Feature Christmas 2011: Diagnosis

Was James Joyce myopic or hyperopic?

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d7464 (Published 15 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7464
  1. Francisco J Ascaso, associate professor12,
  2. Jan L van Velze, PhD candidate3
  1. 1Department of Ophthalmology, Lozano Blesa University Clinic Hospital, San Juan Bosco 15, ES-50009 Zaragoza, Spain
  2. 2Aragon Health Sciences Institute, Zaragoza, Spain
  3. 3Department of Literary Studies, University of Utrecht, Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to: Francisco J Ascaso jascaso{at}gmail.com

The standard biography says the great Irish Modernist writer was nearsighted, and the claim has echoed down the years. But what’s the evidence?

James Joyce (1882-1941), considered one of the pre-eminent writers of the 20th century, achieved international renown with Ulysses, the ground breaking and highly controversial work of fiction published in 1922. Joyce’s delicate health and, in particular, his failing eyesight were a constant liability in his life and continued to affect and complicate the composition of his work.

Various biographers, partaking of the general myth of the purblind Joyce, put forward his supposed myopia in early youth as a first sign of his naturally weak eyes. For instance, Richard Ellmann, in his seminal biography James Joyce (1982), stated that Joyce’s “nearsightedness was soon to make him wear glasses.”1 Around 1888, A H Benson wrote out Joyce’s first eyeglass prescription, purportedly for myopia, “his only physical blemish.”2 Since Ellmann made his assertion, numerous literary critics and biographers of Joyce have reiterated the claim of Joyce’s myopia. The supposed refractive status of the young Joyce, furthermore, has been repeatedly associated with his “acutely myopic” fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, as well as with the theme of social myopia in Joyce’s early fiction.3

Surprisingly, no one before has either noted the thick convex lenses Joyce manifestly wears in photographs, or attempted to call into question his alleged myopia by means of this photographic evidence. Due to “foolish” advice not to wear glasses, given to the young Joyce by his school medical officer around 1894, Joyce’s spectacles are remarkably absent from existing photographs of him from before 1905.1 From 1905 onward, when his eyes were examined in Trieste and he began to wear “pince-nez glasses on a string for reading,”4 Joyce’s thick convex lenses can be discerned in photographs either from a lateral view or through the magnifying effect of his glasses (fig 1). According to Irish writer James Stephens, for example, Joyce’s spectacles “made his blue eyes look nearly as big as the eyes of a cow—very magnifying they were.”1

Apart from the circumstantial evidence of photographs and descriptions, the 1932 prescription for his glasses, written out by Alfred Vogt, his ophthalmologist at that time, and reproduced in Lyons’s James Joyce and Medicine, establishes the fact of Joyce’s hyperopia (fig 2). Effectively ruling out the claim of his (initial) myopia, both prescription glasses are positive lenses with a refractive power of +17 dioptres. Around 1917, Joyce’s refractive status had only been +6.5D.5 Since Joyce had undergone a cataract extraction in his left eye in 1924, the resulting aphakia had to be corrected by 11 dioptres.1 By 1932, his right eye had developed a total cataract, further complicated with uveitic secondary glaucoma.6 7 To compensate for the heavy lens of the left eye, Vogt, instead of risking an operation on the complicated cataract, chose to prescribe the same optical correction in both eyes—hence the German gleichgewichtig, which means “balanced,” “with equal weight”—to avoid the asymmetric weight of a unilateral aphakic spectacle.

Figure2

Fig 2 1932 prescription for Joyce’s eyeglasses, written out by Alfred Vogt. Lyons JB. James Joyce and Medicine. Dolmen Press, 1973

Hyperopia is a common refractive disorder that has been overshadowed by myopia in the public perception, vision research, and scientific literature.8 The present case is a historic example.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7464

Footnotes

  • FJA and JLV were involved in the concept, study design, research, and production of the text. Both authors have seen and approved this final version. FJA is guarantor.

  • All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; and no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

References