Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

7 Jan 2011

(Short Story) Eyes Do More Than See by: Isaac Asimov

(Reaction) A Change in Matters by: Francis Gabriel Concepcion

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Isaac Asimov's short story "Eyes Do More Than See" puts forward the idea that our physical bodies do more than just give us the capacity to witness and experience the world around us. Through Brock, one of the story's characters, we see the main theme that Asimov wants to capture: "You're reminding me that once I was a woman and knew love, that eyes do more than see and I have none to do it for me."

The characters in Asimov's story then suggest that oftentimes the physical aspects of our being are taken for granted as simply vehicles and mediums through which we can see, taste, touch, hear, or smell. And yet even as we do those things on a regular basis, we forget to actually pay attention to those sights, smells, tastes, and sounds.

This point is further strengthened with the fact that the characters in the story are energy-based life forms. "'Don't you remember, Brock?" he asked softly. 'Wasn't it something like this?'" Ames said to his friend as he began to form a human head out of what matter he could gather around him. In this story, then, human beings have evolved to the point that they have abandoned their physical bodies completely, and have simply become accumulations of energy - probably much like how one would characterize a soul, a ghost, or even at least a single aspect of God himself.

This abandonment, then, of the human body certainly goes to show just how much it was taken for granted and seen as a hindrance to mankind's development. This evolution could also be taken as the pinnacle of man's attempt at immortalizing himself. "We were once Matter ourselves back - back - oh, a trillion years ago anyway!" Ames says. In the story, then, the change into an energy-based life form is a change that greatly decreases entropy - or even completely eliminates it. Yet even as they go on living for billions, or trillions of years, these beings seem to find themselves at a dead end.

It begins with Ames's remembrance:

After hundreds of billions of years, he suddenly thought of himself as Ames. Not the wavelength combination which, through all the universe, was now the equivalent of Ames - but the sound itself. A faint memory came back of the sound waves he no longer heard and no longer could hear.
In this very first paragraph we find that Ames's recollection implies certain things about humanity's mindset. First is that his consciousness and being is capable of expanding the whole of the universe, therefore giving him unlimited and ultimate access to knowledge of the cosmos. The second is that despite that infinite capacity and expansion, there still lacks something in Ames - otherwise, why would he be driven to recall the sound byte of his name?

We also find out early on in the story that something is amiss among these beings through Brock's statement: "Will you take part in the contest?" To which Ames replies: "Most certainly. I have thought of a whole new art form. Something really unusual." This brings us to what man's purpose has become after billions of years as energy-based life forms: art and self-expression. They seek a new way of expressing themselves.

However, Brock's statement afterwards reveals the direction of their art at this point in time: "What a waste of effort! How can you think a new variation can be thought of after two hundred billions years. There can be nothing new." And being that this new art form that Ames speaks of is actually an old art form, - one that deals with matter - Brock's statement then suggests that this contest is probably nothing more than a show of energy, "I've thought of manipulating Matter. Imagine! A symphony of Matter. Why bother with energy. Of course, there's nothing new in Energy; how can there be? Doesn't that show we must deal with Matter?"

In a manner of speaking, this also suggests that their art has probably become dull, repetitive and boring. This is probably why Brock asked Ames if he was joining in the first place. That coupled with his frustration at the idea that Ames was trying to create something new shows that Brock had very little interest in the contest at all. A lack of interest indicates a lack of progress, and a lack of inspiration. And this lack of inspiration could be due to the fact that they no longer have any physical body through which to really experience the universe.

Though Asimov portrays these beings as accumulations of energy, I believe a closer look at them would reveal to us that they are symbolic for more than just energy, but the mind itself. A lot of New Age books would refer to the mind and thought being powerful magnets of energy, that thoughts are things and that the reality we experience is mostly controlled by our thoughts.

A closer look at how these two characters communicate indicates that no words are exchanged, but simply energy pulses. However, upon even further examination, one can see that these two also communicate through thoughts: "Please absorb my thoughts, Brock. Don't close out." This suggests that the mind is the ultimate force behind this energy-being. Even the very first sentence in the story suggests the mind as the operating force behind the life of these beings. "After hundreds of billions of years, he suddenly thought of himself as Ames." Without their minds, they would simply be energy forces, such as those we experience from the sun.

In a very real sense, we can take this story, then, as an example of what happens when the value of the mind becomes larger than that of the body. Art, for one, is stagnant and unchanging. How often do we hear from authors and artists not to write with a theme in mind, or not to write with the focus on points and moral lessons, and instead focus on the story - the heart of the artistic endeavor?

This stagnancy in art, however, stems from the lack of any other modes of self-expression. To express oneself with thought is by far potentially immense and far more advanced. To say the least, this achievement of man to have transferred their consciousness into an energy-based life form is indeed a magnificent feat. However to experience and know no limitations for billions of years - to know everything - can indeed produce a certain sense of boredom. "...he could dare manipulate Matter before the Energy-beings who had so drearily waited over the eons for something new."

Look only to the geniuses of mankind, those who were prodigies from the moment they were born. Many of them find their gifts to be a bore simply because it is easy for them. A good example would be Matt Damon's character Will in "Good Will Hunting." Others found his gift with mathematics to be fascinating, whereas to him, it was boring and too easy. This, then, should be the feelings experienced by Ames and Brock. They had reached the top. Hence, what more could be done? This then becomes the reason for Ames's desire to return to matter: "...why not build up objects in a Matter medium, or abstract forms..."

This, then, catapults me to my main point, one which the story also expresses: that it is when both mind and energy are contained within the physical body that the greatest and most meaningful experiences can be concretely seized and valued. Like Brock's thoughts when she reached a point of recollection, "Because the outside wasn't rough and cold like that but smooth and warm. Because the eyes were tender and alive and the lips of the mouth trembled and were soft on mine."

In that image alone, we can find the germination of the sum of our ideas. Within a kiss is a certain energy or force which drives two human beings closer - both physically and emotionally. For a body to even move or create heat, in the first place, means it must first store up energy within - energy that is taken from food and diet. Physical attraction, on the other hand, is often described by society as a somewhat magnetic force. "I'm drawn or attracted to him or her. We have chemistry," are just some of the statements that exemplify this. We often describe others as having a magnetic personality, wherein people feed off of the energy he or she exudes.

As for the mind, the mind is what conditions one to think that a kiss is what brings two people closer emotionally. It is the mind that weighs and considers whether such an experience can be defined as love or infatuation. It is the mind, conditioned by the brain, which is driven to feel certain abstract concepts such as love or hate. How often have we heard that the endorphins that chocolates inject into our bodies are what actually produce this feeling?

Finally, it is through the body that we experience these emotions, these thoughts, these abstract concepts. It is through the body that we satisfy our ideas, notions, and curiosities. To feel the warmth of another's body is to experience that person's energy within. To hear and feel the strength of the wind in your ear is to experience the energy through which it is passing. To giggle in delight or feel giddy the moment one tells you that he or she loves you is a delightful experience brought about by the mind. To experience stress is also an experience brought about by the mind. In the end, as Asimov suggests through his title alone, the eyes truly do more than just see.


I am no theologian, but I cannot help but recall some of the things and ideas that I have personally encountered in numerous forms of literature that are suggested by - consciously or unconsciously - and implied in this story. One is the aspect of becoming human. Some literature suggests that we are the beings through which God experiences the world.

If one were to look at a reference from the Christian Bible, one would refer to Genesis, wherein it is stated that we were created in God's image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), and that He breathed into us the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). From there we can see how this idea is somewhat fitting with Asimov's story. In fact Ames even suggests to Brock, "...why not build up an imitation of ourselves in Matter, ourselves as we used to be?" This then reveals radical themes and ideas about Asimov's short story.

First, I want to take a look at the idea of the Trinity, wherein God is one being in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Certain interpretations (some of which are not necessarily Christian) of these persons reveal certain qualities, such as the Holy Ghost being compared to an unseen and compelling force. I'll refer to only one example at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) wherein: "Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting." This force then drove away the fear in the disciples and had them go out and preach the Gospel. In a sense, the Holy Ghost is a great force of energy.

The Father, on the other hand, is the creator of the universe. Here we can derive the mind, because to create such a vast and expansive reality, one has to have such creativity and innovation, a very complex thought system. In fact, in Plato's The Republic, the idea of such a creator and originator of ideas is described:

And there is another artist,- I would like to know what you would say of him. Who is he? One who is the maker of all the works of all other workmen. What an Extraordinary man! (404-405; Bk. X)
In this we can suggest that the person of the Father, is somewhat the embodiment of the mind, or of abstract concepts. After all, the Father is often associated and characterized with abstract ideas and concepts such as love, mercy, and justice.

Finally, we come to the Son. The Son is God in the flesh, God turned human. In John 1:1 we read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Then in John 1:14 we read: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." Jesus is often associated as one who came down to save man from his sins, to lead the way to salvation (how exactly so is much debated between different religious thoughts). Regardless of however the debate goes, though, one thing I'm sure most agree upon is the fact that they look to Christ as an example of how life on earth should be lived - hence the emphasis on striving to be Christ-like.

The idea of a supernatural being changing form to a physical being is a theme that is recurrent in mythology as well, especially the more familiar Greek and Roman mythologies. Greek and Roman gods carry human characteristics - act like humans even; Zeus himself mated with many humans and ended up producing demigod offspring.

In the Bible we find God himself be born as a human being in the form of Christ, through the immaculate conception of a virgin by the Holy Ghost. In the Bible we also find a passage that is interpreted by some scholars to mean that angels mated with man (Gen. 6:1-4) and that the outcomes of these unions were the heroes of old, "...mighty men who existed of old, men of renown." Judeo-Christian literature such as the Book of Enoch, Baruch, and Ezra, as well as the apocrypha and Gnostic writings talk more about these fallen angels, their origins, battles, and their sins against God.

In Greek and Roman literature we find such a union had produced a man such as Heracles (Hercules). In conclusion, we find this fascination with the idea that heavenly beings seek or envy humanity, and want to live the human experience. In a sense, this is somewhat embodied in Asimov's story, "Eyes Do More Than See." In it we find two fleshless beings suddenly envy the physicality of the human body, the capabilities it possesses in experiencing the universe around it. Brock describes the human body with such reverence and admiration for its beauty. The book of Enoch contains a similar sentiment:

In those days, when the children of man had multiplied, it happened that there were born unto them handsome and beautiful daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven , saw them and desired them; and they said to one another, 'Come, let us choose wives for ourselves from among the daughters of man and beget us children.' ..." (1 Enoch 6:1-7)
Through all this, we seem to notice an imbalance in both aspects. Where humanity feels inept: he is mortal and subject to decay, he seeks to reverse. Whereas in these immortal heavenly beings is the desire for human flesh and bone. Though their purpose is not necessarily to experience death, their desire is driven by this physical shell these humans possess - one which they would like to not only see, but touch, taste, smell, and hear as well.

Ultimately, then, can we say that the fault lies in whether or not bodies should be of matter or energy? No. The fault mostly lies with desire. It is Brock's sudden desire to feel those lips again that drives her to create tears upon the cold human head Ames began to conjure. It is the lustful desire that brought these angels and gods to mate with human beings. It is Yahweh's desire to save mankind that drives Him to come down to earth in the form of a child, through his Son.

Finally, as is the case for all, especially Brock and Ames, these desires are mostly about change. Before they were Energy-beings, they were physical human beings. They desired a change, and after hundreds of billions of years, they desired change once more. This is why they were in search of a new form of art! This is why Ames believed that matter was the answer: because in it, change was a permanent thing!

God sought change in the world and so put Himself subject to change in terms of form. The angels and gods also brought about change in a lot of aspects of human living. In apocryphal book of Enoch it was the angels who taught humans medicine and botany, for example (1 Enoch 7:1-5).

Many would often complain about how other people can never change. However I would have to disagree. I would say that the only permanence in this world is change. The world is ever-changing. Those who do find it difficult to change are merely not effectively or appropriately approached. There is the right timing as well as the right approach. But people can change, and they oftentimes do - for better or worse.

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