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Brian Friel’s 1994 play Molly Sweeney, recently revived by New York City’s Irish Repertory Theater, illustrates the distinction between seeing and understanding. Inspired by an Oliver Sacks case study, “To See and Not See,” the drama is a tragedy that examines scientific arrogance, the hubris and paternalism that too often accompanies good intentions, the dangers of passively bowing to the wishes of others, and the hazards of treating another person as a project to be cured or improved.

Three characters—a recently married young woman who has been blind since the age of 10 months, her ne’er-do-well husband, and an ambitious yet self-loathing eye doctor—separately narrate her story. Molly, who has experienced the world through sound, touch, taste and smell, is given the “gift” of sight, only to be overwhelmed by visual stimuli. Unable to make sense of the visual world, her identity, her sense of self, and her mental well-being are shattered.

Eyesight turns out to be double-edged and Molly pays a high price for this “gift.”

The play raises psychological, philosophical and emotional issues related to perception, identity and the nature of happiness. It also speaks to profound metaphysical, epistemological and ethical questions, challenging the assumption that vision is synonymous with comprehension or insight.

Merely having the ability to see does not guarantee understanding or meaningful perception. The play exposes a yawning gap between seeing and truly understanding another person’s reality and speaks to current controversies surrounding the concept of disability. In addition, Friel’s play questions whether seeing the world visually provides a more “real” or “true” understanding than perceiving it through other senses.

The drama suggests that sensory knowledge has its limits and that deeper understanding often transcends what can be seen. While sight provides sensory input, understanding requires interpretation, contextual knowledge, and the complex interplay of sensory experiences, cognitive processes, and emotional insights.

Seeing is a physical process involving the eyes and brain, but understanding requires cognitive and interpretive abilities. It involves piecing together information within a context that is influenced by cultural and personal frameworks. The play shows that sight and understanding develop differently and that understanding can exist independently of vision. True understanding requires context, memory and cognitive frameworks that build over time. Without context, raw visual data is meaningless.

One of the drama’s key themes is how the ability or inability to see influences a person’s perception of reality. Molly, having been blind since infancy, has developed a rich inner life based on her other senses. The restoration of her sight undercuts her understanding of the world and herself. Molly’s reality, identity, inner world and sense of self, shaped by her blindness, are disrupted when she gains sight, resulting in disorientation and loss. She is unable to process and make sense of visual information after a lifetime of blindness, resulting in an emotional and physical breakdown.

Before the surgery, Molly is relatively content with her life. The play questions whether the quest for a cure, driven by others’ perceptions of what is better, truly leads to happiness. The play also suggests that happiness is not necessarily tied to conventional notions of normality.

In addition, the drama is about autonomy and agency and their mirror images, passivity, submissiveness and compliance. Molly’s decision to undergo surgery is forced upon her by her husband and her surgeon. Their desires and ambitions overshadow Molly’s own wishes.

Just as Oliver Sacks’s case study reveals that perception is not merely about seeing but about making sense of sensory information, Molly Sweeney underscores the title character’s rich sensory world before her surgery and her struggle to integrate new visual information afterward. As her surgeon puts this: “She would still have to learn how to see.” He adds: “She would have to create a whole new world.”

The Friel play differs from the Sacks essay in its reflections on the profound metaphysical, epistemological, theological and existential significance of vision, sight and blindness. After all, in religious and philosophical contexts, vision and blindness are important metaphors.

From Plato onward, philosophy has been interested in the epistemological, interpretive and phenomenological dimensions of vision and sight. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, shadows represent the distorted and incomplete reality perceived by those who are unenlightened. The journey from the cave into the light symbolizes the ascent to knowledge and truth.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a 20th-century philosopher, explored vision in his phenomenological investigations. He argued that vision is not just a passive reception of images but an active process of engaging with the world. Vision, for Merleau-Ponty, is intertwined with bodily experience and intentionality.

Edmund Husserl also emphasized the role of perception in constituting experience. For Husserl, vision is a fundamental way through which consciousness relates to the world, making it central to understanding human experience.

Jean-Paul Sartre discussed the concept of “the look” (le regard) in his existential philosophy. He explored how being seen by others influences one’s sense of self and subjectivity, illustrating the existential dimension of vision.

In religion, vision has long symbolized knowledge and enlightenment, and light has been equated with truth and insight, and the journey toward understanding, spiritual awakening and redemption. In stark contrast, blindness is associated with ignorance, while darkness symbolizes, in Christian thought, sin, evil and separation from the divine.

In the New Testament, darkness often represents ignorance or lack of spiritual understanding. For example, in John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” darkness symbolizes the state of humanity without divine knowledge. Somewhat similarly, in Hinduism, darkness can symbolize ignorance—avidya—that prevents one from realizing their true self and ultimate realities.

In religious thought, the contrast between light and darkness is a common theme. For instance, in the Hebrew Bible, darkness often signifies a lack of God’s presence or favor, as seen in the plagues of Egypt where darkness was one of the punishments. The New Testament’s 10th book, Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 11 calls on believers to “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

In Zoroastrianism, the struggle between the forces of light (Ahura Mazda) and darkness (Angra Mainyu) represents the cosmic battle between good and evil. In Islam, darkness can symbolize being distant from Allah’s guidance. Surah Al-Baqarah (2:257) states, “Allah is the protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light.”

In Greek mythology, blindness often serves as a punishment or a result of divine judgment, such as in the story of Oedipus, where physical blindness follows his inability to see the truth about his own life.

In Christian thought, blindness often symbolizes a lack of spiritual insight. Jesus’ miracles of healing the blind (e.g., John 9:1–41) are seen as metaphors for bringing spiritual enlightenment and faith. In Buddhism, spiritual blindness (avidya) is one of the root causes of suffering, referring to the inability to see the true nature of reality and the Four Noble Truths.

In Hinduism, blindness can represent moral and ethical blindness, failing to see or follow dharma (righteousness). Characters like Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata, who are physically blind, also symbolically cannot see the truth and justice.

For Christian mystics, shadows symbolize the partial and limited understanding humans have of divine truths, suggesting that earthly life is a mere shadow of the greater reality of God’s kingdom. Shadows can also represent the presence of evil or danger. Psalm 23:4 refers to the “valley of the shadow of death,” indicating a place of deep fear and peril.

Carl Jung’s concept of the “shadow” encompasses the parts of the unconscious mind that are repressed or denied. This can be linked to the religious idea of confronting one’s sins or inner demons to achieve spiritual growth.

Vision is a powerful motif in the Bible and other religious texts. For instance, the Apostle Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus involved a sudden restoration of his lost sight, symbolizing spiritual enlightenment.

In Christian theology, the beatific vision refers to the direct, face-to-face experience of God in heaven. This concept emphasizes the ultimate union with the divine through perfect vision and understanding.

Many mystical traditions emphasize the concept of inner vision or inner light as a means of spiritual insight and enlightenment. This inner vision is often seen as more reliable and profound than physical sight. Saint Augustine spoke of the “eyes of the heart” (oculi cordis) as the means through which one perceives divine truths, highlighting the importance of inner vision in spiritual life.

Theological discussions often use blindness as a metaphor for spiritual ignorance or sin. Conversely, gaining sight represents salvation, revelation and enlightenment. In Sufi mysticism, vision is a key metaphor for the soul’s journey toward God. The Sufi poet Rumi often used imagery of sight and light to describe the mystical experience of divine love and truth.

More recently, John D. Caputo, a contemporary philosopher of religion, explores the interplay between vision and interpretation. He argues that seeing is always an act of interpretation, influenced by our preconceptions and desires. This hermeneutical approach emphasizes the fluid and dynamic nature of vision.

Jean-Luc Marion, a prominent phenomenologist and theologian, discusses the concept of “saturated phenomena” which overwhelms our capacity to see and understand fully. His work highlights the limitations of human vision in the face of the divine, suggesting that true understanding often involves a kind of blindness or surrender.

Richard Kearney’s concept of anatheism involves the discovery of a hidden holiness and divinity in everyday life. Kearney explores how vision and perception play roles in encounters with the divine, emphasizing a post-secular, open-ended spirituality where seeing becomes a metaphor for experiencing the sacred in the ordinary.

Catherine Keller, another contemporary theologian, integrates vision into her theopoetic explorations, which blend theology with artistic and imaginative perspectives. She discusses how seeing differently—through the lens of creativity and imagination—can lead to deeper theological insights.

Vision and sight are pivotal in philosophy and theology because they serve as powerful metaphors and mechanisms for exploring knowledge, perception and the divine. They bridge the sensory and the spiritual, offering rich avenues for understanding human experience and the nature of reality. Recent philosophers and theologians continue to expand these discussions, emphasizing the interpretive, phenomenological, mystical and creative dimensions of vision and sight.

Before his death in 2015, Brian Friel was among Ireland’s most celebrated playwrights. This placed him in impressive company. The late 19th and 20th centuries saw a wealth of talent emerge from Irish and Irish American playwrights, including Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Tom Murphy, Hugh Leonard, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.

It’s not an accident that so many of the great modern playwrights were Irish or Irish American. It can be attributed, in part, to Ireland’s rich literary and oral storytelling tradition, and to Ireland’s strong emphasis on language, poetry, word play and wit, and its blending of humor and tragedy. Other contributors to Ireland’s dramatic outpouring include the island nation’s fraught politics, social and religious turmoil, and ongoing struggles with colonialism, which provided rich dramatic material. The Irish diaspora and the experiences of displacement and cultural adaption and fusion, issues of national, ethnic and religious identity, and the intricacies and dynamics of the country’s intense family dynamics, which are heavily influenced by the society’s Catholic traditions, also provided fertile soil for the theatrical imagination.

Contemporary society is grappling with the complex task of addressing issues related to disabilities. While significant legal strides have been made to ensure equality and accessibility, the implementation and practical support for individuals with disabilities reveal ongoing challenges and gaps.

The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment, public accommodations, transportation and government services, and mandates reasonable accommodations to ensure accessibility. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures students with disabilities receive free appropriate public education tailored to their individual needs. Schools are required to integrate students with disabilities into regular classrooms to the greatest extent possible, promoting an inclusive environment that benefits all students.

Apart from various legal reforms, there has also been a growing recognition that many disabilities exist along a spectrum, from those who are high performing and may require minimal support to those with severe impairments needing intensive, ongoing care. The neurodiversity movement advocates for recognizing developmental, behavioral and neurological disabilities as natural variations in human cognition and behavior, rather than as deficits or disorders. This perspective promotes acceptance and accommodations that leverage individual strengths. Viewing disabilities as alternative modes of behavior and perception challenges traditional notions of “normalcy” and encourages a more inclusive approach that values diversity.

While contemporary society has made commendable progress in recognizing and legislating for the rights of individuals with disabilities, significant challenges remain, including chronic underfunding and limited access to specialized services. Addressing these issues will require better implementation of existing laws, comprehensive support services, increased funding and a cultural shift toward valuing neurodiversity and alternative modes of behavior and perception. Only by addressing all of these challenges can society ensure that those with disabilities have the opportunity to thrive.

But as Molly Sweeney illustrates, creating a more compassionate and supportive society will require more than money. It also requires greater respect for individual agency and autonomy and listening and responding to people’s needs and desires.

Molly’s experiences and unique perceptions as a blind person are valid and valuable, and society needs to recognize, respect and value the diverse ways that individuals with disabilities experience the world. Molly’s hesitation about her eye surgery underscores the importance of listening to individuals with disabilities. Society often imposes what it thinks is best without considering the person’s own wishes and experiences. Decisions regarding medical interventions should be made with full, informed consent, respecting individuals’ right to choose what they believe is best for their own life.

Molly’s struggle after gaining sight also shows that addressing disabilities is not solely about physical interventions. She needed psychological, emotional and social support. Her isolation after her surgery reflects the need for robust support networks that include family, friends, healthcare providers and community resources to help individuals navigate their experiences.

In addition, the play challenges the assumption that sight is inherently superior to blindness. Friel encourages society to rethink its biases and assumptions about what constitutes a fulfilling life.

Difference does not mean deficient. Disabilities are part of the natural diversity of human experience. Rather than seeing disabilities largely as deficits, we need to see them as different ways of being.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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