomists speak of eye receptivity.

Sir Cyril Burt, in an introduction to a book by Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, wrote that "Psychology, more than any other branch of study, requires us to break down the barriers between the two cultures." In the matter of eye articulation, psychology enfolds within one discipline the same have-you-two-met-? state of affairs that goes on in the "two culture" world at large. Psychologists garner information from patients' eyes and eye behavior, but psychologists ignore the means by which eye behavior is accomplished, just as the rest of science does.

Much, for example, is made of something called "eye contact." A work-up will record whether a patient maintains or avoids eye contact; a communication breakthrough occurs during psychologist-patient eye contact; assertiveness training includes instructions to maintain unflagging eye contact. Since the eyes themselves do not make physical contact, what, actually, is described by the phrase "eye contact"? A focusing? The distance between people conversing is not usually great enough to permit focusing on both the eyes of the person opposite oneself.

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A list of popular music that describes eye language would be several pages long and include at least one soul whose eyes are afire with desire. It is hard to imagine silent movies without messages being eye-sent. Think of the "sad-eyed clown," Buster Keaton, and the expressive John Barrymore.

Our language also confirms our eye eloquence. The meaning of words like "glower," "glare," "scowl," and "stare" all depend on our acceptance of eye language as a verifiable phenomenon. Definitions of the verb "look" include "to express by the eyes" (Webster's) and "to direct one's eyes in a manner indicative of a certain feeling" (Oxford).

Big trouble can result if it is someone else, not you, who is doing the looking. Belief in the Evil Eye, a power thought to cause misfortune possessed by some people and animals, began in ancient times when people thought that vision was accomplished by rays or energy that went from the eye to the person or object beheld. The Gorgon named Medusa, whose look turned her beholder to stone, must have known some strong eye talk, too. Interpreting the Medusa myth as a metaphor for our fear of being objectified — that is, a fear of being looked at rather than looking at "the other" and losing thereby our power to assign everyone else's place in our world-scheme — makes one of the questions of this work "How do the Medusa soft his world do it?"

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Whatever it is we think we do with our eyes, other mammals think they do it, too. Dogs apparently believe that they can express devotion with their eyes, and a bull, if you are petting a cow he goes steady with, will fix a glowering stare on you after he has commandeered your attention with an uninhibited bellow.

Uninhibited has also been used to describe the steady gaze that the subordinate male monkeys get from the overlord of a monkey group, who uses his "stare" to establish dominance. This technique, since it communicates an abstract idea — that is, rank — is evidence of a more comprehensive eye language than we have. We seem to express only feelings, not thoughts, with eye messages.

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One of my daughters, when she came home from her first day at school, reported that her teacher was very pretty. Asked to describe her, she said she didn't know what to say. "Well," I said, "start with her eyes. What color are they?" My daughter said, "Her eyes are white, and the round part in the middle is brown." She had not yet learned (the convention) that when we say "the color of someone's eyes," we mean the color of his-or-her irises. The rest of us, who have all filled in some color other than white on our driver's licenses and other requests for means of identification, abide by our unwritten agreement that "eyes" in the question, "Color of eyes?" are "irises."

So, what else, what other conventions, may we be assuming when we discuss eyes and eye language? It seems obvious that in most cases when we say "eye" conversationally, we mean something else. In a consideration of how the eyes produce messages, it would help to say what "eyes" we are talking about. Facial expressions account for a lot of messages that seem to be delivered by people's eyes. Raised eyebrows say something without using the eyes themselves. "Wide-eyed" and"shifty-eyed" describe physical conditions. Facial muscles function mainly in order that we can express ourselves, as when we smile to express pleasure. (Or, as it is sometimes said now, the smile is the feeling, not the expression of the feeling.) So, it may be that when "Irish Eyes Are Smiling," what we are actually observing is a pair of inarticulate Irish eyes in a smiling Irish face.

Sorting out the times when we mean "eye" from the times when we use "eye" as a catch-all expression meaning anything from the eye area of the face to "iris" narrows the question.

So also does sorting out literal eyes from figurative ones. But the question remains. We know that a producer operating with one eye on the box office is probably not anywhere near it, an alcoholic who needs an eye-opener is not going to toss the steadying shot into an eye, and it's possible to pull the wool over someone's eyes during a long distance phone call.

But when we say things like "starry-eyed," "if looks could kill," "the blank stare of the daydreamer," and "direct eye contact," what, exactly, are we talking about? 

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Joan Tobin




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