Taming the Basilisk
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Taming the Basilisk book
In his Anatomica Methodus (1535), the Spanish anatomist Andres de Laguna interrupts his dissection of the tissues of the eye to describe his initial discovery of its power:
I shall not pass over in silence something that happened to me when I was a small boy. Since I did not have enough money for my childish games and had no source from which I could obtain it I followed my father who was visiting the bedside of a nobleman ill with fever and climbed up with him to the patient's bedroom. The light there was sufficiently bright but it seemed quite dark to me since I had just come in from a brighter place. After I had rested for a while I saw by chance a purse half lying upon the sick man's bed, and because I judged, plausibly enough, that the eyes of the sick man and of those around him were dimmed as mine were (falsely, however, since they had been longer in the room and had accustomed their sight to the shadows), I came up closer and began to handle the purse. But he to whom it belonged (for illness had not deprived him of speech) said: "What are you doing with my purse? Isn't it enough that the druggists have left it thin without you to empty it completely into your hands?" I blushed and was struck dumb, and began to philosophize very energetically about light and shadows. 1
ment ("1 shall not pass over in silence") calls attention to its status as a confession. Caught in the act, de Laguna finds himself an object lesson in the duplicity of the eye: he becomes at once a philosopher of ocular proofs and the object of a shaming gaze. The incident reveals less about the eye's response to faint light than it does about its ideological power. De Laguna contemplates the old man with the anatomist's objectifying gaze. By returning the gaze, the old man destroys the boy's status as perceiving subject ("I blushed and was struck dumb"), reducing him to an object of scrutiny. De Laguna assumes that his eye's perception reflects an objective reality, "that the eyes of the sick man and of those around him were dimmed as mine were." His error exposes the eye's complexity, its status as both perceiving subject and object of study. At the same time, the boy's misperception reveals his own eye as flawed, and, more importantly, as flesh. The eye becomes not a window for the soul but a frail organ, a proper object of anatomy. De Laguna deflects the power of the old man's shaming gaze by reconstituting this perception as knowledge, beginning "to philosophize very energetically about light and shadows." The gesture allows him to deny the truth his text seems to contemplate; the eye's reduction to flesh compels him to remake its power as knowledge, affirming his status as a perceiving subject.