There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood.
So concludes the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s marvelous novel Sight (2018). Although I’m reluctant to think of novels as having keys—it suggests they’re problems to be solved, secrets to be transgressed—this sentence gets to the heart of the book. I almost wrote, “to the heart of Greengrass’s argument.” For Sight at times masquerades as an essay. At others it’s a compelling example of what people are calling autofiction (at least, I think so: I’m not actually sure what that means). Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Maybe not to everyone’s taste. (If you want a lot of plot you will not love this book.) But definitely to mine. Reading it, in fact, I often had the rare, even uncanny feeling that the book was written just for me, which made me both eager to plough through it and reluctant to finish. Greengrass’s sentences are often long and always, as the example above suggests, complex. I don’t think it was just because I was squeezing the book into the ends of my mid-semester days that I often found myself going back and re-reading.
Sometimes when reading something I sense I’m the target audience for I get restive and grumpy, frustrated at having been pigeonholed, no matter how accurately. But with Sight I felt the difference between a book written for someone like me and a book actually written for me. Which of course is crazy. But I’m totally taken with the book’s central question: can there be seeing without knowing? The way I usually phrase it is: can there be experience without interpretation? Like Greengrass and the narrator with whom she seems to share so much, I always answer no. But I’m obsessed with what it might mean to answer yes. What is the cost of interpretation, of knowing? We can see what we gain when seeing turns into understanding. (Our very language, which offers seeing as a synonym for understanding, underlies this connection.) But can we see what we lose in that process?
Here I think of the paradox central to the Freudian enterprise. If the unconscious can be made conscious, much of its damaging power might be undone. But when the unconscious becomes conscious it dissipates, and even Freud was clear that we lose something—some energy, some power, some part of us that is larger than us but deeply part of us—in that evanescence. The goal of analysis, for Freud at least, was never just normativity. After all, symptoms aren’t just problems. (Symptom, for Freud, are compromise expressions: versions of unconscious desires that have been distorted enough to be acceptable to the censor of conscience and thus see the light of day: symptoms are things like dreams or slips of the tongue or obsessive behavior or bodily symptoms that have no physiological origin.) Symptoms are also who we are. We need to recognize them as valuable parts of ourselves, even as we work to mitigate their most harmful qualities.All this talk of Freud is relevant to Sight. The narrator, who spends many of her days idly paging through books in the library at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, weaves scenes from her own life (the death of her mother, childhood vacations with her psychoanalyst grandmother, vacillations over whether to have a child) with scenes from medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays; Freud’s analysis of the child of an associate, a four-year-old patient he named Little Hans; and the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter and his sometime colleague the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk’s fascination with the anatomy of pregnant bodies.
When I compare Greengrass’s use of historical material to that of, say, Pat Barker or Giles Foden (I’m thinking of Toby’s Room and Turbulence), I can’t help but think that there is no point to the latter novels, despite their charms. These historical fictions are ruled by the principle of the info dump, no matter how skillfully applied. Why not, Greengrass’s novel made me wonder, be more honest and use that material the way a good essay might? Why not use the strategies of juxtaposition and reflection to come to a new way of seeing? Greengrass doesn’t try to naturalize her use of the medical material—despite her narrator’s days in the library she’s not trying to write a book about Röntgen, Freud, or Hunter. Instead, she asks us to think about the (oblique) connections between this material and the narrator’s life. For me, these connections center on the role of the unseen and the unspoken in the narrator’s life, her sense of living precariously amidst an incompletely understood past and an unknowable future.Let me close with a couple of examples of the book’s prose. They’re concerned with time as the medium of experience, time as a way to see what—like the bones in the hand made evident by the x-ray, the phobia exposed by the analyst’s question, or the fetus revealed by the scalpel—would otherwise be hidden. A loss of mystery accompanies that endeavor: the hidden alters itself in some fundamental way the very moment it becomes the known. The consolation for that loss, like the song of Orpheus meant to compensate for the loss of Eurydice in the original instance of the treachery of sight, might be Greengrass’s beautiful sentences.
Here’s the narrator remembering the room she would stay in when she visited her grandmother in Hampstead every summer:
Before I was born [the room] had been my mother’s, and the white-painted bookshelf which leaned fifteen degrees west of true was still filled with books which had once been hers. Sometimes, opening them, I would disturb loose sheets of paper that fluttered downwards, drifting to the floor to settle gently amongst the swirling patterns of the rugs, disjointed lists of words, phone numbers or addresses or single pages cut from longer letters, descriptions of nameless places, congratulations on achievements since forgotten. I would pick them up and hold them and, trying to connect their recipient with my mother, so uncompromisingly grown up, so firm and sure, I would catch from the corner of my eye the outline of my own inescapable adulthood flicker against the yellowed walls, a long shadow cast by a low sun.
And here she is, reflecting on Röntgen and his rivals, men who discovered the same phenomenon yet who for reasons of chance have not gone down in history, and resisting the lure of the counter-factual:
To say that something other might have been is not to diminish the value of what was, the marvel of it or its solidity, besides which it is not the fact of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery which fascinates but rather it is those days and nights through which he worked alone, bringing to this mystery’s unravelling all of his slow, systematic persistence until he possessed not just the sight of something but that extra thing that knowledge, understanding is—not the mere serendipity of discovery but the moment of its tipping into insight which draws our lonely curiosity. We are unsatisfied. Revelation is by definition isolate., it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.
What a ride that passage takes us on! A brilliant description of creating and discovering, which matters, it seems, only when it becomes something more than itself, something called knowing, is followed by a reversal, in which the narrator, even as she argues for the need to turn seeing into understanding, intimates (in part via that “chill”) how difficult, even unlikely that process is—and, moreover, that it might entail loss as much as gain.
If these passages excite you as much as they do me, you need to read this book. They’re examples of the things I love about Sight: its intelligence, its beautiful language, its seamless blend of essayistic and novelistic. (This might have been the kind of thing Barthes had in mind when he imagined “the novelistic without the novel.”) And, truth be told, the fact that no one seems to know about this book. And yet here I am, giving up another secret. But in this case, the cost of making the unseen seen feels unequivocally worth it.