Kevin Birmingham in Harper's blog (James Joyce © Photo Researchers/Getty Images):
In 1917, while walking down a street in Zurich, James Joyce suffered an “eye attack” and remained frozen in agony for twenty minutes. Lingering pain left him unable to read or write for weeks. Joyce had endured at least two previous attacks, and after the third he allowed a surgeon to cut away a piece of his right iris in order to relieve ocular pressure. Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s partner, wrote to Ezra Pound that following the procedure Joyce’s right eye bled for days.
Joyce was suffering from a case of glaucoma brought on by acute anterior uveitis, an inflammation of his iris. It was, unfortunately, nothing new. Joyce’s first recorded bout of uveitis was in 1907, when he was twenty-five years old, and the attacks recurred for more than twenty years. To save his vision, Joyce had about a dozen eye surgeries (iridectomies, sphincterectomies, capsulectomies) — every one of them performed without general anesthetic. He lay in dark rooms for days or weeks at a time, and his post-surgical eye patches became his trademark. Doctors applied leeches to siphon blood from his eyes. They gave him atropine and scopolamine, which cause hallucinations and anxiety, to dilate his pupils. They administered vapor baths, sweating powders, cold and hot compresses, endocrine treatment and iodine injections. They prescribed special diets (oatmeal and leafy vegetables) and warmer climates. They disinfected his eyes with silver nitrate, salicylic acid, and boric acid; instilled them with dionine to dissipate nebulae; and doused them with cocaine to numb the pain. Nothing really helped.