Seeing has always, to perhaps an extreme extent, been my sense of choice… I couldn't ever see or read enough. – Candia McWilliam
Big Brother is back. Yay. I wonder what the ratio is these days between those who associate 'Big Brother' with the reality TV show and the book in which the character fails to appear and yet is everywhere at the same time? I think the answer might upset me so I'd rather not know. My wife and I, as we do every year, watched the launch show, albeit the next day since the live show was on opposite House and my wife does love her Hugh Laurie. These years, amongst the contestants, were an albino and a blind guy, a blind Scotsman actually. The rest of course wear their oddities on the inside.
Jump forward a couple of days and my wife and I were in Waterstones where I picked up a copy of the Scottish Review of Books (Vol 4 No 2) in which there is a lengthy diary entry by Candia McWilliam. Entitled, 'My Annulled Eyes', it describes how – and talk about timing – she began to go blind whilst a judge on the Man Booker Prize:
The PR people of the Man Booker were quite understandably anxious that I not let on that it appeared that I was losing my one use for them, i.e. my capacity to see (I'd less sense that they wanted what one might understand as my capacity to read).
The condition she is suffering from is one I've never heard of. She was visited at home by her Chinese neurologist:
"Ah," she said, "the sensory geste." I didn't know what she meant. "You have blepharospasm. You eyes are fine but your brain won't open them," she said.
Now, we need to jump back about twenty five years to the time my father started to lose his sight. In his case it was glaucoma that did the damage. For several years he did what he could to stop the degradation, including regularly splashing cold water on his eyeballs, and the eye doctors were amazed that he managed to hang onto what sight he had for as long as he did but in time the condition got the better of him. He had never been a great reader. He'd always planned to use his retirement to catch up but that never happened and the kind of books he would have wanted to read, text books as opposed to fiction, are not readily available as audio books. There were times I went over to visit him and I'd walk in the back door unannounced (as was our habit) to find him sitting in the back room in silence staring into an unseen distance … and he'd tell me that he'd do that for hours. I have a photograph of him on the unit in our living room – obscured at the moment by my wife's birthday cards – and he's just sitting in his chair staring blankly ahead straight at the camera. Strangely enough it was his favourite photo of himself.
Back to the present. Glaucoma is an inherited disorder. It affects one in two hundred people aged fifty and younger, and one in ten over the age of eighty and often presents itself in middle age. It is something I am acutely aware of. It can be treated and quite effectively but, and this is why it gets known as the "sneaky thief of sight", it takes a while before you notice the damage. My dad simply thought it was old age catching up on him and by the time he went to get his eyes checked the damage was done and couldn't be undone. The bottom line is that I could lose my sight some day if I'm not careful. It's a sobering thought.
Blindness is a disability but a disability in not an inability. There have been deaf composers (Beethoven) and musicians (Evelyn Glennie) so why not blind writers? Well, actually there have been plenty from Homer on.
The image of the blind poet is a romantic notion. Even I've written about it:
After several years he
turned to his old themes
assuming he had missed the
answers or perhaps there was
more to be said.
I found him there.
Cold and confused –
he almost didn't know me –
hiding himself in the dark.
"I blinded myself, you know, because
everything I saw looked the same
and I got tired of looking.
"I realized how ugly,
like an open wound.
And like an animal
I'm drawn closer."
27 June 1985
To be honest though, when you look at blindness in practical terms it's a little harder to think of it that way. Let's consider one example, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges went blind in 1955. The cause was hereditary retinal detachment, but he continued writing. He reports:
I knew I would go blind, because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandfather, they had all gone blind. Since the year we got rid of the unspeakable scoundrel Perón, I have been unable to read or write. Consequently, if somebody tells me 'Well, I'll have to go and you'll be by yourself,' then I can just sit down and think or perhaps not think at all but let myself go on living.
When I lost my sight I was rather worried over it, and in my dreams I was always reading. Then somehow I never could read because a word became twice or thrice as long as it was, or rather instead of one line there would be other lines springing like branches out of it. Now I no longer dream of reading, because I know that's beyond me.
Sometimes I see a closed book and then I say, 'I could read this particular book,' but at the same time even inside my dream I know I can't, so I take good care not to open that particular book. – Israel Shenker, Borges a Blind Writer with Insight
Ironically he began losing his eyesight just at the moment he was appointed director of the national library in Argentina, the job of his dreams. "There I was," he wrote, "the centre, in a way, of 900,000 books in various languages. But I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines." It's a noteworthy point. Borges called himself a reader first, and then a poet. Writers are always readers and they read considerably more than they write. Borges continued to write long after 1955 but reading is another thing completely.
There are, of course, writers who have been blind since birth. Stephen Kuusisto is an example. He holds a dual appointment at the University of Iowa where he teaches courses in creative nonfiction in the Department of English and serves as a public humanities scholar in the College of Medicine. I think the situation for writers like Kuusisto is a little different because he never lost his sight – he was blind from birth. It's the old truism: you can't miss what you never had. Yeah right.
In an essay about author Henry Grunwald, who is losing his sight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt has this to say:
The absence of sight can be made into a virtue, but reality bites. "I was blind, but now I see," goes 'Amazing Grace.' But the truth is that one wants to see actually as well as spiritually. I don't know if the great blind people of history would've traded insight for sight, but in any case, they had no choice. So one is left staring inwardly at all the astonishing objects they discovered in the dark. In a way, they became remarkable sights themselves. – Dying of the Light
So, let's say I find out tomorrow that I'm going to go blind, what would I miss seeing the most? I could go all syrupy and say, "The faces of my wife and daughter," but I know what they look like and I'd rather not see them grow any older if I'm being honest. I certainly wouldn't miss seeing my own tired face. I'm not that sure I'd miss reading that much. I've never devoured books. I'm always counting pages to the end of the chapter I'm on. I'd miss art more. I mean, how do you translate a painting? I think I could cope with audio books. The Internet would be a problem. I know from building my website how much thought you need to put in to making it blind friendly. TV wouldn't be the same but I could survive without Big Brother I think.
Writing would be a challenge. I tried (many years ago I have to say) dictating into a cassette but it didn't work out too well. I'm not sure there's anything I would have a problem with, even a novel. I work in a very modular way, so I could cope with that. My wife has some audio software Dragon Naturally Speaking which she gave up on but if either of us did go blind, it's there. I have used a speech-to-text programme to listen to something I've written. It was okay but there are better ones on the market and no doubt they'll get better still. I'd cope. I've always coped. But is coping enough?
We writers are proud of our imaginations but can you imagine going blind? I have no doubt you'll all have lots of thoughts on the matter and I'd be keen to hear them. Quickly now, before the light fades.