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This paper draws on aspects of Jean-Luc Marion’s account of “saturated phenomena” to explain Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Eye.” In Being Given and elsewhere, Marion contrasts “seeing,” a mode of perception hospitable to the alterity of the human other, with “gazing,” a mode of perception that presumes to control the other. The paper argues that the two parts of Wilbur’s poem imaginatively render a similar contrast. In their different genres, both Marion and Wilbur call for and conceptualize a “conversion” of human perception, from “gazing” to “seeing,” that would inform and enable compassionate changes in human behavior. William Tate is Professor of English and Dean of Arts and Letters at Covenant College.

Yet the fact or the pretense of not seeing does not prove that there is nothing to see. It can simply suggest that there is indeed something to see, but that in order to see it, it is necessary to learn to see otherwise….1

IntroductionWhile explaining “saturated phenomena” in Being Given Jean-Luc Marion contrasts “seeing” with “gazing.” Concerning the first he says, “In order to see, it is not as necessary to perceive by the sense of sight…as it is to receive what shows itself.2 In other words, seeing allows the alterity of the other; seeing lets the seen appear as itself. Gazing, though instrumentally similar to seeing, “is about being able to keep the visible thus seen under the control of the seer” (214). He explains, “To gaze at the phenomenon is therefore equivalent not to seeing it, but indeed to transforming it into an object visible according to an always poor or common phenomenality—visible within the limits of concept” (214). In other words, gazing reduces that which is observed to categories determined by the observer. Additional features of this description will emerge in what follows; for the moment it is enough to notice that Marion characterizes the gaze as objectivizing; the gaze presupposes the autonomy and authority of the one who gazes. By distinguishing gazing from seeing, Marion raises a question concerning what counts as proper seeing. In at least some contexts, proper seeing manifests as love of neighbor. For Marion “‘loving’ is a…form of knowing,”3 and in his explication of an Augustinian epistemology, Marion affirms that “knowing is the same as loving.4

Throughout his career, American poet Richard Wilbur,5 like Marion, sought to understand human seeing. He imagines seeing in a number of different ways.6 “An Event,” for example, mentions birds “refusing to be caught / In any singular vision of [the speaker’s] eye” (10-11), and “Icarium Mare” acknowledges the finitude of “this lesser globe of sight,” the eye (30). One of Wilbur’s richest considerations of human perception is his 1975 poem “The Eye.” Wilbur arranges the material of “The Eye” into two sections. The first section exposes the weaknesses of what Marion calls “gazing”: “One morning in St. Thomas, when I tried / Our host’s binoculars, what was magnified?” (1-2). The speaker asks, “What kept me goggling all that hour? The nice / Discernment of a lime or lemon slice? / A hope of lewd espials? An astounded / Sense of the import of a thing surrounded[?]” (19-22).

The second section petitions a conversion of the gaze that would enable the speaker to respond to (accept responsibility to/for) the other: “Preserve us, Lucy, / From the eye’s nonsense…/ Forbid my vision / To take itself for a curious angel…. Correct my view” (29-30, 37-38, 49). Like Marion, Wilbur commends “seeing” and associates seeing with loving/knowing. Marion ordinarily emphasizes loving God in order to know God, whereas Wilbur, developing similar insights, gives more attention to love of neighbor. It seems fruitful, therefore, to cultivate an intertextual reading of these two writers in order to bring out both similarities and differences in their thought.7 In pursuit of these goals I briefly consider Charles Taylor’s explanation of “regestalting” to provide a context for Marion’s description of anamorphosis—the converted gaze—as an aspect of his account of saturated phenomena. After laying this phenomenological foundation, I interpret Wilbur’s poem as seeking just such a conversion.

Both Marion and Wilbur are motivated by the insufficiency of our ordinary assumptions concerning seeing and, more generally, perceiving. Though both consider these ordinary assumptions useful in founding modern natural science and its technological applications, they are also convinced that these assumptions are unable to account for important areas of human experience. In their different ways, both Marion and Wilbur call for and conceptualize a “conversion” of human seeing that would inform and enable compassionate changes in human behavior. By considering their works alongside each other, this paper aims at advancing their common goal.

Converting the Gaze: Regestalting

Charles Taylor argues in The Language Animal that meaning is constituted in language by human beings.8 Although Taylor emphasizes language use rather than seeing per se, he employs visual terms to examine a particular kind of shift in understanding. He explains that “the full shape of the human linguistic capacity” (the book’s subtitle) involves more than designation. Rather, language is constitutive: it contributes to both the discovery and the creation (including creative apprehension9) of things as they are. Language as constitutive involves participation in community, embodiment, and historicity.

As we share ourselves with others, encounter new experiences, and so on, our total understanding can shift, either in details or “wholesale,” in what Taylor refers to as “regestalting.”10 Here is his first use of the term “regestalt”:

Expanding articulacy can regestalt our experience in a rather minimal way [when we learn] to distinguish elms and oaks, but more profoundly when we come to distinguish different kinds of love and…hence come to read our relationships and their tensions and conflicts in a quite different fashion. (24)

He associates such a shift with “taking on new models” and “[opening] up to speech areas which were previously ineffable” (24).

Taylor distinguishes two ways in which language is constitutive, “the accessive and the existential. In the first case,” he says, “we sense that language is enabling us to have ‘reflective’ awareness of what previously was there…. In the second, we see that language…is opening us to…new existential possibilities.” In “existential” constitution, “we are given a new way of describing, or a new model for understanding, our human condition and the alternatives it opens for us; and through this we come to see and perhaps embrace a new human possibility” (45-46).

Let me emphasize the final clause I’ve just quoted: by means of the shift Taylor is describing we come to see and perhaps embrace a new human possibility. This shift is “regestalting” (akin to what I am calling “converting the gaze”11). Taylor mentions “meeting…some paradigmatic figure” or “reading a novel” as circumstances which might bring about this existential shift. “In all these cases, the impact can be described as a regestalting of our world and its possibilities, which opens a new (to us) way of being. So we can speak here of a regestalting constitution” (46).

We will understand better what Taylor has in mind if we remember illustrations of the gestalt shift. One of the best known of these is the duck-rabbit illustration described by Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty, among others. I first came across it in E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. Gombrich reproduces the image from the October 23, 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter. In the magazine, the image appears as a visual joke, captioned Welche Thiere gleichen einander am meisten?(“Which animals resemble each other most?”); the answer is supplied underneath: Kaninchen und Ente (“rabbit and duck”). Here’s the image as it appeared in 1892:12

I tend to see this drawing as the head of a duck, with its bill extending to the left. With a bit of refocusing, however, I can see the rabbit facing to the right and recognize its ears where I originally saw the duck’s bill. The shift from my perception of a duck to my perception of a rabbit is the gestalt shift. (For other viewers, of course, the shift may work the other way, from perceiving the rabbit to perceiving the duck.) Ordinarily, the shift is wholesale: we won’t see a part-duck, part-rabbit amalgam. Taylor argues that something similar occurs at times with respect to a person’s overall apprehension of the meaning/meaningfulness of the world.

Converting the Gaze: Saturated Phenomena and Anamorphosis

In the early poem “Praise in Summer,” Wilbur’s speaker describes “a praiseful eye” attuned (synaesthetically) to that call “to praise” with which “summer sometimes calls us all” (11, 1-2). Like Wilbur, Marion recognizes phenomenal experience as a call: “every phenomenon happens first as a call, which demands a response in return.”13 The parallel between “the conversion of the gaze” and this call-and-response pattern echoes Augustine. In a famous passage of his Confessions Augustine explains the awakening of his love for God: “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.”14

The Augustinian pattern of call and response informs Marion’s explanations of saturated phenomena, in part because the claim that addresses me in the call signals the resistance of the other to objectification. Marion explains saturated phenomena as phenomena so rich in significance that they defy apprehension. They confront the perceiver with an inexhaustible surplus of import.15 Marion contrasts saturated phenomena with poor phenomena (such as simple mathematical truths which, if grasped, are grasped completely)16 and common (or common-law) phenomena (which, though lacking the precision of mathematics, are for practical purposes sufficiently grasped).17 The poor or common phenomenon submits to a subject so that “it becomes constituted as an object” (Being Given, 213);18these phenomena are appropriately dominated by the objectifying gaze, as in the scientist’s useful study of particular chemical reactions in a controlled, laboratory environment. (Like Wilbur, Marion appreciates scientific study, but regards the demand for scientific objectivity as inappropriate for some phenomena.) In contrast with poor and common phenomena, “The saturated phenomenon refuses to let itself be regarded as an object precisely because it appears with a multiple and indescribable excess [saturation] that annuls all effort at constitution” (213). The distinction he makes here introduces the distinction between gazing and seeing mentioned above.

Much more could be said about Marion’s account of saturated phenomena.19 Here, however, I want to foreground one feature of that account, his adoption of the traditional term anamorphosis. Marion defines anamorphosis as “the shifting of the point of view”20 or the “conversion of the human perspective.”21 It is the shift in perception brought about by the human observer’s encounter with a saturated phenomenon. In such an encounter, the human observer discovers her inability to fit the phenomenon into a category because the phenomenon won’t be pigeon-holed; it defies definition and requires revision. The “shifting of the point of view” in Marion clearly resembles Taylor’s “regestalting,” though in contrast with Taylor (for whom the perceiver remains constituting agent), Marion emphasizes the phenomenon’s reconstitution of the perceiver. Marion’s account, in other words, recognizes heteronomy as a potential challenger to the autonomy of the human agent.

The richest account of anamorphosis in Marion is §13 of Being Given. Marion divides this section into three subsections. The first reviews a central claim of the book, that givenness “is fundamentally equivalent to phenomenality” (119); the second defines anamorphosis; the third explains contingencies which condition anamorphosis. I focus on the second subsection, though I will also draw on the third. Marion begins the second subsection by acknowledging his appropriation of the term from the history of art: “Though here it is not a matter of pictorial procedures, these can help us clarify by analogy the phenomenological sense I am imposing on the term” (123). In a note to this passage22 Marion specifies Hans Holbein’s famous double portrait called The Ambassadors, and I will refer to features of that painting in explaining Marion’s appropriation.

With regard to “pictorial procedures,” anamorphosis “involves first presenting to the uncurious23 gaze of the viewer a surface entirely covered with colored pigments but apparently void of any recognizable form whatsoever” (123); in the Holbein portrait, viewed from a conventionally straightforward standpoint, a mysterious blob obscures the pattern of the tiled floor. Anamorphosis involves “moving this gaze to a precise (and unique) point from which it will see the deformed surface transform itself in one fell swoop into a magnificent new form” (123); when viewed from the appropriate (radically askance) point of view, the amorphous blob of Holbein’s painting comes into astonishingly clear resolution as a skull. Marion explains his application as follows:

This aesthetic situation offers analogies that can be useful in determining the phenomenon that shows itself only insofar as it gives itself…. Every visible…by definition appears. It therefore has a form, as vague and unformed as it might be, but this appearing is not yet equal to a figure of apparition…. The phenomenon therefore succeeds in appearing only by passing from a first form—unformed—to a second form, which informs it as such because it fixes a figure of apparition for it. (123-124)

The shift from the first form (indeterminate, and therefore misunderstood or not yet understood) to the second form (not so much determinate as determining) is anamorphosis. In the Holbein painting, the straightforward view reveals numerous instruments of human control over the world, but the anamorphic resolution of the skull reveals human limitation in mortality.24 What interests me here is Marion’s elaboration of what happens to get the viewer to the second form. For anamorphosis to occur, “not only must a gaze know how to become curious,25 available, and enacted, but above all it must submit to the demands of the figure to be seen,” perhaps attempting several points of view, and “above all admit that it would be necessary to alter one’s position (either in space or in thought), change one’s point of view—in short, renounce organizing visibility on the basis of free choice or the proper site of a disengaged spectator, in favor of letting visibility be dictated by the phenomenon itself, in itself” (124); “disengaged spectator” aptly describes the persona in the first section of Wilbur’s “The Eye,” and the poem makes present for us the persona’s movement towards “letting visibility be dictated by the phenomenon itself” in its second section.

In the third subsection of §13 of Being Given, Marion identifies three contingencies which determine the relation of the phenomenon to the perceiver. “Contingency” carries its etymological sense:26 “contingent says what touches me,” so Marion is distinguishing three ways in which the perceiver is touched by the phenomenon. According to the first contingency, the phenomenon “arrives to me.” In this case, I am a theoretical spectator, aware of features of the phenomenon, but more or less indifferent to them (125); I adopt scientific dispassion in a laboratory setting, for example. According to the second contingency, the phenomenon “comes upon me.” In this case, I am an instrumental or technological spectator, aware of the usefulness the phenomenon may have for me (127); I want to drive a nail and go looking for a hammer, confident that I will recognize it when I find it, and in my impression that a hammer is precisely the tool I need. According to the third contingency, in contrast with the first two, the phenomenon “imposes itself on me” (129). “These phenomena…share one exceptional property: I no longer remain simply outside them, as if faced with what is an object to me, at the distance of intentionality [first contingency] and manipulation [second contingency]; rather, they happen to me” (130).

Marion closes this subsection by refining his definition of anamorphosis:

To appear by touching me [contingency] defines anamorphosis. The phenomenon crosses the distance that leads it (ana-) to assume form (-morphōsis), according to an immanent axis, which in each case summons an I/me, according to diverse modalities (arrival, happening, imposing), to a precise phenomenological point. (130-131)27

He then adds a crucial comment: “This being brought into line aligns me in a direction rigorously determined by the anamorphosis of the phenomenon, in no wise by the subject’s choice, but which in contrast submits the subject to its appearing” (131). This means that “anamorphosis…imposes its constraints on the I/me” (131).28 Put simply, in order to see adequately, I must submit to the redirection of my vision by that which gives itself to me to be seen; I must relinquish the objectifying gaze.

Marion connects the heteronomy of the saturated phenomenon with the gazing/looking distinction:

…confronted with the saturated phenomenon, the I cannot not see it, but it cannot any longer gaze at it as its mere object. It has the eye to see but not keep it. What, then, does this eye without gaze see? It sees the superabundance of intuitive givenness; or rather, it does not see it clearly and precisely as such since its excess renders it…difficult to master. The intuition of the phenomenon is nevertheless seen, but as blurred by the too narrow aperture, the too short lens, the too cramped frame, that receives it—or rather that cannot receive it as such. (215)29

Here the eye as receiving instrument tries to control what it sees by objectivizing it, though even in doing so, it encounters its inadequacy to the excess of the phenomenon; precisely in its attempt to grasp the phenomenon, the eye is compelled to realize that the phenomenon is beyond its grasp. As images of the eye’s limits Marion names several limiting factors of photography: “the too narrow aperture,” which doesn’t let in enough light or “the too short lens” which distorts rather than focusing or “the too cramped frame” which crops out—and thus renders invisible—significant aspects of the constituted phenomena. The camera’s lens is akin to the microscope and telescope which extend the objectivizing gaze of the scientist by focusing and framing—and thus reducing—that which the observer seeks to grasp in understanding. Wilbur’s poem considers similar instruments, binoculars and camera lenses, to indicate the limits of the gaze; for him also these instruments expose the inadequate perspective of his speaker.30

The crucial recognition for Marion is that some phenomena defy objectification. “In these cases,” he explains, “the eye does not see an exterior spectacle so much as it sees the reified traces of its own powerlessness to constitute whatever it might be into an object” (216); this “powerlessness to constitute” comes very close to what Wilbur describes in “An Event,” when the speaker notices that the birds he is observing, “as if refusing to be caught/ In any singular vision of my eye” (10-11), scatter, thus falsifying his first assessment of them.31 Marion’s saturation, moreover, “not only suspends the phenomenon’s subjection to the I; it inverts it. For, far from being able to constitute this phenomenon, the I experiences itself as constituted by it. To the constituting subject, there succeeds the witness—the constituted witness” (216). In the first part of Wilbur’s “The Eye,” the speaker acts as “constituting subject,” in the second part the speaker requests and submits to constitution as “witness.”32

Marion adds that saturated phenomena have long been recognized in the history of philosophy, though not under that label; he provides examples from Descartes, Kant, and Husserl. The example from Descartes is especially interesting. Though of course he doesn’t use Marion’s term, Descartes treats “the idea of the infinite” as saturated: “far from letting itself be led back to a constituting Idea” as might be expected within Descartes’s method, the idea of the infinite “comprehends the I without letting itself be comprehended by it…in such a way that even the ego itself could perhaps be interpreted as one who is called” (219). Wilbur registers a similar awareness that sometimes an observer is called: rather than objectifying that which she observes, she can at best bear witness to it. In “Lying,” for example, Wilbur acknowledges that “In the strict sense, of course, / We invent nothing, merely bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light” (16-18).33 Similarly, the speaker of “Mayflies,” wondering about his purpose in the world, realizes that he has “been called to be…one whose task is joyfully to see / How fair the fiats of the caller are” (21-24; emphasis added).34

Part of the interest of Marion’s example from Descartes is what he makes of it in a note on this passage: “Emmanuel Levinas recognized the more than normal phenomenality of the idea of infinity so perfectly that he revived it in order to describe the face of the Other” (365, n. 69; Marion cites Totality and Infinity, 26 and 48-50).35 Levinas’ “face of the Other” exemplifies what Marion means by “saturated phenomena,” with special relevance for Wilbur, since Levinas’ description of the relationship between the I and the other richly anticipates Wilbur’s speaker’s desire in the second section of “The Eye.” Levinas says that “the presence before a face, my orientation toward the Other, can lose the avidity proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity…. The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding [saturating] the idea of the other in me, we here name face.36 In developing what he means by the face of the other, Levinas appropriates the same biblical concerns which inform Wilbur’s poem: the manifestation of the stranger “consists in soliciting us by…destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow, and the orphan” (78). Levinas has in mind passages like Deuteronomy 10:18-19, “[God] administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (NKJV retains the traditional translation “stranger”). The demands indicated by these passages initiate the call and response pattern mentioned above, as John Wild notices in his introduction to Totality and Infinity:

…according to Levinas, speaking becomes serious only when we pay attention to the other and take account of him and the strange world he inhabits. It is only by responding to him that I become aware of the arbitrary views and attitudes into which my uncriticized freedom always leads me, and become responsible, that is, able to respond. (15)

The recommendation here that “I” abandon “arbitrary views” informs Marion’s recommendation that “I” “renounce organizing visibility on the basis of free choice” (Being Given, 124; see above). Wilbur’s poem enacts something like this renunciation; his speaker likewise wants to “become responsible” in the conversion of his gaze. In summary, then, the saturated phenomenon makes me aware of the limits of my point of view by resisting them. New awareness enables or compels me to consider other points of view, relinquishing my own.

Converting the Gaze in “The Eye”

As I mentioned above, Wilbur’s poem comprises two contrasting sections. Wilbur organizes the first section in questions and answers. The question asked in the first two lines is answered by lines three through eighteen. A cluster of follow-up questions, variations on a theme, appears in lines nineteen through twenty-four, and these questions are answered by lines twenty-five through twenty-eight. In section one the speaker is a tourist, who at first carelessly indulges an objectifying gaze. He asks “One morning in St. Thomas, when I tried / Our host’s binoculars, what was magnified?” “Magnify,” rightly names the ordinary function of binoculars, but Wilbur certainly has in mind also the secondary archaic meaning of magnify: “extol, glorify.”37 Overtly the question invites the descriptive list which follows, but at the level of the verb’s secondary meaning the question demands self-evaluation: what am I emphasizing or deemphasizing, making great or making small, approving or disapproving by my manner of looking at things? This secondary understanding of the question turns out to be the more important of the two.

Specifics in the answer to the opening question characterize the tourist’s gaze. “Brisked” (4) and “lunging” (5) indicate that, despite the deliberateness suggested by “focus” (5), what the tourist sees through the binoculars is haphazard and hurried (a primary sense of “brisk”), as well as held at an impersonal distance. “Lunge,” in swordplay, names an aggressive thrust, so that the word registers an attack, of sorts, on the anonymous person who becomes the accidental object of the viewer’s attention by means of the binoculars. The binoculars show only “some portion of a terrace” (6, one of several reminders that, in addition to enhancing vision, binoculars limit vision, effectively cropping the magnified view, excluding context). That the terrace is “like our own” (6), indicates that the tourist observes another tourist, someone comfortably safe because she is like me, “one of us,” as we say. To put it another way, the expression “like our own” effectively erases alterity. “Scanning” (12) indicates that the thing scanned is being scrutinized as an object. The quasi-technicality of “through photons” (12) vaguely implies scientific objectivity on the part of the viewer, who turns his detached attention now to yet more tourists coming ashore from their ocean liner. The speaker has no doubts concerning what these other tourists will be shopping for, since he perceives them as versions of himself. They will purchase “duty-free38 / Leicas” (high-end cameras and lenses) and their own “binoculars” (18). As I mentioned above, these are instruments of control; capturing a moment on film, for example, seeks to make the moment repeatable, but at the cost of separating photographed objects from their times and places.

The questions beginning at line nineteen advance the poem’s opening question (“what did I see?”) by asking several versions of “why did I keep looking?” The first question in the group is the most general: “What kept me goggling all that hour” at the woman on the terrace across the way, at the tourists coming ashore? “Goggling” is self-deprecating, implying that the speaker has been enthralled. That he wanted to experience “The nice / Discernment of a lime or lemon slice,” suggests (parodically) the interest that closely-observed detail has for the scientist, the fascination of looking at blood cells through a microscope or at the moon through a telescope.

The next answer, that the speaker was motivated by “A hope of lewd espials,” confesses an element of voyeurism which, by definition, objectifies the object of the gaze. In the earlier poem “Playboy” Wilbur represents a stock-boy’s fantasy that the model in a pornographic photograph under his gaze “Consents to his inexorable will” (28). (The speaker’s question in that poem, “What so engrosses him?” [9], echoes “What kept me goggling?”) “Playboy” interrogates what Laura Mulvey would later describe as “the male gaze.” According to Carolyn Korsmeyer, “The phrase ‘male gaze’ refers to the frequent framing of objects of visual art so that the viewer is situated in a ‘masculine’ position of appreciation”39 As Korsmeyer explains, the concept of the “male gaze has been a theoretical tool of inestimable value in calling attention to the fact that looking is rarely a neutral operation of the visual sense.” Vision becomes an instrument of “‘dehumanization: it works at a distance and need not be reciprocal, it enables the perceiver to locate (pin down) the object, and it provides the gaze.’”40

Marion’s similar description of “the viewer” in The Crossing of the Visible effectively explicates what Wilbur implies in “The Eye”: “the viewer [le voyeur] devours the visible.” Thus,

The viewer watches for the sole pleasure of seeing: thanks to technology,41 he is finally able to succumb without limit or restriction to the fascination of the libido vivendi, which was always denounced by the [Church] Fathers: a pleasure…of seeing all, especially what I do not have the right or strength to see; the pleasure also of seeing without being seen—that is, of mastering by the view…without exposing me to the gaze of another. The viewer thus maintains a perverse and impotent relationship with the world that it both flees and possesses at one and the same time in the image. (50)

The libido vivendi is “the lust of the eyes” (ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν; concupiscentia oculorum) mentioned in 1 John 2:16. (Marion’s translator, James K. A. Smith, mentions “Augustine’s critique of curiositas as the ‘lust of the eyes’ in Confessions, Book X” as an example of the Fathers’ denunciation.42 This example will become pertinent below.) Marion calls the libido vivendi “a pure desire to see that establishes a strict equivalence between the image and the thing [and] determines a world where everything is reduced to an image and where every image is valued as a thing. This equivalence is an absolute tyranny” (54-55). Initially, Wilbur’s speaker imposes a tyrannizing gaze of this kind.

The final question in Wilbur’s cluster of questions admits that anything “from a-to-z” (here in reverse, “from Z [to] almond-leaf,” 23) is given “import” by being “surrounded” with a frame (22 and 24). The crucial point is that the observing subject determines (or designates) the significance of the object by framing it or focusing (on) it as object. According to line twenty-four, it is the “premise of a frame” which gives things their significance. A premise is a presupposition (even a bias), part of the structure of a logic which validates or invalidates (and thus controls) whatever it considers.

In the closing lines of part one of the poem the speaker acknowledges “All these” reasons, adding that he has also been motivated by a desire to satisfy his own subtle self-importance:

All these, and that my eye should flutter there,
By shrewd promotion, in the outstretched air,
An unseen genius of the middle distance,
Giddy with godhead or with nonexistence. (25-28)

“Shrewd promotion” implies the astuteness of the speaker’s self-advancement, but Wilbur may also recall an archaic meaning of shrewd, “mischievous or malicious,” as these lines move towards confession. Similarly, “giddy” recognizes the speaker’s presumption in arrogating to himself the tyrannical “godhead” of the objectifying gaze (28). “Unseen,” finally, recalls Marion’s diagnosis of “the pleasure…of seeing without being seen” by which “the viewer [le voyeur] …maintains a perverse and impotent relationship with the world that it both flees and possesses” (Crossing, 50).

Wilbur organizes the second section of “The Eye” as six petitions to St. Lucy. In the first part of “The Eye” the speaker’s questions and answers are directed to the speaker’s self, but in this second part of the poem the speaker turns away from self to solicit help from another. The speaker’s turn demonstrates an intuitive understanding of one of the ways saturated phenomena resist the gaze in Marion’s thought. One kind of saturated phenomenon in Marion’s account is what he calls the icon. Though he bases this account on considerations of the icon as art form, and though he centrally applies this analysis of the icon to the incarnation of Christ (see, for example, Crossing, chapter 4), he also recognizes in the face of the human other an icon (and the image of God).

Marion explains the icon in Being Given where he says, “I will call this fourth type of saturated phenomenon the icon because it no longer offers any spectacle to the gaze and tolerates no gaze from any spectator, but rather exerts its own gaze over that which meets it” (232). In particular, my encounter with “the face of the Other” brings about “an inversion of phenomenality’s polarity” which requires “that the I not only renounce its transcendental function of constitution” (in Wilbur’s terms, that the speaker give up the “shrewd promotion” of “godhead”), “but that it pass to the figure of what we have already thematized as the witness” (233). In other words, the self, confronted by the face of the other, must relinquish the tyranny of the gaze in favor of vulnerable and corrigible seeing. The renunciation of constitution accepts that “I receive myself from the very givenness of the irregardable43 phenomenon, me insofar as I learn of myself from what the gaze of the Other says to me in silence” (233). In this encounter, I am called/claimed by the other, in fact constituted as witness (effectively required to see)—rather than constituting as subject.

Levinas discusses the self’s ethical responsibility to the other in terms of the biblical prohibition “thou shalt not kill,” and it is worth noticing that the earliest statement of the prohibition in the Torah, in Genesis 9:6, associates the prohibition with the divine image: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (ESV). Marion’s treatment of the face of the other likewise appropriates a biblical understanding of the image of God. As Gschwandtner notices, “in the first chapter of Certitudes négatives…[Marion] claims that a more adequate understanding of the human face would need to see it as an image of God and connect the indefinability of the human to the incomprehensibility of the divine” (Degrees of Givenness 98; see also 18-19). The speaker of “The Eye” may be understood as seeking a conversion away from his exercise of a controlling gaze to a more conscientious seeing that recognizes in the other the irreducible image of God.44

The speaker’s first petition is “Preserve us, Lucy, / From the eye’s nonsense” (29-30). Wilbur invokes Lucy, in particular, as the one “by whom / Benighted Dante was beheld, / To whom he was beholden”45 (31-32). “Wilbur recalls Lucy’s appearance in Dante’s Commedia, which opens with the character Dante “alone in a dark wood,” thus “benighted” (both lost at night and spiritually “in the dark”). Dante “beheld” Lucy near the very end of the Commedia, in Paradiso XXXII. He there learns that she “first urged your lady [Beatrice] to you / when you were blindly bent toward your own fall,”46 thereby initiating the events of the Commedia. According to Inferno II, Mary and Lucy had sent Beatrice to Virgil so that Virgil would guide Dante on his journey. Dante (as narrator) reports that, commissioned by Mary to care for him “in his distresses,” “Lucia, that soul of light and foe of all / cruelty, rose and came to me at once…” (99-101).47 Wilbur’s speaker similarly desires preservation from “the eye’s nonsense” (30); his wordplay implies that the eye as sense organ only provides sense impressions, but that discerning meaning (making sense or non-sense) is the work of the whole human being.

The second petition, “Forbid my vision / To take itself for a curious angel” (37-38) follows a conditional clause: “If the salesman’s head / Rolls on the seat-back of the ’bus / In ugly sleep, his open mouth / Banjo-strung with spittle” (33-36). Unlike the tourists going ashore in the first section of the poem, the salesman is traveling to make his living. Although his “ugly sleep” and “spittle” make him unattractive, inviting the speaker’s disdain, the speaker perceives the salesman sympathetically because they are sharing the same bus: proximity challenges the speaker’s gaze. For the speaker’s vision “to take itself” as “a curious angel” would be for the speaker to lapse into the pretense of “godhead” which he had come to question in the first section of the poem. A “curious angel” would be a spiritual being who had succumbed to curiositas in the sense Augustine gave it, an inordinate desire to please his own eyes (for example, by turning a blind eye to his fellow passenger), so the speaker asks for help in resisting curiositas.

The third petition, “Remind me that I am here in body,48 / A passenger, and rumpled” (39-40), complements the second by confirming solidarity with the salesman. The speaker, neither “unseen genius” nor “godhead” nor “angel,” confesses that, like the salesman, he is also embodied, “rumpled” by traveling in the same bus. Although his likeness with the salesman echoes his similarity with other tourists in the first part of the poem, the mode of similarity is different. In the first section of the poem, the speaker makes his judgments from a sanitizing distance, himself constituting what he sees in the tourists; he controls their stories, so to speak, while they remain too distant to challenge him. In the second section of the poem, the nearness49 of the salesman claims a response in which the speaker acknowledges that he is like the salesman (thus reversing the directionality of his earlier assumption: that the other tourists are like him). The likeness between the two travelers resembles that between the people of God and the strangers they are called to love (according to the passage from Deuteronomy cited above): they are to love the stranger because they have been strangers. The speaker can perceive and receive the salesman as a fellow-passenger because he simultaneously perceives himself as “a passenger and rumpled.”

With the fourth petition, “Charge me to see” (41), the speaker asks for help in generalizing from his encounter with the salesman to every human being. Once again, the request builds on previous requests. Whereas in the previous stanza the speaker had asked for help in not seeing himself as a spirit without a body, here he asks for help in seeing that the human bodies he encounters are, like his body, inspirited. More particularly, the spirit-body relation obtains, not only in the conventionally impressive bodies of graceful athletes (the ballerina capable of the “tout en l’air,” 43, the competition diver performing a “double pike with layout,” 44), but also in evidently disabled bodies, “in the strong, / Shouldering gait of the legless man” and in “The calm walk of the blind young woman / Whose cane touches the curbstone” (45-48). We should notice that the movements of the two athletes are performances for spectators (they invite the gaze); in contrast, the legless man and the blind woman appear to be moving towards destinations. The blind young woman is especially interesting. If we recognize in her a latter-day Lucy, whose calmness repels the voyeuristic gaze of the spectator, we may recognize in the speaker also a latter-day Dante who learns to see better by means of her challenging presence.

The fifth petition, “Correct my view” (49) introduces three subordinate clauses; each particularizes an incorrect assessment of the facts of seeing. The perception “That the far mountain is much diminished” (50) is false because it makes apparent smallness an attribute of the mountain rather than a contingency of seeing (thus denying the situatedness of the viewer). The assumption “That the fovea is the prime composer” (51) makes the mistake of treating the eye as accessing reality autonomously, apart from involvement in the whole person as perceiver. The belief “That the lid’s closure frees me” (52) expresses the child’s naïve hope that, if I close my eyelids, anything I’m uncomfortable seeing will go away.

In his final petition Wilbur’s speaker asks, “Let me be touched / By the alien50 hands of love forever” (53-54). Here the speaker requests a new, transformed motivation, specifically that love by means of which the other calls me. Rather than imposing control, the speaker submits to (the claims of) the other. Rather than maintaining a self-protecting and controlling distance, the speaker accepts nearness. These reversals enact what Marion calls the crossing—or conversion—of the gaze, which occurs when my own look has been countered by the look of another whose look challenges and reconfigures mine. With this final request the speaker submits to the other’s correction of his gaze. The final lines of the poem anticipate two results following on the last petition. The first, “That this eye not be folly’s loophole” (55), expresses the hope that the speaker will avoid foolish seeing. The second, “[that this eye will be] giver of due regard” (56),51 expresses the corresponding hope that the speaker will grant appropriate attention and dignity (“due regard,” correction of the subjugating gaze) to every stranger he meets in his travels. 


What purposes are served by these interlaced readings of Taylor, Marion, and Wilbur? The petitions in the second part of “The Eye” request help in the re-ordering of the speaker’s gaze. Enacting, and arguably making more concrete, something resembling both Taylor’s regestalting and Marion’s anamorphosis, “The Eye” narrates a transformation of perception. It characterizes this shift as away from subjective, constituting autonomy and towards recognition of the independence of the other—to the extent that the speaker submits to being constituted by the claim of the other and accepts responsibility to receive the other (as other) in love. Like both Taylor and Marion, Wilbur concurs in the traditional recognition “ubi amor ibi oculus—the eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of seeing is opened up by love alone.”52 The philosophers, and perhaps especially Marion, enable an enriched reading of Wilbur by providing terms and distinctions that bring out nuances in Wilbur’s poem that might otherwise remain unperceived; they help us read between his lines. Both Marion and Wilbur provide a description of the self which recognizes that the self is not only a controlling or constituting ego (not merely autonomous and self-determining) but also a constituted self, one who receives itself in encounters with other selves (one made responsible by the call of heteronomy).

Wilbur’s poem does more than illustrate the philosophers. Wilbur helps us imagine what the philosophers’ ideas might look like in practice. I mentioned above Taylor’s recognition that “reading a novel” might have the impact on a reader of “regestalting…our world and its possibilities” (46): reading a poem clearly has the same potential. Considered from this perspective, regestalting realigns what Taylor calls elsewhere our social imaginaries. The way we imagine our world “is often not expressed in theoretical terms, [but] it is carried in images, stories, legends, etc.”53 Like these other carriers of images, poetry convinces us and changes us affectively rather than intellectively. Poetry can reach and transform those who will never consider a philosophical argument; it may even more effectively shape the practice of philosophical thinkers than their philosophy does, by engaging their emotions.54 Though Wilbur’s poetry is not as widely read as it should be, those who read it, and particularly “The Eye,” are likely to feel (before and with and beyond what they think) the poem’s challenge. The vividly rendered scenes in this poem confront us with the faces of others who are like actual others we have encountered and may encounter (the tourist, the blind young woman, the passenger). These are faces whose undeniable presence to us, by means of the poem, places us under moral obligation.

More generally, I hope that these joint readings attractively model the interdisciplinary and intertextual approach I set out to commend. Intertextual interpretation as I practice it recognizes that some significant portion of human understanding occurs by means of the unexpected intersection of ideas. I gain understanding, for example, when a new idea resonates (for me) with an example available in my individual mental archive: a colleague is explaining Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, let’s say, and I am reminded of a poem by Robert Frost the details of which seem to help me make sense of Merleau-Ponty. I can imagine, more or less creatively, a conversation between the philosopher and the poet as a means of working out this understanding without presupposing that either influenced the other, simply because they seem to be dealing with similar questions.55 This essay might be regarded as an effort to imagine such a conversation between Marion and Wilbur, with comments interjected by Taylor and Levinas. The essay is also an invitation to the reader to join the conversation.

Cite this article
William Tate, “Converting the Gaze: From Gazing to Seeing in Richard Wilbur’s “The Eye””, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:2 , 153-170


  1. Jean-Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner and others (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 124.
  2. Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 214; hereafter cited parenthetically. Being Given forms a triptych with Reduction and Givenness, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998) and In Excess, trans. Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002). David Michael Levin, in The Philosopher’s Gaze (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999), notices that Plato calls commitment to philosophy “a conversion…a περιαγογή” of seeing (11).
  3. Christina M. Gschwandtner, Degrees of Givenness (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014), 41.
  4. Givenness & Revelation, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 45, emphasis original; see 40-45.
  5. I cite Wilbur’s poetry, by title and line numbers, from Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004).
  6. See Elaine James, “The Light of the Eye: The Problem of Richard Wilbur’s Metaphysics,” Renascence 60.3 (Spring 2008): 237-250.
  7. In particular, I am not trying to establish influence. My practice of intertextual reading is in part modeled on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s account of conversation as creating the space among interlocutors where understanding occurs.
  8. Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), hereafter cited parenthetically.
  9. In my ordinary usage, “apprehending” means grasping; I distinguish “apprehending” from “comprehending,” by which I mean grasping completely. I am not addressing here “apprehension” understood as existential anxiety.
  10. Compare Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 43-51.
  11. “Converting” does not necessarily carry the sense of a religious conversion. Derrida, for example, calls Husserl’s “transcendental reduction” the “phenomenological conversion of the gaze” (in D. Attridge, “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” included in J. Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. D. Attridge, New York: Routledge, 1992, 41; as quoted by Kevin Hart, “It / Is True,” Studia Phænomenologica VIII (2008): 219-239, 222). Marion, however, invites a specifically Christian appropriation of the phrase.
  12. The image is in the public domain.
  13. Marion, Givenness & Revelation, 117. See also Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Call and the Response, trans. Anne A. Davenport (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004).
  14. Augustine, Confessions, tr. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), X.xxvii (38). The banishment of Augustine’s blindness anticipates Marion’s conversion of the gaze. See also Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, trans. Andrew Brown (London: Routledge, 2004), 91. Elsewhere Augustine says, “sana et aperi oculos meos, quibus nutus tuos videam” (“Cleanse and open my eyes, so that by them I see what you are showing me”); I quote here from Jean-Luc Marion’s discussion in In the Self’s Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 186. Marion connects this passage with the divine call on the following page, 187. Augustine’s account of seeing, and Marion’s, challenge the assumption in modern natural science that the seen is entirely passive.
  15. Compare Paul Ricoeur’s phrase “surplus of meaning” in Interpretation Theory (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976).
  16. “For this type of phenomenon, what shows itself in and from itself does not need much more than its concept alone” (Being Given, 222).
  17. With regard to this type of phenomenon, “signification…is manifest only to the extent that it receives intuitive fulfillment. In principle, this fulfillment can be adequate…[though] most of the time, however, it remains inadequate, and the intention…remains partially unconfirmed by intuition” (Being Given, 222).
  18. The descriptors “poor” and “common” are potentially misleading. It seems to me that any phenomenon (or uncountably many) might be apprehended as either “poor” or “common” or “saturated” depending on the susceptibility of the perceiver, so that the descriptors are not mutually exclusive. In Degrees of Givenness Gschwandtner helpfully addresses Marion’s neglect of some possible nuancing.
  19. See Gschwandtner, Degrees of Givenness; and Shane Mackinlay, Interpreting Excess (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).
  20. Marion, Givenness & Revelation, 81.
  21. Ibid., 115.
  22. Marion, Being Given, 350, n. 5.
  23. Uncurious” here has the sense “uncaring” (recalling the root cura).
  24. See Susan Foister, Ashok Roy, and Martin Wyld, Holbein’s Ambassadors (London: National Gallery of Art, 1997).
  25. That is, “caring.”
  26. Latin con- (“together with”) plus tangere (“to touch”).
  27. Notice that “summons” places anamorphosis within the call and response pattern noted above.
  28. As summoned by the saturated phenomenon, the subject “I” becomes the object “me” (the agent becomes the patient, so to speak). There is something akin here to Robert Sokolowski’s description of “the self as the dative of manifestation” in Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 65.
  29. In this passage “superabundance” and “excess” are synonyms for “saturation.” To try to fully comprehend a saturated phenomenon, we might say, is like trying to drink from a firehose: it exceeds our capacity.
  30. Elsewhere Wilbur treats such framing and cropping more positively, recognizing in it an important feature of the diachronic constitution and reconstitution of meaning. See, for example, the image of the spider’s web in “Fabrications” or of the window in “A Sketch.”
  31. See my “Avian Diptych: Richard Wilbur’s Flights of Imagination,” Christianity and Literature 65.3 (2016): 310-326.
  32. Jean-Louis Chrétien, in The Ark of Speech, distinguishes being a spectator from being a witness in a way that clarifies what Marion is getting at: “If there is a divine beauty, we cannot be its spectators, but only its witnesses” (85).
  33. See my “‘Something in Us Like the Catbird’s Song’: Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur on the Truth of Poetry,” Logos 13.3 (Summer 2010): 105-123; and “‘Stalled by Our Lassitude’: Time and Attunement in Richard Wilbur’s ‘Lying,’” Renascence 72.4 (Fall 2020): 231-248.
  34. See my “Richard Wilbur’s Book of Nature,” Pro Rege 49.3 (March 2021): 41-50.
  35. See Marion, In Excess, 113-127, Mackinlay, Interpreting Excess, 170-172.
  36. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1979), 50. Summarizing roughly, “totality” designates those philosophical approaches which presume to totalize the object in comprehension; “infinity” designates those philosophical approaches which accept that knowing the other is enduringly resistant to closure in comprehension.
  37. Modern readers may recall this sense of the term from Luke 1:46, “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’” (in Greek this is Καὶ εἶπεν Μαριάμ· Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον; in Latin, Et ait Maria: Magnificat anima mea Dominum).
  38. I want to hear in this conventional phrase a hint of evasion of responsibility.
  39. Korsmeyer, “Feminist Aesthetics” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition, ed. Edward N. Zalta,, accessed 7/20/19). See also Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Visual and Other Pleasures, London: Macmillan, 1989.
  40. Korsmeyer here quotes Naomi Scheman, “Thinking about Quality in Women’s Visual Art,” in Engenderings (New York: Routledge, 1993): 159.

  41. Marion has in mind television, but binoculars likewise technologically frame the gaze.
  42. Marion, Crossing the Gaze, 95, n. 4. See Peter Harrison, “Curiosity, Forbidden Knowledge, and the Reformation of Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England,” Isis 92.2 (June 2001): 265-290; P. G. Walsh, “The Rights and Wrongs of Curiosity (Plutarch to Augustine),” Greece & Rome 35.1 (April 1988), 73-85; and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Praise of Theory, trans. Chris Dawson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 21-22.
  43. This is a term of art for Marion; it names that which resists the constituting gaze, that which cannot be reduced to my comprehension.
  44. It should be noted that Marion’s response to the face of the other goes beyond Levinas’ in that Marion recognizes that the face of the other demands not only an ethical response, but love; see The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008): 97-101.
  45. Beholden” indicates “obliged to,” signaling Dante’s indebtedness to Lucy, but also nicely plays on “beheld.”
  46. Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977) 137-138.
  47. In his note on these lines John Ciardi explains: “Allegorically [Lucy] represents Divine Light. Her name in Italian inevitably suggests ‘luce’ (light), and she is the patron saint of eyesight.”
  48. Compare the acceptance of embodiment in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” See my “How the Sun Came Shining: Stevens and Wilbur on Waking Up,” Logos 19.3 (Summer 2016): 87-112.
  49. The first syllable of neighbor is nigh (that is, “near”).
  50. “Alien,” from a Latin word designating “other,” is sometimes used in English translations of verses such as Deuteronomy 10:18-19, which I quoted above in NKJV. The NIV translates “He…shows his love for the alien…show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
  51. English “regard” (“attention, concern for, consideration,” etc.) derives from Old French regarder, “to watch.”
  52. Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 74.
  53. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 172. For discussion see 171-176.
  54. Marion’s account of the erotic in The Erotic Phenomenon and in In the Self’s Place broadly confirms his comparable sense that affect must lead intellect (at least some of the time).
  55. See William Tate, “‘A Set Mind Blessed by Doubt’: Phenomenologies of Misperception in Frost, Wilbur, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty,” Christian Scholar’s Review (48.4): 351-370.

William Tate

Covenant College
William Tate is Professor of English and Dean of Arts and Letters at Covenant College.