Professor of performance studies at New York University, Peggy Phelan narrates the story of a vision disorder that began when she was 23 years old, caused by "open-angle glaucoma," a difficult-to-treat condition in which the vessels draining ocular fluid periodically constrict. The episodes are excruciatingly painful and disorienting: "I feel a staggering push behind my right eye. The right upper half of my face is on fire: I am certain that my eye has fallen out of its socket . . . " (508).

Phelan resists patienthood, beginning with her first visit to the doctor, in which she underplays what has happened to her. Rejecting surgery, coping with side effects of the drugs she must take, and concerned about her ability to continue as a visual arts scholar, she muddles through for several years. Then she experiences a frightening, vividly described episode of temporary blindness, which is followed by a migraine headache. Six months later she agrees to have surgery.

During the surgery, under local anesthesia, "my eye, which is frozen, can still see things as they pass over it . . . colors I have never seen before . . . I am seeing the roof of my own eye from the interior side. It is utterly breath stopping. I cannot speak" (521-522). Enabled to see her eye from a perspective that was not available to the physician, and grateful for this "visionary experience," Phelan finally accepts her situation. She is not cured, although her condition improves. "My story is finally the same as those of all the other patients . . . The only difference between me and them comes from the words I’ve suffered to find and the words I’ve suffered to flee" (525).


This essay is a linguistic toure de force. Phelan, an advocate and practitioner of performative writing, recreates sensory experience with language. Finding the explanatory narrative that her physician delivers "searingly inadequate," she searches for the right words to convey pain and an altered self. "Words walk to the threshold but will not enter the rooms of the body where pain runs wild. Deserted by words, pain lacks temporal sequence or spatial order: it makes a sound that syntax cannot carry" (507)."

All her faculties are employed in the attempt to represent her experience: "I crane to hear my blankness, stutter toward seeing my blindness" (518). Enacting perception with language, Phelan engages us, her audience, in a communicative act. Her essay is a performance--"the ability to realize that which is not otherwise manifest" (see Phelan’s introduction to The Ends of Performance. eds. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane, New York: New York University Press, 1998, p.10. For more on performative writing, see in the same book, Della Pollock’s chapter, "Performative Writing").

Primary Source

The Georgia Review, XLV: 3 (Fall), 507-525 (1991)

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