In response to:
The 'Dark, Paradoxical Gift' from the April 11, 1991 issue
To the Editors:
After the first few paragraphs of the review of Touching the Rock [NYR, April 11] I was sure I had to read this book at once. The reviewer said that this book about blindness by a man who is blind is a “masterpiece.” At the end of the review, I said to the college senior who was reading it to me, “What’s your reaction?” “Hmm,” he said, “I think he’s taking a ‘you poor dear’ approach.” Agreed. Absolutely.
Since I have not yet read the book and probably won’t until it comes out as a Talking Book in a year or so, I will limit my comments to what appears in the review. I’m not sure what the reviewer intends by the title “The Dark Paradoxical Gift.” I do know that the concept of darkness is not an appropriate metaphor for blindness. Those who are born blind have no first-hand experience with light or dark. On the other hand, I don’t know any person blinded later in life who would accept darkness as an accurate comparison.
The reviewer says that there has never been so frightening an account of how the inner eye vanishes with blindness and how concepts of space and place become emptied of all meaning. That sounds dreadful. I’m glad I didn’t read that at age 26 when I was blinded. It might have discouraged me. If my inner life is really so empty why am I, retired after 32 years of college teaching, paying a student $4.40 an hour to browse through The New York Review of Books? Perhaps I’m an exception, like the blind bard mentioned in the first review in this same issue. That reviewer suggests that only the blind bard can puzzle out the true character of Russia. These two reviews in the same issue do illustrate the tendency to describe the blind and other handicapped in terms of extremes. Either we are the blind seers with divine insight and with some magical ability to go upstairs or across streets unaided; or we are those desolate creatures who must be led by the hand to the bathroom, or who must be lowered gently into a chair with a radio at our elbow to fill the emptiness of our lives.
So far as I know, and psychological studies support me, the blind are about as happy or miserable as sighted people and factually their suicide rate is lower.
The author of the book seems to have persuaded the reviewer that for a blind person, getting lost is a terrifying experience. It’s true, when the Iowa winter wind is howling, and the drifting snow has buried all the landmarks and the temperature is far below zero, then getting lost can be a bit scary, but mostly it is humiliating and frustrating. I once got lost in our back yard on a warm summer day and spent an hour wandering through 5 adjacent back yards before finding somebody to point me in the right direction. I knew that my life was not at risk; I was annoyed at myself and embarrassed; I was sorry about tramping through a neighbor’s vegetable garden; but I was not terrified. A few days later I turned the experience into a magazine article that netted me $15 and some kind comments from readers. Not so terrible.
The author of the book can’t remember if the number 3 opens to the left or right. After 45 years I still remember what 3 looks like, but I’m not sure about a printed 4. Does it matter?
The author reports that he is forgetting what faces look like. For me this shows up in dreams. I dream mostly in sounds and vague shapes. Some dreams make me anxious, some happy. Most of them are confusing. Is that different from the dreams of the sighted?
The apparently depressing tone of this book is in sharp contrast to that of a recent autobiographical novel, Snakewalk. In it a young, robust California fisherman is totally blinded but carries on as lustily and lustfully as ever.
Blindness is merely a nuisance, according to some blind people. For most of us it is worse than that, at least on some days. For a few people it is devastating. I hope the reviewer of Touching the Rock will get acquainted with other blind persons who may have other perspectives than those of John M. Hull….
Mount Vernon, Iowa
Oliver Sacks replies:
I fear Walt Stromer may have come off with the wrong impression, in some ways, of Touching the Rock, but that will be corrected when he actually reads the book. Touching the Rock is not a depressing book, not a tale of desolation—quite the contrary; it relates a full life, a happy life, as well as a deeply examined one. Professor Hull continues with all his academic work, writes books, travels, has a loving family—and the richest inner life. His book conveys a profound feeling of affirmation.
The particular point at issue is the extent to which loss of eyesight in adult life leads to a loss of visual imagery, visual conceptions, of “inner eye.” It is possible that this varies a good deal—as seems to be the case with auditory imagery, and auditory thinking, the “inner ear,” in those who have been deafened in adult life. It may be that there are not only physiological variables—variation in the degree to which visual parts of the brain degenerate, in the absence of visual input—but important variables which depend on use: thus phantom limbs tend with time to disappear, but may be kept vivid for decades if they are used (i.e., to “animate” and move an artificial limb). It would indeed be fascinating to explore these variations, clinically, phenomenologically, physiologically. The whole question of cerebral “resonances” and adaptations to peripheral or sensory loss seems to me to plead for a fuller exploration.
But I have no doubt that there is some change in cerebral and mental organization in everyone who has been blinded or deafened—for the brain always adapts, and must adapt to so radical a deprivation. What is so astonishing in John Hull’s book is the marvelous description of inner states and adaptations, descriptions which have no hint of self-pity whatever, but are luminous testimonies to what it is like. And what it describes, which is experienced to some extent by everyone blinded (including Mr. Stromer himself), has never really been plumbed or related in such depth or detail before. To do so requires not only a remarkable phenomenological passion and acuity, but an almost philosophical calm and detachment, and it is this, perhaps, which is so rare.
Finally, the title of my review, to which Mr. Stromer objects, was not of my choosing, but it is how Hull, finally, comes to see his own blindness.