Wednesday, November 27, 2013

`Where Is Thy Lustre Now?

A “floater” appeared in my right eye weeks after cataract surgery. It’s consistent in shape, something like a threadbare paramecium, and it’s three-dimensional, changing in appearance as it shifts on its axes whenever I move my eye. It’s transparent except for a black “eye.” I mentioned it to my ophthalmologist before he worked on the left eye, and he said it wasn’t unusual, just a bit of collagen “floating in the jelly,” probably knocked loose by the laser. It’s particularly common among nearsighted patients and usually disappears, but I had stopped listening at “jelly.” I knew he meant the vitreous humor.  Here’s an online explanation from Harvard: 

“A floater is a tiny cluster of cells or fleck of protein lodged in the vitreous humor. This clear, stable gel, which looks like raw egg white, supports and fills the rear two-thirds of the eyeball. The vitreous provides a pathway for light coming into the eye through the lens. The vitreous connects to the retina, the patch of light-sensitive cells along the back of the eye that captures images and sends them to the brain via the optic nerve.” 

That’s all reassuringly scientific, but I thought at once of the Duke of Cornwall in Act III, Scene 7 of King Lear, a play much concerned with eyes and blindness. As he gouges out Gloucester’s remaining eye, Cornwall shouts: 

“Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?” 

I found a 1971 article by an ophthalmologist in the Journal of the American Medical Association that describes the surgical procedure performed by Cornwall as “radical anterior vitrectomy.” It’s a rare literary moment that makes me squirm and I can’t imagine watching a realistic staging of Gloucester’s blinding. The same play, though for different reasons, also shook the indomitable Dr. Johnson: “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.” The Lear passage from 1608 is cited by the OED, but the seminal citation (c. 1600) is Donne’s from the twenty-third stanza of “The Progress of the Soul”: “A female fishes sandie Roe / With the males ielly newly lev'ned was.” Shakespeare uses “jelly” in two other plays. In Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet, Horatio reports to the prince how Marcellus and Bernardo have seen the ghost of his father: 

“Thrice he walk'd
By their oppress'd and fear-surprised eyes,
Within his truncheon's length; whilst they distill'd
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him.” 

Polixenes says in Act I, Scene 2 of The Winter’s Tale: 

“O, then my best blood turn
To an infected jelly and my name
Be yoked with his that did betray the Best!” 

It seems strong emotions of various sorts, fear in particular, condense the body’s fluids, turn it to jelly. The word is rooted in the Latin gelāta, meaning frozen or congealed, and is the past participle of gelāre, to freeze. One thinks of the recently acquired American taste for gelato, from the Italian. Now we’re back to the reason my ophthalmologist’s casual reference to “jelly” carried a minor seismic explosion: In the U.S., jelly in everyday use means a spread made from fruit and smeared on toast. The hint of anthropophagy is disturbing.

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