Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Big brothers and blind poets

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.


Jena Isle said...

"Lucky are those who are blind and yet can see!"

Blind poets can always have someone to write for them, but can you describe color when you haven't seen one?

If the poet was blind since birth, then perhaps, he can never truly give justice to the things he writes about because his perception of the thing is not complete in its entity.

If he once saw them but had gone blind, then he could still portray more effectively than the congenitally blind poet.

Beauty has to be seen not heard, as they say.

A thought provoking post.

Dave King said...

A sobering post, Jim. I had an eye test noly yesterday. The optician was new to me. She did the test for glaucoma, looked at me intently for a moment, and then said: "I think we'll try my new machine." It, too, tested for glaucome. I thought: aye, aye! It seems all is okay. I do remember an occasion back in junior school, when we all were blindfolded for a whole lesson and had to do our best to carry on, to see what it would be like to be blind. It made a huge impression on me, and ever since I have thought it must be the worst disability of all. Some say deafness, but I think I would rather be deaf than blind.

Jim Murdoch said...

So you had your eyes tested noly yesterday, Dave? Says everything, doesn't it? Actually my father was deaf too, when it suited him to be.

And, Jena, there's a lot to be said for not relying on the visual. Take all the relationships that develop on-line where the only means of communication is written. In so many relationships the visual dominates followed by the physical. We see what we want to see and judge accordingly but beauty is only skin deep. A great many marriages start through contact on-line where people get to know the real person first and how they look is so much less of an issue once they do get together. Although I'd hate to lose my sight, there have been plenty of times where my eyes have led me where I ought not to have gone had my brain been in gear.

Ken Armstrong said...

I prefer Dave saying 'Aye Aye' to himself at the opticians - always the punster, our Dave!! :)

Dave saying he would rather be deaf than blind reminds me of the lady at the dentist's who said she'd rather have a baby than a filling - to which the dentist replied 'make up your mind, I have to adjust the chair'.

I admire the sheer honesty of your posting - on what you might miss if you were blind, you write; "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."

It's a nice example of honesty bringing insight.

Plus admitting you watch BB? - you're sure letting it all hang out today Jim!

My first produced radio play was called 'Visualise' and the central character was blind - as a device, it worked well on radio.

Jena Isle said...

Jim, Of course, beauty is only skin deep. I was talking of real beauty...inside and out. But you were right when you said that sometimes the package may look tempting on the outside but really empty inside...

I believe too that great relationships could come out of online relationships because both get to know the "person" first, and the physical then would not be that significant. This applies if both are honest and true to each other.

Thanks for the enlightening feedback.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's strange, Ken, but I never really thought of myself as insightful or even especially honest. I considered it more from a practical point of view. It's like, if one knew one was going to go blind in x days/months then what would you rush round making sure you saw? I've never seen a straight banana but do I really need to see one? And do I really need to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal?

As for Big Brother … there's watching BB and there's watching BB because you know what's good for you, if you know what I mean.

Beckett also had a blind character in his radio play All That Fall though I don't think he used him in the way most writers would, as an excuse to describe things.

Ken Armstrong said...

Any character in a radio play who is used to describe things is, in my humble, lazy.

That's the trouble with radio - it's quite easy to do it badly. :)

Conda Douglas said...

Interesting post for me, Jim. I inherited my mother's nearsightedness and astigmatism and while that is nowhere near blind, still it often brings up seeing differently. To see the whole world different all I have to do is take off my glasses. And as I have excellent night vision (odd, I know) I can navigate better in the near dark, as if I'm blind in the light.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Conda. A couple of years back I was moved onto varifocals which I took to with surprising ease. I've never compared my day and night vision to be honest besides I'm never without my glasses for more than the time it takes to clean them which I seem to need to do two or three times a day these days.

Anonymous said...

Tell your wife that we in America love us some Hugh Laurie as well.
Ask her if we may keep him.....
we love him so.
Have you seen the end of season 4 yet? Oh my!!!


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Lily. We have just the last two episodes to go. I know he loses his memory and is involved in an accident involving a bus but that's about it. I'm curious if you've ever seen any of Hugh Lauri's UK work ... now that's the Hugh we know and love. I actually saw a glimmer of it in the last episode that was on.

J. C. said...

A very stimulating post Jim, thanks for bringing this up, I especially liked the part about Borges, as I like everything concerning that writer. I guess I am going to check my eyes in the next few days.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Jasko. I've read only a little Borges and I keep running across references to him. I think I'll go and see what's cheap on Amazon right now.

Marion McCready said...

I completely agree with dave, I'd rather be deaf than blind but ken's story of the lady who'd rather give birth than have a filling obviously never had my experience of childbirth! I also laughed at your frankness about not wanting to see your wife and daughter age.

You're right that there's a great number of wonderful writers unimpeded by their blindness, John Milton being one of the most famous.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorlil, I don't know about experiencing childbirth but just watching the process was enough for me to swear I'd never put any woman though it again.

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