I was defeated in the science laboratory by my ancestors. Colour-blindness of the third degree, the inability to distinguish subtle shades of red and green, runs in the Cope stock, but on a recessive gene. My chances of getting it were enhanced by having Copes on both sides. In Jack’s generation, Uncle Bob was, by reports, more colour-blind than I am, and I think that grandfa-ther Carol was also afflicted. Raymond Cope, my mother’s transport-rider grandfather, is too distant in time and story for me to know. My brother Raymond can see colours like anyone else.
This colour-blindness begs the child’s question, ‘How do I know that my experience of, say, yellow is the same as yours?’ I was unaware of it until I was in high school, when, to my intense frustration, I found that no matter how I squinted, frowned or blurred my vision, I could not see the number hidden in the dots in a Time-Life book’s colour perception test.
In science experiments, we had to do titrations aimed at finding an exact point between acid and alkaline. Litmus, a blue stain derived from lichens that goes pink in acid, is mixed into a solution. Drops of acid or alkali are slowly added until the solution changes colour, and the point where it is neither pink nor blue is the point where it is neutral. I took to the experiments with enthusiasm, and being a handy person was easily able to deal with the practical aspects, but I just couldn’t see the neutral point. The colours entered a zone of ambiguity, neither this nor that, sometimes one, sometimes the other, and my results were always wrong. Unable to master this staple of laboratory chemistry, I could never progress to the heady realms beyond, where glass structures out of Dr Seuss bubbled and fumed.
Twenty years later, in the dimly-lit passageway of a friend’s house, I gained more insight into my visual shortcoming. On the wall was a photo of a peacock, his magnificent tail fanned out in blues and greens. ‘Hey, look at those colours,’ I said. ‘It’s a black-and-white photo,’ he told me.
If, when conditions become ambiguous, some part of me ‘fills in’ what it is seeing, generating apparent difference to make sense of the world, then perhaps it is doing so all the time. Unable to see the point in the titration that is obvious to everyone else, this difference engine decides arbitrarily what is ‘blue’ or ‘pink’ and renders it thus in my field of perception, a process of editing that is transparent to my consciousness. The case of the peacock is a little different: sensing ambiguity from ambient signals like dim light, and confirming it in the ambiguity of the grey image, the eager internal editor makes assumptions drawn from prior experience and performs its colouring-in act for me. I wonder whether something like this kind of visual enhancement goes on in the perceptions of the vast majority of people who do not share my subtle disability, as the writings of Oliver Sacks or Luria suggest. If direct perception of the world is unreliable and ambiguous for me, and perhaps for others, then how much more so memory, which does not have a world in which to anchor itself? And if memory and perception are in doubt, then everything else must also be.
Tulsi Sahib of Hathras, ur-guru of the Radhasoami lineage, wrote of Maya, goddess of illusion:
She neither comes nor goes, takes birth nor dies;
She is formidable for vast ages;
She snacks on what moves and what is still;
She rips the Solar System apart and dines on it;
She spins her web in all the universe.
Only those who know her can cross the ocean.
Tulsi says, casting off her snare I fled to the freedom of the company of Saints.