Blindness is the absence of sight, due to genetics, circumstance, or accident. But for centuries blindness has been used more widely as a metaphor for a stubborn person whose ideas and ethics are not in accord with one’s own. For example, the Gospel of Matthew speaks of “blind guides” and “blind fools,” a disparaging use of the notion of blindness that employs the isolated physical handicap of those who are innocent. (At the same time, the gospels show Jesus healing a number of blind people, with the notion of their being restored to wholeness, both physical and spiritual).
More complexly, the ancient Greek tradition conjured a different experience of blindness and its meaning, in part a deeper metaphor but a literal one as well. The universal figure was Tiresias, a prophet who was blinded by the gods according to various traditions, essentially punished for his frankness. Not merely frankness but clairvoyance characterizes Tiresias, though it is presented as simple depth, observation, and vigilance in wiser versions. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the blind Tiresias continues his prophetic role. Oedipus demands of Tiresias to know who has murdered the previous king Laius. Tiresias knows but demurs, for his knowledge is a terrible truth and worse future. He thus angers the temperamental Oedipus. When Tiresias finally tells him that it was he, Oedipus, who unwittingly committed the evil deed, Oedipus blinds himself in self-punishment.
Here, the blind prophet Tiresias is the only person in a world of sighted people who can perceive the truth and proclaim it unflinchingly. From this presentation — not quite an archetype — evolved the counter-notion concerning blindness that the blind can achieve a deeper insight, a deeper sense of meaning than the sighted, who are forever consumed (visually) in the worldly.
The notion of blindness has a social ambiguity that wavers between a debased notion of physical handicap or a refined notion of intelligence, creativity and insight. Many major authors have been blind, or as in the case of Homer, were deemed blind as a way of accentuating their keenness of mind, character portrayal, and insight. The English poet John Milton (1608-74), who became blind in mid-life, composed a short poem reflecting on his condition:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
[Shortly after posting this item, a long-time friend of Hermitary pointed out a relevant piece of literature illustrating the theme of blindness and wisdom, “The Astronomer” by Kahlil Gibran, which with much thanks is reproduced here:
In the shadow of the temple my friend and I saw a blind man sitting alone. And my friend said, “Behold the
wisest man of our land.”
Then I left my friend and approached the blind man and greeted him. And we conversed.
After a while I said, “Forgive my question, but since when hast thou been blind?”
“From my birth,” he answered.
Said I, “And what path of wisdom followest thou?”
Said he, “I am an astronomer.”
Then he placed his hand upon his breast, saying, “I watch all these suns and moons and stars.”
Of the many writers who have been blind or nearly so — James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Jose Saramago, the classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo — a favorite (but not because of his blindness) is Jorge Luis Borges, who has said of his condition in a 1971 New York Times interview:
I knew I would go blind, because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandfather, they had all gone blind. … 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.
But these are modest words, for after blindness in his mid-fifties, Borges was obliged to dictate his stories and poems and essays, hence his amused acknowledgement that he had to copy and restyle what he had written long before. Yet everything he had written to that point he had written with the dark foreknowledge that he would lose his eyesight. Was this a factor in his insightful writing, his creativity, his stories that read like a prophetic or mystical voice announcing of things that others had not seen?
Blindness is a kind of solitude, involuntary to be sure, separating the self from people in a sense-dependent way, missing cues and emotional revelations in others that signify so much of relationships. But this can as much be imposed by others who persist in not comprehending that one sense-perception is not the universe of knowledge, creativity, or insight. As the philosopher Diderot wrote, “A blind man values himself as much as, and perhaps more than, we who see.” He was referring to a blind man he had encountered, a busy husband, father, and chemist, who surprised Diderot with his assertiveness and self-esteem.
So the attitude of others is as much a key to what is blindness as whatever the blind person can pursue. In unwitting social circles, the blind can revert (or be reverted) to a kind of numbness if not themselves cautious and philosophical. For example, many blind people are in poorer countries today where tolerance of their condition will revert to the attitude of antiquity, and only ten percent of blind people today can read Braille, fostering a dependence on audio technology that is both a blessing and a threat.
Even so, solitude need not separate anyone from nature or from that deepest part of self that is the link to universal things. Solitude always challenges the self to be a better steward of the mind and soul, to pursue paths that provide greater insight into self. What an irony that blindness understood as a potential rather than merely a handicap could serve at least metaphorically as a parallel gift of insight.