Notes on Blindness

I opened the front door, and rain was falling. I stood for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of it. Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience …

This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world. I am no longer isolated, preoccupied with my thoughts, concentrating upon what I must do next. Instead of having to worry about where my body will be and what it will meet, I am presented with a totality, a world which speaks to me.

This description of rain falling in a garden is from John Hull’s fascinating book, Notes on Blindness (originally published as Touching the Rock). I searched out Hull’s book after stumbling across a reference in Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (and this is how I frequently figure out what to read – reading begets reading).

Notes on Blindness is a book that is all about paying attention – paying attention to the lived experience of blindness, but also paying attention to the world. It is part memoir, part philosophical investigation, part poetry (along with good amount of dream interpretation – the least successful part of the book, I think, but understandable given the importance of particularly vivid dreams in Hull’s experience of blindness). Hull’s meandering reflections (the book was originally a set of cassette tapes on which he recorded his thoughts over three years after finally losing his sight entirely) are beautiful, poignant, precise, strange. There is something of a narrative thread through the book as Hull moves from frustration to acceptance of the “dark, paradoxical gift” of blindness, but this is not a neatly packaged “triumph of the human spirit” sort of story (although Hull’s courage and sensitivity clearly comes through). It is more a series of discrete investigations as Hull runs his fingers over his emotions, thoughts and experiences, exploring the rough and smooth surfaces, the shape of life as a man gone blind in middle age. These investigations range from the mundane struggle of trying to change conversation partners during a church meeting coffee break, to moving reflections on losing the visual memory of faces (of his wife and children, eventually even his own), of feeling remote as a father of children he’s never seen and children whose appearance he can longer reliably remember. Or, here is Hull describing his changing experience of time:

Sighted people can bend time. For sighted people, time is sometimes slow, and sometimes rapid. They can make up for being lazy by rushing later on. Things can be gathered up quickly in a few minutes. … Time, for sighted people, is that against which they fight. For me, as a blind person, time is simply the medium of my activities. It is that inexorable context within which I do what must be done. … the reasons why I do not seem to be in a hurry as I go around the building is not that I have less to do than my colleagues, but I am simply unable to hurry. It takes me almost exactly twenty-two minutes to walk from my front door to my office. I cannot do it in fifteen minutes, and if I tried to take thirty minutes over it, I would probably get lost, because knowledge of the route depends, to some extent upon maintaining the same speed. …

… [For the blind person] you are no longer fighting against the clock but against the task. You no longer think of the time it takes. You only think of what you have to do. It cannot be done any faster. Time, against which you previously fought, becomes simply the stream  of consciousness within which you act. For the deaf-blind person, space is confined to his body, but he has lots of time.

This is a good example of what I mean when I describe the book as an account of paying attention to the world, of “looking” at things carefully (and yes, Hull spends time talking about the tendency to use visual metaphors for understanding). After reading this passage I reflected that the sighted person really can’t bend time, her sightedness only gives her the illusion that she can (cf. Mary Oliver: “Things take the time they take”). To try and “bend” time is like a fish trying to bend the course of the river it swims in. Hull, as a blind person, demonstrates a better grasp of what the world is actually like – the blind perspective challenging the illusions of the sighted.

I listened to the book as an audiobook from the library, which seemed appropriate (Hull discusses listening to books on tape – he was a professor of religious education, although the book seldom ranges into explicit theology). At times, while I was doing the dishes, I would find myself closing my eyes while standing at the sink, listening. When I first searched for the book, I found a moving documentary short (embedded below) based on Hull’s material. Apparently the short has since been expanded to a full-length film, which looks amazing (and if anyone knows how I can easily watch it in the US, let me know). If nothing else, the video is worth your time: