“Through Other Eyes” by R.A. Lafferty
First published in Future Science Fiction, No. 47, Feb. 1960
“I don’t think I can stand the dawn of another Great Day,” said Smirnov. “It always seems a muggy morning, a rainy afternoon and a dismal evening. You remember the Recapitulation Correlator?”
“Known popularly as the Time Machine. But, Gregory, that was and is a success. All three of them are in constant use, and they will construct at least one more a decade. They are invaluable.”
“Yes. It was a dismal success. It has turned my whole life gray. You remember our trial run, the recapitulation of the Battle of Hastings?”
“It was a depressing three years we spent there. But how were we to know it was such a small affair—covering less than five acres of that damnable field and lasting less than twenty minutes? And how were we to know that an error of four years had been made in history even as recent as that? Yes, we scanned many depressing days and many muddy fields in that area before we recreated it.”
“And our qualified success at catching the wit of Voltaire at first hand?”
“Gad! That cackle! There can never be anything new in nausea to one who has sickened of that. What a perverted old woman he was!”
“And Nell Guinn?”
“There is no accounting for the taste of a king. What a completely tasteless morsel!”
“And the crowning of Charlemagne?”
“The king of chilblains. If you wanted a fire, you carried it with you in a basket. That was the coldest Christmas I ever knew. But the mead seemed to warm them; and we were the only ones present who could not touch it or taste it.”
“And when we went further back and heard the wonderful words of the divine poetess Sappho.”
“Yes, she had just decided that she would have her favorite cat spayed. We listened to her for three days and she talked of nothing else. How fortunate the world is that so few of her words have survived.”
“And watching the great Pythagoras at work.”
“And the long days he spent on that little surveying problem. How one longed to hand him a slide rule through the barrier and explain its workings.”
“And our eavesdropping on the great lovers Tristram and Isolde.”
“And him spending a whole afternoon trying to tune that cursed harp with a penny whistle. And she could talk of nothing but the bear grease she used on her hair, and how it was nothing like the bear grease back home. But she was a cute little lard barrel, quite the cutest we found for several centuries in either direction. One wouldn’t be able to get one’s arms all the way around her; but I can understand how, to one of that era and region, it would be fun trying.”
“Ah yes. Smelled like a cinnamon cookie, didn’t she? And you recall Lancelot?”
“Always had a bad back that wouldn’t let him ride. And that trick elbow and the old groin wound. He spent more time on the rubbing table than any athlete I ever heard of. If I had a high-priced quarterback who was never ready to play, I’d sure find a way of breaking his contract. No use keeping him on the squad just to read his ten-year-old press clippings. Any farm boy could have pulled him off his nag and stomped him into the dirt.”
“I wasn’t too happy about Aristotle the day we caught him. That barbarous north-coast Greek of his! Three hours he had them all busy combing his beard. And his discourse on the Beard in Essential and the Beard in Existential, did you follow that?”
“No, to tell the truth I didn’t. I guess it was pretty profound.”
They were silent and sad for a while, as are men who have lost much.
“The machine was a success,” said Smirnov at last, “and yet the high excitement of it died dismally for us.”
“The excitement is in the discovery of the machine,” said Cogsworth. “It is never in what the machine discovers.”
“And this new one of yours,” said Smirnov, “I hardly want to see you put it into operation. I am sure it will be a shattering disappointment to you.”
“I am sure of it also. And yet it is greater than the other. I am as excited as a boy.”
“You were a boy before, but you will never be again. I should think it would have aged you enough, and I cannot see what fascination this new one will have for you. At least the other recaptured the past. This will permit you to see only the present.”
“Yes, but through other eyes.”
“One pair of eyes is enough. I do not see any advantage at all except the novelty. I am afraid that this will be only a gadget.”
“No. Believe me, Smirnov, it will be more than that. It may not even be the same world when viewed through different eyes. I believe that what we regard as one may actually be several billion different universes, each made only for the eyes of the one who sees it.”
The Cerebral Scanner, newly completed by Charles Cogsworth, was not an intricate machine. It was a small but ingenious amplifying device, or battery of amplifiers, designed for the synchronous—perhaps “sympathetic” would be a better word—coupling of two very intricate machines: two human brains. It was an amplifier only. A subliminal coupling, or the possibility of it, was already assumed by the inventor. Less than a score of key aspects needed emphasizing for the whole thing to come to life. Here the only concern was with the convoluted cortex of the brain itself, that house of consciousness and terminal of the senses, and with the quasi-electrical impulses which are the indicators of its activity. It had been a long-held opinion of Cogsworth that, by the proper amplification of a near score of these impulses in one brain, a transmission could be effected to another so completely that one man might for an instant see with the eyes of another—also see inwardly with that man’s eyes, have the same imaginings and daydreams, perceive the same universe as the other perceived. And it would not be the same universe as the seeking man knew.
The Scanner had been completed, as had a compilation of the dossiers of seven different brains: a collection of intricate brain-wave data as to frequency, impulse, flux and field, and Lyall-wave patterns of the seven cerebrums which Cogsworth would try to couple with his own.
The seven were those of Gregory Smirnov, his colleague and counselor in so many things; of Gaetan Balbo, the cosmopolitan and supra-national head of the Institute; of Theodore Grammont, the theoretical mathematician; of E. E. Euler, the many-tentacled executive; of Karl Kleber, the extraordinary psychologist; of Edmond Guillames, the skeptic and bloodless critic; and of Valery Mok, a lady of beauty and charm whom Cogsworth had despaired of ever understanding by ordinary means.
This idea of his—to enter into the mind of another, to peer from behind another’s eyes into a world that could not be the same—this idea had been with him all his life. He recalled how it had first come down on him in all its strength when he was quite small.
“It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white,” he had said to himself, “and everybody else sees the sky white and the stars shining black. And I say the sky is black, and they say the sky is black; but when they say black they mean white.”
Or: “I may be the only one who can see the outside of a cow, and everybody else sees it inside out. And I say that it is the outside, and they say that it is the outside; but when they say outside they mean inside.”
Or: “It may be that all the boys I see look like girls to everyone else, and all the girls look like boys. And I say ‘That is a girl,’ and they say ‘That is a girl’; only when they say a girl they mean a boy.”
And then had come the terrifying thought: “What if I am a girl to everyone except me?”
This did not seem very intelligent to him even when he was small, and yet it became an obsession to him.
“What if to a dog all dogs look like men and all men look like dogs? And what if a dog looks at me and thinks that I am a dog and he is a boy?”
And this was followed once by the shattering afterthought: “And what if the dog is right?
“What if a fish looks up at a bird and a bird looks down at a fish? And the fish thinks that he is the bird and the bird is the fish, and that he is looking down on the bird that is really a fish, and the air is water and the water is air?”
“What if, when a bird eats a worm, the worm thinks he is the bird and the bird is the worm? And that his outside is his inside, and that the bird’s inside is his outside? And that he has eaten the bird instead of the bird eating him?”
This was illogical. But how does one know that a worm is not illogical? He has much to make him illogical.
And as he grew older Charles Cogsworth came on many signs that the world he saw was not the world that others saw. There came smaller but persistent signs that every person lives in a different world.
It was early in the afternoon, but Charles Cogsworth sat in darkness. Gregory Smirnov had gone for a walk in the country as he said that he would. He was the only other one who knew that the experiment was being made. He is the only one who would have agreed to the experiment, though the others had permitted their brain-wave dossiers to be compiled on another pretext.
All beginnings come quietly, and this one was a total success. The sensation of seeing with the eyes of another is new and glorious, though the full recognition of it comes slowly.
“He is a greater man than I,” said Cogsworth. “I have often suspected it. He has a placidity which I do not own, though he has not my fever. And he lives in a better world.”
It was a better world, greater in scope and more exciting in detail.
“Who would have thought of giving such a color to grass, if it is grass? It is what he calls grass, but it is not what I call grass. I wonder I should ever be content to see it as I saw it. It is a finer sky than I had known, and more structured hills. The old bones of them stand out for him as they do not for me, and he knows the water in their veins.
“There is a man walking toward him, and he is a grander man than I have ever seen. Yet I have also known the shadow of this man, and his name is Mr. Dottle, both to myself and to Gregory. I had thought that Dottle was a fool, but now I know that in the world of Gregory no man is a fool. I am looking through the inspired and almost divine eyes of a giant, and I am looking at a world that has not yet grown tired.”
For what seemed like hours Charles Cogsworth lived in the world of Gregory Smirnov; and he found here, out of all his life, one great expectation that did not fail him.
Then, after he had rested a while, he looked at the world through the wide eyes of Gaetan Balbo.
“I am not sure that he is a greater man than I, but he is a wider man. Nor am I sure that he looks into a greater world. I would not willingly trade for his, as I would for Gregory’s. Here I miss the intensity of my own. But it is fascinating, and I will enjoy returning to it again and again. And I know whose eyes these are. I am looking through the eyes of a king.”
Later he saw through the eyes of Theodore Grammont, and felt a surge of pity.
“If I am blind compared to Gregory, then this man is blind compared to me. I at least know that the hills are alive; he believes them to be imperfect polyhedrons. He is in the middle of a desert and is not even able to talk to the devils who live there. He has abstracted the world and numbered it, and doesn’t even know that the world is a live animal. He has built his own world of great complexity, but he cannot see the color of its flanks. This man has achieved so much only because he was denied so much at the beginning. I understand now that only the finest theory is no more than a fact gnawed on vicariously by one who has no teeth. But I will return to this world too, even though it has no body to it. I have been seeing through the eyes of a blind hermit.”
Delightful and exciting as this was, yet it was tiring. Cogsworth rested for a quarter of an hour before he entered the world of E. E. Euler. When he entered it he was filled with admiration.
“An ordinary man could not look into a world like this. It would drive him out of his wits. It is almost like looking through the eyes of the Lord, who numbers all the feathers of the sparrow and every mite that nestles there. It is the interconnection vision of all the details. It appalls. It isn’t an easy world even to look at. Great Mother of Ulcers! How does he stand it? Yet I see that he loves every tangled detail, the more tangled the better. This is a world in which I will be able to take only a clinical interest. Somebody must hold these reins, but happily it is not my fate. To tame this hairy old beast we live on is the doom of Euler. I look for a happier doom.”
He had been looking through the eyes of a general.
The attempt to see into the world of Karl Kleber was almost a total failure. The story is told of the behaviorist who would study the chimpanzee. He put the curious animal in a room alone and locked the door on it; then went to the keyhole to spy; the keyhole was completely occupied by the brown eyeball of the animal spying back at him.
Something of the sort happened here. Though Karl Kleber was unaware of the experiment, yet the seeing was in both directions. Kleber was studying Cogsworth in those moments by some quirk of circumstance. And even when Cogsworth was able to see with the eyes of Kleber, yet it was himself he was seeing.
“I am looking through the eyes of a peeper,” he said. “And yet, what am I myself?”
If the world of Gregory Smirnov first entered was the grandest, so that of Edmond Guillames, which Cogsworth entered last but one, was in all ways the meanest.
It was a world seen from the inside of a bile duct. It was not a pleasant world, just as Edmond was not a pleasant man. But how could one be other than a skeptic if all his life he had seen nothing but a world of rubbery bones and bloodless flesh clothed in crippled colors and obscene forms?
“The mole of another’s world would be nobler than a lion in his,” said Cogsworth. “Why should one not be a critic who has so much to criticize? Why should one not be an unbeliever when faced with the dilemma that this unsavory world was either made by God or hatched by a cross-eyed ostrich? I have looked through the eyes of a fool into a fools’ world.”
As Cogsworth rested again he said, “I have seen the world through the eyes of a giant, of a king, of a blind hermit, of a general, of a peeping tom, of a fool. There is nothing left but to see it through the eyes of an angel.”
Valery Mok may or may not have been an angel. She was a beautiful woman, and angels, in the older and more authentic iconography, were rather stern men with shaggy pinions.
Valery wore a look of eternal amusement, and was the embodiment of all charm and delight, at least to Charles Cogsworth. He believed her to be of high wit. Yet, if driven into a corner, he would have been unable to recall one witty thing she had ever said. He regarded her as of perfect kindness, and she was more or less on the agreeable side. Yet, Smirnov had put it, she was not ordinarily regarded as extraordinary.
It was only quite lately that Cogsworth was sure that it was love he felt for her rather than bafflement. And, as he had despaired of ever understanding her by regular means, though everyone else understood her easily enough in as much as mattered, he would now use irregular means for his understanding.
He looked at the world through the eyes of Valery Mok, saying, “I will see the world through the eyes of an angel.”
A change came over him as he looked, and it was not a pleasant change. He looked through her eyes for quite a while—not, perhaps, as long as he had looked through the eyes of Gregory—yet for a long time, unable to tear himself away.
He shuddered and trembled and shrank back into himself.
Then he let it alone, and buried his face in his arms.
“I have looked at the world through the eyes of a pig,” he said.
Charles Cogsworth spent six weeks in a sanatorium, which, however, was not called that. He had given the world his second great invention, and its completion had totally exhausted him. As in many such mercurial temperaments, the exaltation of discovery had been followed by an interlude of deep despondency on its completion. Yet he was of fundamentally sound constitution and he had the best of care. But when he recovered it was not into his old self. He now had a sort of irony smiling resignation that was new to him. It was though he had discovered a new and more bitter world for himself in looking into the worlds of others.
Of his old intimates only Gregory Smirnov was still close to him.
“I can guess the trouble, Charles,” said Gregory. “I rather feared this would happen. In fact I advised against her being one of the subjects of the experiment. It is simply that you know very little about women.”
“I have read all the prescribed texts, Gregory. I took a six-week seminar under Zamenoff. I am acquainted with almost the entire body of the work of Bopp concerning women. I have spent nearly as many years as you in the world, and I generally go about with my eyes open. I surely understand as much as is understandable about them.”
“No. They are not your proper field. I could have predicted what has shocked you. You had not understood that women are so much more sensuous than men. But it would be better if you explained just what it was that shocked you.”
“I had thought that Valery was an angel. It is simply that it is a shock to find that she is a pig.”
“I doubt if you understand pigs any better than you understand women. I myself, only two days ago, had a pig’s-eye view of the world, and that with your own Cerebral Scanner. I have been doing considerable work with it in the several weeks that you have been laid up. There is nothing in the pig’s-eye world that would shock even the most fastidious. It is a dreamy world of all-encompassing placidity, almost entirely divorced from passion. It’s a gray shadowy world with very little of the unpleasant. I had never before known how wonderful is the feel of simple sunlight and of cool earth. Yet we would soon be bored with it; but the pig is not bored.”
“You divert me, Gregory, but you do not touch the point of my shock. Valery is beautiful—or was to me before this. She seemed kind and serene. Always she appeared to contain a mystery that amused her vastly, and which I suspected would be the most wonderful thing in the world once I understood it.”
“And her mystery is that she lives in a highly sensuous world and enjoys it with complete awareness? Is that what has shocked you?”
“You do not know the depth of it. It is ghastly. The colors of that world are of unbelievable coarseness, and the shapes reek. The smells are the worst. Do you know how a tree smells to her?”
“What kind of tree?”
“Any tree. I think it was an ordinary elm.”
“The Slippery Elm has a pleasant aroma in season. The others, to me, have none.”
“No. It was not. Every tree has a strong smell in her world. This was an ordinary elm tree, and it had a violent musky obscene smell that delighted her. It was so strong that it staggered. And to her the grass itself is like clumps of snakes, and the world itself is flesh. Every bush is to her a leering satyr, and she cannot help but brush into them. The rocks are spidery monsters and she loves them. She sees every cloud as a mass of twisting bodies and she is crazy to be in the middle of them. She hugged a lamp post and her heart beat like it would fight its way out of her body.
“She can smell rain at a great distance and in a foul manner, and she wants to be in the middle of it. She worships every engine as a fire monster, and she hears sounds that I thought nobody could ever hear. Do you know what worms sound like inside the earth? They’re devilish, and she would writhe and eat dirt with them. She can rest her hand on a guard rail, and it is an obscene act when she does it. There is a filthiness in every color and sound and shape and smell and feel.”
“And yet, Charles, she is but a slightly more than average attractive girl, given to musing, and with a love of the world and a closeness to it that most of us have lost. She has a keen awareness of reality and of the grotesqueness that is its main mark. You yourself do not have this deeply; and when you encounter it in its full strength, it shocks you.”
“You mean that is normal?”
“There is no normal. There are only differences. When you moved into our several worlds they did not shock you to the same extent, for most of the corners are worn off our worlds. But to move into a pristine universe is more of a difference than you were prepared for.”
“I cannot believe that that is all it is.”
Charles Cogsworth would not answer the letters of Valery Mok, nor would he see her. Yet her letters were amusing and kind, and carried a trace of worry for him.
“I wonder what I smell like to her?” he asked himself. “Am I like an elm tree, or a worm in the ground? What color am I to her? Is my voice obscene? She says she misses the sound of my voice. It should be possible to undo this. Am I also to her like a column of snakes or a congeries of spiders?’”
For he wasn’t well yet from what he had seen.
But he did go back to work, and nibbled at the edges of mystery with his fantastic device. He even looked into the worlds of other women. It was as Smirnov had said: they were more sensuous than men but none of them to the shocking degree of Valery.
He saw with the eyes of other men. And of animals: the soft pleasure of the fox devouring a ground squirrel, the bloody anger of a lamb furious after milk, the crude arrogance of the horse, the intelligent tolerance of the mule, the voraciousness of the cow, the miserliness of the squirrel, the sullen passion of the catfish. Nothing was quite as might have been expected.
He learned the jealousy and hatred that beautiful women hold against the ugly, the untarnished evil of small children, the diabolic possession of adolescents. He even, by accident, saw the world through the fleshless eyes of a poltergeist, and through the eyes of creatures that he could not identify at all. He found nobility in places that almost balanced the pervading baseness.
But mostly he loved to see the world through the eyes of his friend Gregory Smirnov, for there is a grandeur on everything when seen through a giant’s eyes.
And one day he saw Valery Mok through the eyes of Smirnov when they met accidentally. Something of his old feeling came back to him, and something that even surpassed his former regard. She was here magnificent, as was everything in that world. And there had to be a common ground between that wonderful world with her in it and the hideous world seen through her own eyes.
“I am wrong somewhere,” said Cogsworth. “It is because I do not understand enough. I will go and see her.”
But instead she came to see him.
She burst in on him furiously one day.
“You are a stick. You are a stick with no blood in it. You are a pig made out of sticks. You live with dead people Charles. You make everything dead. You are abominable.”
“I a pig, Valery? Possibly. But I never saw a pig made out of sticks.”
“Then see yourself. That is what you are.”
“Tell me what this is about.”
“It is about you. You are a pig made out of sticks, Charles. Gregory Smirnov let me use your machine. I saw the world the way you see it. I saw it with a dead man’s eyes. You don’t even know that the grass is alive. You think it’s only grass.”
“I also saw the world with your eyes, Valery.”
“Oh, is that what’s been bothering you? Well, I hope it livened you up a little. It’s a livelier world than yours.”
“More pungent, at least.”
“Lord, I should hope so. I don’t think you even have a nose. I don’t think you have any eyes. You can look at a hill and your heart doesn’t even skip a beat. You don’t even tingle when you walk over a field.”
“You see grass like clumps of snakes.”
“That’s better than not even seeing it alive.”
“You see rocks like big spiders.”
“That’s better than just seeing them like rocks. I love snakes and spiders. You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. How can you be so dead? And I always liked you so much. But I didn’t know you were dead like that.”
“How can one love snakes and spiders?”
“How can one not love anything? It’s even hard not to love you, even if you don’t have any blood in you. By the way, what gave you the idea that blood was that dumb color? Don’t you even know that blood is red?”
“I see it red.”
“You don’t see it red. You just call it red. That sill color isn’t red. What I call red is red.”
And he knew that she was right.
And after all, how can one not love anything? Especially when it becomes beautiful when angry, and when it is so much alive that it tends to shock by its intense awareness those who are partly dead.
Now Charles Cogsworth was a scientific man, and he believed that there are no insoluble problems. He solved this one too; for he had found that Valery was a low-flying bird, and he began to understand what was gurgling inside her.
And he solved it happily.
He is working on a Correlator for his Scanner now. When this is perfected, it will be safe to give the device to the public. You will be able to get the combination in about three years at approximately the price of a medium-sized new car. And if you will wait another year, you may be able to get one of the used ones reasonably. The Correlator is designed to minimize and condition the initial view of the world seen through other eyes, to soften the shock of understanding others.
Misunderstandings can be agreeable. But there is something shattering about sudden perfect understanding.
–R.A. Lafferty ■