By Ivan Ilyin, from Книга раздумий (The Book of Rumination)
translation by Edvin Buday
You do not wear glasses? What a shame! In the opposite case, I would have told you a little something about glasses. After all, it is thanks to them that I have learned something in life, something that possibly might not be without any use for others as well.
When I was a child I did not wear glasses. At that time, to me there only seemed to exist “another’s glasses” that I looked through with such eagerness and curiosity. But this always ended in disenchantment: everything immediately became strangely vague, so sharply skewed, wrong, deceptive; or, on the contrary, all objects became comically small, as if they had been moved away like toys, pedantically did everything their own way. I secretly thought: “So that’s how he sees the world! No, my world is better”. “Stop it, you’ll ruin your eyes!” — a stern voice often sounded. But I myself was happy to return to my own “worldview” and already knew that another’s glasses did little to help.
The years went by without glasses: I had no desire to turn to another’s (they were unsuitable) and for the time being I had no need of my own. I was possessed of a youthful confidence that told me, that I “saw everything correctly, like it is in reality”… Who could want anything more? And I lived like this in the naïve complacency of a creature that suspects nothing.
Then the great war broke out, and it put a pair of Zeiss field binoculars in my hands. Suddenly, my horizon significantly widened. Having the ability to see so far, so clearly, and so crisply was tremendous. And every time when I put my field binoculars away, I felt that my vision just narrowed, and that I would immediately become part of that very same group of “dwarves” who because of their weak vision saw objects myopically and also didn’t register many things at all. From that point onward, I made two decisions: to not overrate my normal vision and to cherish it in any way I could.
In the heavy and chaotic post-war days, I had lost all my illusions. I knew that I suffered from bad eyesight and could not go without glasses. And when a famous ophthalmologist chose the glasses I needed and I put them on for the first time, I was surprised at how I had earlier marched through life with my “visionary” conceit. From that point forward, I worry not only about my eyes, but about my glasses, too, and I take special care to guard them from the dirt and dust that settles on them from God knows where. There is still something else that I am indebted to the experience of wearing glasses for…
Above all else, I do not trust another person’s glasses at all: I want to see everything myself, that is, through my own glasses. Thus, they have taught me a propensity for independence, and consequently, the formation of character. It is true that it is said, that “independent men” are “insufferable and quarrelsome”. However, it is not necessary to become a “know-it-all” in one’s field or to fall into aggressive pertinacity; all that is needed is to sink into the depths of one’s own “self”, because in those depths true and creative conviction is formed.
Hereafter, glasses became a permanent warning against complacency and arrogance. We are all forced to get used to the idea that we see little and poorly; that our normal eye does not grasp many of the things which is important, and, possibly, the most important as well: that we have good reason to always think about the limits of our own mental capacities. There is nothing easier than crossing these boundaries; nothing is as vital as the gradual broadening of these limits. Our spiritual vision is limited; it can always lead us to illusions and disenchantment. And how is it at all possible for us to find true “spiritual glasses”, glasses that could help and save us?..
Is humanity not near-sighted? Does it not stumble around by touch? Does it not register its own movement blindly after the bright progress of spiritual vision? Has it not surrendered to pitiful bragging about is good eyesight? From time to time we clean our glasses by removing dirt and incrustation from them. But who of us thinks to check and improve our “spiritual glasses”, widen and deepen our spiritual vision? Who knows the ways and methods of this improvement? How are we to arrive at the last truth of spiritual vision which the philosophers call “evidence”, which means the transcendence of temporal-subjective “vision” and the acquisition of completed, true “understanding”?
How many men wear the glasses of others that they accidentally found outside and through which they see everything in a twisted and skewed way! But they cannot correctly clean and wear even these glasses… And those glasses then become their fate.