The eyeball, according to the creationists who promote the idea of "intelligent design," is the greatest proof of the necessity of God's existence. To these advocates, it represents the body's foremost example of what they call "irreducible complexity"—the argument that some biological elements are so complex, so finely tuned, that there is no possible way they could have evolved through a gradual process, and hence must have been designed ex nihilo by some creator.
But, as I learned repeatedly and thoroughly while reading Ian Pyper's strange new book Codex Ocularis, the human eye is anything but a perfect device. In the retina of the human eye, like in those of almost all vertebrates, the light-sensing rods and cones face backwards, behind multiple layers of nerve cells. This makes the retina easier to detach, and creates a blind spot at the point where the optic nerve passes through the retina. This leads to the question of why an "intelligent" creator would have designed it in such a counterintuitive way. Codex Ocularis extends the question: how does seeing through such an imperfect device change how we understand the world?
Codex Ocularis is the illustrated log of an astronaut who explores, via virtual reality projection, the titular distant planet. The narrator (whose name is given as the same as the author's) uses diagrams, jotted speculation, and illustrations to record his observations. These detail the structure, composition, and life-forms of Codex Ocularis, as well as the tools used by the expedition to access and explore it. The titular planet is, very literally, shaped like an eyeball. It has a focusing lens, a cornea, and a fluid-filled interior. On the far side of the planet, a miniature black hole acts as a literal blind spot. The planetary entity or consciousness of Codex Ocularis has focused its gaze on Earth, which has caused its native aquatic life forms to adopt shapes that roughly imitate the forms of creatures from Earth.
As loose as the narrative framework is, Codex Ocularis immediately sets about unseating it. It uses a dizzying array of techniques to unsettle any sense of objectivity or settled reality. Pyper frequently gives the feeling that the events of the story, such as it is, are yet to happen or have already occurred, as when the narrator informs us that, "Due to subsequent navigational difficulties, some of the recorded, written data remains erratic, erroneous and incomplete" (p. 41). Ultimately, the book rises to a climax (more visual than textual) in which the narrator questions his own observations and sanity, casting into doubt the "reality" of everything that came before.
But it would perhaps be a mistake to focus on Codex Ocularis as "story", since it operates almost entirely in the realm of symbol and mimesis. The premise gives the book roughly as much structure as a supremely well-illustrated collection of introductory biology notes. Those who might be interested in Codex Ocularis might want to treat it more like a sketchbook, or perhaps as an illustrated diary, than a novel. When looking for more clues to the narrative arc, I often felt stymied and frustrated by the muddled and occasionally contradictory pieces of text. The narrator loops and repeats variations on phrases and fragments that tread a bit too close to nebulous mysticism, like "From out of chaos and into harmony—the balance of the sphere" (p. 53).
While the roughness of the narrative can be frustrating at times, it felt mostly justified, as exploring the idea of the failures of representation is central to Codex Ocularis. The narrator often highlights this importance at length, for instance:
Certain diagrams are more accurate than others and have been made in order to give the best possible overview of particular concepts, features and dimensions. True and absolutely accurate representation is impossible within the limitations of this preliminary exploration [ . . . ] Distortions and anomalies in the diagrammatic projections are therefore inevitable and unavoidable. (p. 13)
Uncertainty and distortion are the only constants. The virtual reality projection system the narrator uses is said to lead to perceptual distortions, hallucinations, and madness. Everything shown is explicitly presented as a projection, representation, or virtual image. The idea of optical distortion is frequently mentioned, both in the drawings and in the planet Codex Ocularis itself. The narrator even notes that:
"Intra-ocular pressures seem to be systematically making the planet's 'lens' malfunction intermittently—spoiled and incomplete/distorted visual data" (p. 22).
In some ways, Pyper may be satirizing the enterprise of collecting data, or establishing an objective reality. He often manipulates or tears apart symbols and ideograms that are reminiscent of scientific diagrams. Formulas for chemical reactions appear frequently, maps are drawn as cross-sections that evoke biomedical textbooks, arrows connect fragmentary symbols for unclear reasons. A page labeled "Star Map Sequence—Virtual Schematic Projection" is filled with symbols that resemble Native American or Australian Aboriginal rock art.
The main symbol Pyper employs is, naturally, the eyeball. Nearly every image can be seen as a representation of an eye, or an agglomeration of eyeballs. The suit worn by the narrator has a large eyeball-shaped helmet, as does the robot employed by the expedition for remote sensing. The life-forms of Codex Ocularis are drawn as all curve, usually with many eyeballs at the ends of stalks or dangling nerve ganglions. Pyper often favors a looping curl shape for connecting lines, which mirrors the cursive he uses for the text. Over time, the book pushed me to recognize eyes in even the non-eyeball images. It's sketch of the Earth started to resemble a diseased eyeball, with its two continental blotches looking more and more like some kind of glaucoma or cataracts.
Pyper works in the medium of what is often called "outsider" art, due to the simplified, untutored appearance of his drawings and the meandering, self-similar structure he favors. The genre began with French artist Jean Dubuffet, who originally coined the term art brut to refer to art made by psychotic patients at mental institutions. That term literally translates as "raw art," and none of the commonly applied English equivalents (outsider art, folk art, naïve art, intuitive art . . . ) carry quite the same violent weight. While the artistic genre has shed the stigma of mental illness, and even, perhaps, become a desirable categorization as far as marketability goes, it still commonly explores themes of perception and uncertain reality, as Pyper's work does.
Codex Ocularis is Pyper's first published narrative work (in addition to a number of gallery shows, he has published a coloring book, Bugs of the Future Primitive ). There were times when I felt as though I might have appreciated some of the book’s illustrations more if they were presented in a gallery setting. Codex Ocularis does work well when approached as a collection, showcasing a strong diversity of Pyper's creations, from grotesque brain-creatures to caterpillars and ribosomes made up of eyeballs that still manage to be strangely cute. Most interestingly to me, Pyper's use of a loose narrative structure positions his work somewhere at the intersection between fine art and comics. Fans of the psychedelic grotesqueries of Jim Woodring, the disturbing biologies of Michael DeForge, or the complicated interplay of text and image in Marc Bell's work will all find much to appreciate in Pyper's illustrations.
Reading Codex Ocularis put me in a very strange headspace. One image that I kept returning to was one in which the narrator's head—or, at least, a recognizably human head—is staring wide-eyed from inside the eyeball-shaped astronaut helmet. The helmet, though, is indistinguishable from the eyeball-shaped planet of Codex Ocularis itself. The connection between the (visibly depicted) brain and eye of the narrator purposefully mimics the connection between the astronaut and his helmet. The implied recursion runs through the entire book, strongly enough to suggest that the entire planet of Codex Ocularis is serving as a metaphor for Pyper's experience. In this extended metaphor, the astronaut represents a consciousness, observing of the world only the shadows projected on the inner space of the eyeball it is effectively trapped inside. And even those observations are mediated by the projections and electrical impulses of a nervous system, represented by the space suit and devices the astronaut employs.
It can be proved using optical mathematics that it is impossible to project a three-dimensional object onto a plane through a single apeture without optical aberration. There are always barriers to an absolutely accurate representation of the world. The uncertainty that this suggests, between image and reality, "true" perception and distortion, makes up the territory on which Pyper locates his work. Rather than a symbol of perfection, Codex Ocularis uses the eyeball as an emblem of human limitation: a disquieting reminder that the world we think we see is really a distorted miniature that we create inside ourselves.
Nathaniel Forsythe is a writer of fiction and criticism. He lives in Champaign, Illinois. He is an avid reader of graphic and experimental fiction, and he was impressed by this book's deft use of eye-detic representation.