lincoln portrait Young Lincoln portrait

by Edward J. Kempf, M.D. Wading River, N.Y.

Superstitious Interpretation of Diplopia

Most persons with hyperphoria learn to disregard the dimmer, overlapping visual image without being conscious of such work. However, when eyestrain and fatigue or emotional excitement grow excessive, the visual decoordination increases until the two more or less distinct images tend to be seen with increasing mental confusion and uneasiness. Lincoln learned to cultivate a calm, humorous, kindly attitude, happy interpersonal relations, and a common-sense philosophy of life, which generally protected him from emotional provocation and increase of this distress. Yet he needed to have certain qualities of sympathetic excitation in order to maintain his best working pressure.

His description of a particular experience shows how he mystically interpreted his first experience with complete diplopia. Upon learning of his nomination for the presidency, in 1860, by the national convention of the young Republican party, Mr. Lincoln returned to his home, after a strenuous day, tired, and nervous, and lay down on a couch in his wife's sitting room to rest. Directly across the room, facing him, was a large mirror on the bureau. In it he saw for the first time a double image of his face, and it perplexed him greatly. He described the experience as follows:

As I reclined, my eyes fell upon the glass, and I saw distinctly two images of myself, exactly alike, except that one was a little paler than the other. I arose and lay down with the same result. It made me feel quite uncomfortable for a few minutes, but, some friends coming in, the matter passed from my mind. The next day while walking the street, I was suddenly reminded of the circumstance, and the disagreeable sensation produced by it returned. I had never seen anything of the kind before, and did not know what to make of it. I determined to go home and place myself in the same position, and, if the same effect was produced, I would make up my mind that it was the natural result of some refraction or optics, which I did not understand, and dismiss it. I tried the experiment with the same result; and, as I had said to myself, accounted for it on some principle unknown to me, and it ceased to trouble me. But the God who works through the laws of Nature might surely give a sign to me, if one of his chosen servants, even through the operation of a principle in optics.

Lincoln had been a devoted reader of the Bible since boyhood and superstitiously believed, as it taught by numerous episodes in many chapters, that God revealed his wishes and commands to chosen people by natural and occult signs, such as visions, voices, and dreams, as well as by the feelings of the heart and conscience. He said that he felt himself “to be aided and enlightened by One who is stronger and wiser than all others.”

Lincoln’s comments on his first experience with complete diplopia, as a double visual image of his face in a mirror, shows that, while he regarded it with common sense, it also excited him superstitiously, mystically, religiously, and wishfully. He hoped somehow to receive an inspiring sign, as a chosen servant of the people and of God, to think of a way of solving the violent conflict between the free and the slave states that would be acceptable to both sides and eventuate in the peaceful preservation of the Union. By his form of thought, feeling, belief, and faith in having received a definite sign and divine inspiration, he was able to maintain high, consistent integrity of purpose against the subconscious tendency to schizoid indecision and confusion.

He did not really dismiss this double vision of his face as being caused by a law of optics that he did not understand. It continued to mystify him, and he often thought of it. When he was President, after a dream, a few days before his assassination, in which he saw himself dead in state in the White House, he confided to Ward Lamon how he finally interpreted its premonitional meaning for his destiny. He would have two terms as President, and in the second term he would be killed {14}.

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