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how it is to find oneself ignored or infantilized; how the memories and images of people’s faces, one’s own face too, no longer updated by actually seeing, become first fossilized, then faint, then disappear altogether; how relationships with one’s family change; how the very concepts of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…

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