A Writer’s Palinopsia

When I was five I dressed up as a football player for Halloween. I wore an Oregon State Beaver football jersey and a plastic Seattle Seahawks helmet. I painted black marks under my eyes, wore my baseball cleats, and stuffed small dishtowels into my sweatpants like legs pads. Toward the end of an evening of trick-or-treating I looked up and saw the silhouette of a witch decoration against the backdrop of a bright house light. During the walk home and even when I crawled into bed, whenever I closed my eyes I saw that black witch lingering in my vision. I cried out to my parents and it wasn’t until they prayed over me and fatigue overwhelmed me that I finally fell asleep.

The phenomenon of seeing the witch even after closing my eyes is called an afterimage. This is an optical illusion that occurs after one looks at a particular image for a period of time. The afterimage is why we can still see the ghost of an image even after we look away or close our eyes. The image can float in our vision retaining it original colors, but often inverting the colors. The longer one looks at an image the longer the afterimage will persist.

An extreme condition of a prolonged afterimage is called Palinopsia, which is when a visual disturbance that causes images to persist to some extent even after their corresponding stimulus has left. In essence the afterimage appears more defined and for a longer period of time.

Writers attempt to give readers a Palinopsia of the mind. That is, they attempt to provide strong afterimages, so that even when the pages are closed and the book is set down, the reader can still see and feel the story.

 A strong afterimage is a mysterious one that forces itself upon the reader in an incomprehensible way. These images aren’t stand-alone pictures, but point to the greater context of the story. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, insects are “gyrating above a candelabra,” and it’s explained that, “it was the visual impression of an even deeper darkness beyond the light that drew them in. Even though they might be eaten, they had to obey the instinct that made them seek out the darkest place, on the far side of the light—and in this case it was an illusion” (140). The afterimage that draws us in seems like an illusion. It can be so vague and mysterious that it hardly seems present at all. Yet we continue to be drawn to it through story.

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