What do David Brewster, the inventor of the kaleidoscope, Gustav Fechner, one of the founders of modern quantitative psychology, and Joseph Plateau, who studied the so-called persistence of vision, all have in common? All three scientists went blind or permanently damaged their eyesight from staring directly into the sun in an attempt to study theories of vision. While sun-gazing is nowadays associated with the new age and dangerous practice of Breatharianism, where one can supposedly harness the energy of the Earth and the Sun for nutrients and live without food, its origins lie in the research of scientists in the early 1800s, and their attempts to map a physiological conception of vision.
Bodily conceptions of vision began strangely, with scientists in the field of vision interested in the effects of light on the human eye. This involved staring directly at the sun, with some figures in this field pursuing this actively with addictive fervour. The “visionary” capacities of the body involved the sunlight’s physical searing of itself onto one’s flesh, palpably impressing it into a proliferation of incandescent colour.
In the late 1830s and early 1840s, J.M.W. Turner captured this fascination with sun-gazing, which dissolved the boundaries between the observer and the observed. Turner illustrates the erosion of the bounds between subjective and objective vision, interior and exterior, that previous conceptions of vision had assured. As Jonathan Crary said of the paintings, “nothing now protects or distances the observer from the seductive and sensual brilliance of the sun”.
One must wonder if this obsessive fascination that some of these figures dedicated themselves to manifests itself in our contemporary practices of screen-gazing. The seductive glow of the mobile phone at night similarly pierces the retina and maps itself onto our eyes, leaving a searing and burning sensation after a while.
This excitement over the body birthed the science of physiology, which, at the time, was interested in the ways knowledge was conditioned by the physical and anatomical structure and functioning of the body, the eyes in particular. Researchers soon began recording how long it took for their eye to become fatigued, how long dilation and contraction of the pupil took, and measured the strength of eye movements. The eye became a territory to be mapped, conquered and measured. Joseph Plateau timed the average duration of the afterimage to be one third of a second; Helmholtz measured the speed of nerve transmission at about ninety feet per second; and Johannes Müller concluded that the observer’s experience of light has no necessary connection with any actual light. Through these experiments, vision became something of a bodily experience, one involving nerves and its reactions to stimuli rather than simply looking with one’s eyes.
Sun-gazing is thus a part of a larger history of theorising vision, and the ways in which light maps itself onto the body. The practice went out of style for obvious health reasons. According to Margaret Maria Gordan, David Brewster damaged his eyesight after “gazing through mysterious ‘bits of glass’ at noonday”, where “an acute and agonising pain suddenly darted into his eye-balls, deluging them with water, and necessitating complete darkness and quietness till the paroxysm had passed, which was sometimes not for two or three days.” While he found a miracle cure later on, his writings later confirm that he still suffered symptoms of both hemiopsy or half-vision and of an incipient cataract. For Gustav Fechner — he was driven mad after his eyesight was damaged, retreating into the dark and into his own mind for three years where he nursed an interest in philosophy. Meanwhile, according to Guy Verriest, Joseph Plateau looked directly at the sun often for more than 25 seconds. He then became blind for several days, and afterwards he saw strange flashing lights in his visual field and his eyes remained bloodshot for days on end. He suffered from uveitis and became permanently blind at the age of 42.
Despite its danger, the late 21st Century has seen sun-gazing be harnessed as a form of alternative medicine by new age hippies, pseudoscientists, and grifters alike, all attempting to push a very dangerous lifestyle. Sun-gazing can, according to non-secure websites, be a cure-all for cancer and various other diseases, with NASA apparently concluding that someone could live for a week on only sunlight and air. Research seems rather sketchy, however, and any other attempts to study people who have lived these lifestyles have often been inconclusive at best, and biased at worst.
Sun-gazing began as a way to penetrate the boundaries of vision and its conceptions, to dissolve the border between interior and anterior vision, and erode divisions between subjectivity and objective truth. The paintings of Turner draw audiences into the same grandeur that fascinated the scientists who practiced it, often to their own detriment. Nowadays, the name sun-gazing has been besmirched by, what past members have called, a death cult. At the root of this all, is some strange fascination with light and the knowledge and power it can unlock within us, whether it be staring at the sun or staying up late doom scrolling on Twitter.
With Summer approaching, the desire to soak in the sun’s rays, especially having been inside for so long, has never been stronger. Just don’t forget to bring a pair of sunnies.