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Making a Spectacles of Myself

Joseph Epstein sees himself through four eyes.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Of late, the last four years or so, I rarely go out for long without being praised. I am praised not for my writing, my perspicacity, my elegant bearing, my youthful good looks, my extreme modesty, but for my eyeglasses. “Nice glasses,” strangers say to me. “Like your glasses,” they say. “Love those glasses,” is a refrain I hear at least once a week. “Where did you get those glasses?” people wearing glasses of their own often ask me. “Thank you for your kind words about these glasses,” I have taken to answering. “They are my best feature.”

Dave Clark

Dave Clark

The frames of my glasses are round, large, heavy, and dappled with an emphatic tortoiseshell. Although they are bifocals, I do not need them full-time. I work at my computer without them. I don’t need them to watch television. I sometimes leave my apartment without them. Clearly, though, when I do wear them they dominate my face. Were I to commit a crime, they are probably the first thing that witnesses to it would recall about me. 

A few Sundays ago, I was walking in the neighborhood when a middle-aged woman, in tights and doing a power walk, paused to say, “Love your glasses.” I told her I much liked the glasses she was wearing. She told me she has several pairs of glasses at home. “Glasses are jewelry for the face,” she said, and humped and pumped her way down the street.

Some glasses make one look forbidding. I think here of those rimless spectacles that suggest an older banker foreclosing on one’s mortgage. Other glasses make one look owlish. As an older man, Cary Grant wore black-framed glasses that made him even more elegant. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan wears half-glasses low on the nose that do not work well with his sad comb-over. 

When I grew up, wearing glasses of any kind was considered a serious detraction, a handicap of sorts. “Men seldom make passes,” Dorothy Parker wrote, “at girls who wear glasses.” Men who wore them were thought bookish, make that bookwormish, nerdy avant la lettre. “Four-eyes” was the put-down term of choice used against those who did. As if to illustrate how much this has changed, For Eyes is today one of the nation’s leading optical franchises. Naming a company after an insult—only in America.

I did not need to wear glasses until my mid-forties. I have not in the least minded wearing them thereafter. Thirty or forty years ago, many people still did mind. For those who could afford them, contact lenses were the first solution. The solution was not always a successful one. People who wore them seemed fairly regularly to lose a contact lens. I’ve seen professional basketball games stopped while players, down on their hands and knees, hunted for a teammate’s lost contact lens. Contact lenses are more efficient today, and some people wear them purely for cosmetic reasons to change the color of their eyes, a touch that has always struck me as positively Persian Empire in its decadence. 

Not many movie stars have worn glasses. Harold Lloyd, the silent-film star did; and so, too, does Woody Allen, the too-talky film star. No women regularly wore glasses in movies. A standard movie bit, though, had a female star playing a spinster, perhaps a librarian, until at the appropriate point in the story her glasses would come off, the bun at the back of her head would be loosed to release a luxuriant growth of hair, and—presto change-o—she turns into a sexpot. 

Monocle-wearing men used to appear in English movies; Adolphe Menjou might have donned a monocle in a flick or two. Did Margaret Dumont use a lorgnette, glasses on a stem, in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Opera? The University of Chicago philosophy teacher Allan Bloom, who went in for lavish haberdashery, affected a pince-nez late in life, which even with his florid personality did not quite come off. 

In the 1970s, I was on a cruise of the Greek Islands on which the political journalist I. F. Stone was a fellow passenger. Stone wore Coke-bottle-thick lenses in rimless glasses. Magooishly, he made his way among monuments and sculptures. At one point, in the museum at Olympia, I watched him inspect the detail of a dazzling Hermes statue from a distance of three feet through binoculars. 

As for my own glasses, a friend who hadn’t seen me for a few years remarked that they seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. Is it possible that eventually they will take over my face and then my personality, and I shall become little more than tortoiseshell on legs, which sounds like the perfect donnée for a story by Kafka? I haven’t yet written it, but its working title is “The Man Who Made a Spectacles of Himself.” 

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