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The ‘Dark, Paradoxical Gift’

Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness

by John M. Hull
Pantheon, 218 pp., $19.00

There have been many autobiographies written by the blind—narratives at once poignant and inspiring—that bring out the emotional and moral effects of blindness in a life, and the qualities of will and humor and fortitude needed to transcend them. Touching the Rock, John Hull’s account of his “experience of blindness,” is not such a tale: it has no clear beginning, middle, or end; it lacks literary pretension; it eschews the narrative form itself—and it is, to my mind, a masterpiece.

John Hull was born in Australia in 1935, the son of a Methodist minister; he settled in England in the 1950s and became a professor of religious studies at the University of Birmingham. Touching the Rock was not written at a sitting, as a narrative, but was dictated at intervals—at first daily, then occasionally—after Professor Hull, who had trouble with his eyes since he was a boy, finally lost his sight completely during the late 1970s, when he was in his forties. What he provides are observations piercing in their immediacy and clarity, observations on every aspect of his now-so-fearfully-transformed life and inner world. He describes how it is to cross the street; how terrifyingly and totally one can get lost when one is blind; how it is to find oneself ignored or infantilized; how the memories and images of people’s faces, one’s own face too, no longer updated by actually seeing, become first fossilized, then faint, then disappear altogether; how relationships with one’s family change; how the very concepts of “place,” “space,” “here,” “there,” “presence,” “appearance” become, by degrees, with the advance into blindness, completely emptied of meaning.

There has never been, to my knowledge, so minute and fascinating (and frightening) an account of how not only the outer eye, but the “inner eye,” gradually vanishes with blindness; of the steady loss of visual memory, visual imagery, visual orientation, visual concepts (at one time he cannot remember whether the number three points backward or forward); of the steady advance or journey (which for him takes five years) into the state which he calls “deep blindness.”

The observation is minute, and it is also profound: everything is pondered, explored, to its limit—every experience turned this way and that until it yields its full harvest of meanings. The incisiveness of Hull’s observation, the beauty of his language, make this book poetry; the depth of his reflection turns it into phenomenology or philosophy. If Wittgenstein had gone blind, he would have written a book not unlike this one, sounding the depths of an ever-altering phenomenology of perception. And, indeed, in its style, its use of dazzling brief sketches and remarks, Touching the Rock is oddly reminiscent of Philosophical Investigations. Hull writes in his preface:

The relationship between dreaming and waking and the nature of consciousness itself is one of the persistent themes of this book. Other themes are the changing perception of nature, the transformation in my understanding of what a person is, and the problem of making sense of such a terrible loss…. There are bits and pieces all over the place…[and] if there is repetition, it is because the same problems and the same experiences went round and round, interpreted from many aspects.

And Wittgenstein in his preface:

This was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction. The…remarks in this book are, as it were, sketches of landscape which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings. The same or almost the same points were always being approached from different directions, and new sketches made…. Thus this book is really only an album.

All this also applies to Touching the Rock—it provides, finally, a picture, or an album, of the utmost comprehensiveness, the landscape of deep blindness sketched from a hundred different points. It shows us, finally, the universe of blindness, and in a way which could not be done by any straightforward, consecutive, direct account.

It is not all darkness. As vision, and inner vision, disappear, other senses, other modes of perception, become more intense and important, most especially those of hearing and touch. Some of the most beautiful passages in Touching the Rock describe this; there is a constant comparison, throughout the book, of the character of Seeing and Hearing, the essential contrast between visual and acoustic experience. Yet rain (and wind) sometimes seem to bridge this:

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…. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn…. I know all these things are there, but I know them from memory…. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another…. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me.

Similarly with movements around him:

I can tell when other things are moving by the sounds they make. Cars swish past, feet patter along, leaves rustle, but a silent nature is immobile. So it is that, for me, the clouds do not move; the world outside the car window or the window of the train is not moving. The countryside makes no noise as the train passes through it. The hills and fields are silent.

If the movements of other bodies are revealed by sound, the movements of my own body are revealed by the fact that it is being made to vibrate, or I feel the sway of the carriage as we round the bend at high speed. I am held back in my seat as we accelerate, and thrust forward as we slow down.

This means, however, that the knowledge I have of my own body’s movements and of the movements of other things is not symmetrical. The cues are provided by external sound and internal sensation. This is not the case for the sighted person, who can tell whether other things are moving and whether he himself is moving by the same faculty of sight. You know when the train starts by looking out of the window. You tell it, as a sighted person, by seeing a changing relationship between your body and the world. The different ways in which the blind person experiences motion indicate that the normal relationship between the body and the world has been severed.

As a neurologist deeply interested in the effects of sensory deficit and deprivation, and of the powers of “compensation” in other senses, I find myself riveted by the detail and obvious authenticity of such descriptions. Though there have been many accounts of blindness, none of them, to my knowledge, have explored its inner effects in the way that Hull does.

It is known that if there is damage to the visual parts of the brain, the visual cortex, there may be a loss not only of visual imagery and visual memory, but of all visual concepts, all visual thinking, of “visual identity.” The person may become a wholly nonvisual creature. Neurologists speak in such cases of “cortical blindness”—a loss of the brain’s ability to construct visual images, a visual world, despite normal eyes.

Hull’s description of the steady loss of his own visual images, memories, concepts, etc., is strongly suggestive to me of the development of a cortical blindness—in his case, owing not to any primary injury of the brain, but to the fact that the visual cortex now has nothing to work with: it cannot manufacture images indefinitely, when there is no longer any stimulus or input from the eyes. There may also be a slow process of degeneration in the cortex, with the cessation of neural input from the eye. Thus although it is the eyes that are damaged in the first place with him, this goes on to a sort of cortical blindness: it is the phenomenology of central blindness, and a sort of ideational blindness, which is so richly described in his book. Thus, in one entry (What Do I Look Like? June 25, 1983) he speaks of the loss of his shoulder, his face, his “appearance,” his self:

When I was about seventeen I lost the sight of my left eye. I can remember gazing at my left shoulder and thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’ll see you without looking in a mirror!” To lose the shoulder is one thing, but to lose one’s own face poses a new problem. I find that I am trying to recall old photographs of myself, just to remember what I look like. I discover with a shock that I cannot remember. Must I become a blank on the wall of my own gallery?

To what extent is loss of the image of the face connected with loss of the image of the self? Is this one of the reasons why I often feel I am a mere spirit, a ghost, a memory? Other people have become disembodied voices, speaking out of nowhere, going into nowhere. Am I not like this too, now that I have lost my body?

Interestingly, in the first year or so after losing his sight, Hull experiences a heightening of phantasmal visual images:

About a year after I was registered blind, I began to have such strong images of what people’s faces looked like that they were almost like hallucinations…. I would be sitting in a room with someone, my face pointed towards my companion, listening to him or her. Suddenly, such a vivid picture would flash before my mind that it was like looking at a television set. Ah, I would think, there he is, with his glasses and his little beard, his wavy hair and his blue, pin-striped suit, white collar and blue tie. There are his polished shoes and his briefcase, standing neatly beside his chair. Now this image would fade and in its place another one would be projected. My companion was now fat and perspiring with receding hair. He had a red necktie and waistcoat, and a couple of his teeth were missing.

This is akin to the “phantasmal voices” that David Wright describes in his book Deafness, which occur in the first year or two after he loses his hearing. And both, of course, are akin to the “phantom limbs” which amputees feel for a year or two after losing a limb. Phantom limbs then characteristically start to grow fainter, to telescope, and finally after some years to disappear—and this is akin to the final disappearance of visual images, the “deep blindness” which affects Hull after he has been blind for over five years.

Such phenomena are fundamental, and occur, doubtless, whenever a vital sensory input (from eyes, or ears, or limbs) is cut off. It is of the greatest phenomenological and scientific importance that we have such descriptions—and yet, curiously, they are astonishingly rare. (I give a personal description of such a “central” response to a peripheral injury in my book A Leg to Stand On, and Leont’ev and Zaporozhets describe the phenomenon in hundreds of patients submitted, during the Second World War, to mutilating injuries, and reconstructions, of the hands.)

But if the visual parts of the brain have stopped working, or deteriorated, other parts of the brain—the auditory and tactile—by Hull’s descriptions, seemed heightened in function. A similar enhancement (of vision—of visual perception and imagery and discrimination and memory) may occur among those who are deaf; and here there is good evidence for physiological changes in the brain, for increased and finer responsiveness in the visual cortex, and additionally, a reallocation of other brain areas, namely auditory cortex, for the purposes of visual processing. One would strongly suspect, from Hull’s account, that there is, similarly, not only a lowering (and even extinction) of function in the visual cortex, but a heightening of function in the auditory and tactile cortex, and perhaps even some reallocation of visual cortex for his now greatly enhanced auditory processing. Or are there yet other sensory (or quasi-sensory) modes which allow the blind to sense, and to recognize, even when they lack sight or visual imagery? Such possibilities are raised by the phenomenon of “facial vision” (a sort of sonar), and—rather mysteriously—by, the partly visual, partly “other” quality of dreams. Thus, after describing a vividly visual, or seemingly visual dream, Hull remarks:

I do not see how the dreamer can cease to see unless the dreamer ceases to know. Perhaps it is significant that I cannot remember having dreamed about people’s faces for a long time.

In my dream, I was aware of other people, of the colours of their suits and dresses. I had a general impression of them being there, in their bodies, visually but without faces, although I knew who they were. How did the dreamer know who these people were? The dream was not particularly auditory, so recognition was not by means of voice. The dreamer has ways of recognizing people without knowing what their faces look like. Will the day come when the dreamer will discover ways of knowing that people are scattered around in space, here and there, without representing them bodily, as blobs of coloured presence?

These as-if-visual dreams bring tremendous pleasure to Hull—they provide the only experience (or illusion) of seeing still available to him.

Three metaphors run through Hall’s book, giving it an immense metaphorical strength: those of the journey, the ocean, and the tunnel. The receding visual world is the vanishing light behind him as he advances through the tunnel, the deathlike tunnel which has no light at the other end, the tunnel from which he can never hope to emerge. We travel with Hull farther and farther into the world, or non-world, of blindness, until finally he comes to a point where he can no longer summon up memories of faces, of places, even memories of the light. This is the bend in the tunnel: beyond this is “deep blindness.” And yet at this deepest, darkest, most despairing point, there comes a mysterious change—no longer an agonized sense of loss, of bereftness, of hopelessness, of mourning, but a new sense of life and creativity and identity. “One must recreate one’s life or be destroyed,” Hull writes, and it is precisely re-creation, the creation of an entirely new organization and identity, which is described in the closing pages of his astonishing book. At this point, then, Hull wonders if blindness is not “a dark, paradoxical gift” and an entry—unsought, surely, horrific, but to be received—into a new and deep form of being. “Deep blindness” now shows its other side, and Hull becomes, as he puts it, “a whole-body-seer.”

Being a W[hole] B[ody] S[eer],” he writes in his postscript, “is to be in one of the concentrated human conditions. It is a state, like the state of being young, or of being old, of being male or female; it is one of the orders of human being.” And in the completeness of this state—which reminds one somewhat of the completeness of “deep deafness” described by the poet David Wright in his book Deafness—there are a new organization and depth and identity. After sinking hopelessly into a bottomless ocean, he discovers, in his deepest depths, his anchor and soul: this, for Hull, is “touching the rock.”


Phantom Limbs January 30, 1992

On Being Blind June 13, 1991

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