Blindness revisited

A recent post touched upon benign examples of blindness in literature and art: naive innocence, virtue following the notion that “justice is blind,” that blindness does not take into account appearance or superficiality in judging or interpreting. In literature, an example was the character DeLacey in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Blind characters abound in popular film. To Sir With Love, to cite an example, features a blind female student enamored of her male teacher – she does not realize that he is black and therefore she can afford to ignore the conventions of society because she does not judge by appearance. In art, blind hermits are depicted accompanied by angelic figures, as if confirming the hermit’s enhanced powers of the perception of virtue.

Tiresias, the ancient Greek mythological prophet, provides a transition in judging the “powers” of blindness, for he has been blinded by the gods but has acquired the gift of divination, which, however, is a weighty and dubious gift when consulted by Oedipus.

Blindness is a physical condition and usually attributed to the absence of insight, sometimes ominously. Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, makes blindness a horrible miasma that overcomes an entire city, unleashing the true character of people with evil results. Saramago himself is blind.

Rudyard Kipling’s first novel, The Light That Failed, features an ambitious protagonist who is a military artist, sketching warfare in what was called Anglo-Sudan in the 19th century. He is wounded in a blow to the head. On his return to England, he seeks out a childhood friend to share his artistic gifts, but she rejects him. Disillusioned, he undertakes the portrait of a perfect woman, but then realizes that he is losing his sight, and does so before his masterpiece can be completed. He then convinces a military friend to take him back to the scene of his original work, and he is killed in a firefight, as he wanted to be.

Granted that there are no blind characters in Joseph Conrad’s last novel, Victory, but the elements of physical and spiritual isolation are intense, and suspense is made a blindness intrinsic to characters battling fate. The novel deals explicitly with a solitary man’s fate. Employed by an export company in distant Pacific Islands, the protagonist finds himself adrift when the company folds. He sets up household on a deserted island, and alludes to his father’s grand philosophy of life in quotations from Schopenhauer. In the Dutch supply town, the protagonist rescues a young woman from hostile circumstances and brings her to the island, while a pair of sharp frauds pursue him for his imagined buried treasure. The climax of the novel is not only the resolution of the conflict but the destruction of the cast of characters, which in retrospect the author sees as a victory for the integrity of both self and solitude.

Every spiritual tradition uses the vocabulary of sight, insight, coming to realize, enlightenment, and so forth. The analogy with physical sight is well established, but the notion of enhanced versus deteriorated physical sight is often made culture’s touchstone analogy. Culture itself, however, represents multiple assumptions about what it can “see,” understand, and convey as norms and values. Just as true meditative practice is a falling away of assumptions about environs and worldliness, so too must physical sight be not an assumption of insight but a report of context, a literal report to our true organs of discernment, which cannot reside in blindness or non-blindness alone.