Thomas Sutcliffe

Mr Magoo may be a figure of fun, but he is also a vivid embodiment of the creative possibilities of myopia, an accidental hero of metaphor
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The Independent Online
It was reported the other day that the National Federation of the Blind in America has recently demanded that Disney suspend its production of a live-action film about Mr Magoo, the famously short-sighted cartoon character. One has become used to such dictatorial eruptions of distress in America - a policing of the imagination which now makes certain films almost unthinkable. The only way you could make Moby Dick these days would be to call it "Free Moby" and turn it into an uplifting tale of how a loving white whale heals the embittered Ahab (victim of society's unfeeling bipedalism), allowing him at last to stand on his own one foot. In most cases, though, it is possible to discern the origin of the offence, even if you think it ludicrous that it should be taken with such solemnity. But in the case of Mr Magoo I really do think that the Federation has missed the point. Magoo may be a figure of fun, as he blithely misconstrues his way through the world, but he is also a vivid embodiment of the creative possibilities of myopia. Mr Magoo is an artist of a special kind, an accidental hero of metaphor.

The artist he most resembles - literally, given his hairless dome and new potato of a nose - is Picasso. And if you think of Picasso's sculptural jeux d'esprit - the ape snout made out of a toy car's bonnet, and the Cycladic bull's head constructed from a bicycle saddle and its handlebars - then you have a perfect example of the kind of visual confusion to which Mr Magoo is so haplessly prone (indeed, I have a feeling that the handlebar/ horns metaphor has featured in a Magoo cartoon). That there is a connection between such metaphors and a certain fuzziness of sight is hardly a recent thought. Walter Pater noted of the device that "it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations seem alike" and he noted it with a hint of disapproval. For the sterner philosophers all language is a tactical defect of vision, the blurring of sharp particulars into manageable generalities. But for artists, removing some of the definition from the world can be far more than a way of coping with its dazzling immediacy. It creates new possibilities by opening up a gap between appearances and the concrete objects that produce them.

The most obvious case would be the Impressionists, whose paintings were often derided in more conservative quarters as the products of disablement. Even their friends made the point, while recognising that there might be advantages for what we would now call "the differently abled painter": Huysmans described Cezanne as "an artist with a diseased retina who, exasperated by a defective vision, discovered the basis of a new art". There may even be a literal truth in this; in a rather eccentric work of cultural diagnosis, called The World Through Blunted Sight, Patrick Trevor-Roper gave an optician's-eye view of the masters of modern French art, detailing their various myopias and hypermetropias. If he is to be believed, Cezanne tried on a pair of spectacles once but spurned them, saying "take those vulgar things away". Monet was similarly dismissive about glasses - "Bon Dieu, je vois comme Bouguereau!" he exclaimed in horror, as his world snapped into hideous pompier definition. (Even if Mr Trevor-Roper is not to be believed, you would have to shoot me before I would relinquish this anecdote.)

It is in the field of literature, though, that myopia reaches its highest achievements. The Mr Magoo of British poetry is Craig Raine, foremost of the Martian poets and a mistaker of amazing fruitfulness. Of course, I see that the analogy won't quite do - the point of Mr Magoo is that he remains blissfully unaware of his misprisions, whereas Raine is never in a state of confusion about the world. Part of the point of his empirical near misses is that they work in the interests of a greater final clarity - they are a kind of distorting lens which helps the reader see more clearly. But the ability can't ever quite be separated from a gift for preserving one's ignorance of the world. When Raine writes about a toad he finds on a muddy lane and describes its body "delicate as a drop of dusty water", you are impressed both by the economy of the description (the way it conveys the trembling movement and dull sheen of the animal) and his ability not to be blinded by the overwhelming "toadiness" of a toad, to see through its superficial show. When he describes a pair of boxing gloves as "parrot tongues/bluntly repeating/again and again", it is only a momentary tunnel- vision that will release those objects from their insistent pugilistic setting, that will pull off the revealing hallucination. Like Mr Magoo, Raine makes sense of the world's appearances with a set of hypotheses which may not be correct, but which are always persuasive.

Not everyone approves of such methods. The Imagists didn't, setting up a self-denying aesthetic of one word per thing. The only trouble with that was the poems that resulted, solemn simplicities that may have impressed by their purity at the time they were published, but now read as the ancestors of EJ Thribb. "I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox/and which/you were probably/ saving/for breakfast" writes William Carlos Williams in "This is Just to Say". "Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold". Twenty: twenty vision, I dare say, but not much besides, unless you've just had your plums nicked and can inject a certain aggrieved fellow feeling into the work. But I prefer the poetics of Mr Magoo - endlessly inventive, and almost always triumphant over the literal truth. It is not a disablement at all, but a gift to be celebratedn