CRIME AND THE EYESIGHT.
Punch, February 25, 1903
“There is,” observed the novelist gravely, “a bad time coming for writers of fiction. A very bad time.”
I replied that what with publishers reckoning thirteen copies as twelve, and editors regretting their so-called lack of space (sic), things were, for my humble needs, bad enough already. After which I asked for details.
“I have been reading a book,” said he, “by a Dr. George M. Gould. It is called Biographic Clinics, and it deals with the subject of the eyes, and their influence on the mind, character, and general health. I could quote extensively from the volume, but I will not.” (Here I thanked him.) “Suffice it that the author asserts that, if it were not for defective eyesight, there would be no crime in the world. All the crimes that were ever committed are to be traced directly to the absence of spectacles.”
“And yet,” I said musingly, “bread and spectacles were the ruin of Rome.”
“If the Romans had thought less of their bread and more of their spectacles, they would have declined to fall as they did. Take Nero. Did he wear glasses? Not he. Not even a monocle. And look at his record of convictions. Same with them all. Tiberius, Caligula, every one of them. Utter scoundrels. And they might have been as good as Gould if they had only taken ordinary care of themselves.”
“True,” I said, “there is something very pathetic in the idea. Roman history ought to be rewritten. It is not fair on the poor fellows. After all, it was not their fault. Why, Nero must turn in his grave like a teetotum at the things that are said of him every day at our universities and public schools. Somebody ought to put him right with the world. As gentle and well-meaning a man as ever breathed, hounded into a life of crime by the neglect of the imperial oculist. It is pure pathos, with the maker’s name on the label.”
“Precisely,” said the Novelist. “By the way, in passing, why is Mr. Chamberlain greater than William Pitt?”
“Because he wears an eye-glass.”
“Why is Ibsen superior to Shakespeare?”
“Because he wears spectacles.”
“Exactly. Thank you very much. To return to the subject of crime, our whole method of dealing with our criminal classes is wrong. Why, when the coster’s finished jumping on his mother——”
“On his mother?”
“What do we do? Why, we jump on him. His plea that he had mislaid his pince-nez at the moment passes unregarded. I have known a poor fellow, manifestly suffering from astigmatism of the left eye, spoken to very sharply for assaulting a policeman. The policeman said that he had had a glass too much. Of course what he had really had was a pair of glasses too little. It was a most painful case.”
“But one moment,” I said at this juncture, “you seem to me to have strayed from the point. You have not yet explained your remark about the bad time which is to arrive for writers of fiction. Why is there a bad time coming?”
“Why, surely,” he said, “it is perfectly obvious. In a few years everyone will be wearing spectacles, and how are you to write a novel of a hundred thousand words, full of strong human interest, when crime has been utterly eliminated? Will the public read a book that is wholly good? I can’t imagine myself writing a book that is——”
“ ‘Wholly good’? Ah, but that’s your modesty. Even with glasses we can never see ourselves as others see us.”
Unsigned story as printed; credited to P. G. Wodehouse in the Index to Vol. 124 of Punch.
George M. Gould was an American physician and writer whose Biographic Clinics, a three-volume set published 1903–1904, proposed the theory that “. . . an abnormally large percentage of criminals and the youth consigned to reformatories have high degrees of optical and other defects of the eyes.”