Red and Blue (1)
No, we are not writing a sequel to Stendhal’s Red and Black. Due to numerous requests, Arthur Benjamin is once again responding to two questions – one of which is vital for anyone who has eyes, and the other is just interesting. The first is,“Why do our eyes become red/bloodshot?”, and the second is, “Why is it that the ancient Greeks, Hindus, and Jews could not see the color blue?”
RETINAL DETACHMENT IN HOMER
Let’s start with the less-important question. The slogan of Benjamin Eye is “Life is Beautiful: See It!”, but what if you can’t see everything? They say that the ancients could only distinguish between white, black, red, and yellow. Is it really possible that the Greeks and their contemporaries lived in a blue-less world? Is it true they could not behold blue eyes? In Homer, we see many descriptions of color, but never blue. Honey was green, the faces of frightened people were also green, and iron was grey, but the sky was copper and bronze. If Homer came to you for help, what would you do?
As an ophthalmologist, I can’t exclude the possibility that Homer had neglected cataracts, retinal detachment, or glaucoma. Maybe even dry eyes. It gave him the liberty to use unusual color descriptions, where even sheep were described as purple. There’s a theory that colorblindness was widespread among the ancient Greeks, but they’re not the only ones. I have read that blue isn’t mentioned in the Torah, either, nor among the ancient Hindus. But getting back to Homer, some people say he was blind, although we don’t know for sure.
True, we have nothing to prove that.
Research explains it, though. One modern scholar kept the word “blue” from his daughter as a designation for the sky, and when he asked her what color it was, the girl described it as colorless, then white along with a few others, before gradually coming to blue. Our perceptions are strongly built upon language. In English, there isn’t an equivalent of the Russian word “goluboy” other than just “light blue”, and studies show that Russian speakers can detect more shades of blue than English speakers. But it doesn’t follow from this that the Greeks were all that different from us and could not “see” blue – do not confuse sensation with perception, as perception is determined by culture.
But what about the perception of color among tribes of modern primitives?
Scientist Jules Davidoff went to Namibia, where they conducted an experiment with the local Himba tribe, whose language has only one word for both blue and green. He showed them a circle made of 12 green squares, 11 of which were green, while the 12th was blue. Members of the tribe were not able to tell them apart. However, the Himba have more words for green than we do.
CHANGING EYE COLOR
There are companies that claim they can surgically change your eyes to blue. I’ve read that people with dark brown or black eyes have a lot of retinal melanin, those with green eyes less, and those with blue eyes none at all. The claim is that a 30-second laser operation can affect the pigment of the retina and change the color of the eyes, although not immediately. It is a process that takes a few weeks, where the eyes gradually brighten and turn blue. Is this a good idea?
(to be continued)
Interview and photo: Sebastian Varo
Translation: Richard Grenwelge