Yes people go blind late in life and they go on living, seeing in different ways. Sight is an immoderate thing which makes its imagined absence a sublime condition, a vast terror, something beyond understanding. Blindness is not this at all. Trust me: I know thousands of blind people. They don’t live in the unlit depths of the sea. They’re not helpless on the streets. As with Galileo, blind at the end, they go on knowing. It’s painful to write such a rebarbative sentence but the sighted know nothing.
There are different kinds of not knowing and at the risk of going Hegelian let’s say that the largest of these is tied not to phenomenology but superstition. Seeing is more than believing, it’s conceiving. Why if you can’t see an object it simply disappears. The majority of people believe this, world over, and it doesn’t matter their respective level of education. Doctors, scientists, professors of education, analytic philosophers, data miners, mattress testers, all imagine that without sight the essences of things will vanish. The American poet Wallace Stevens concludes a poem called “The Snowman” with the line: “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”—a perfect jeu d’esprit for the sub-phenomenological dread of vision loss.
The blind of course, who are simply your neighbors, children, mothers, fathers, the college student in the room next door are always in the position of having to reassure the puny sighted that life without peepers has meaning. For meaning you can substitute any variety of terms: dignity, joy, hot sex or popcorn. “My life has as much meaning as yours,” says the blind girl though she says it in Morse code tapping her way down the sidewalk with her stick. Tap. Tap. Tap. I’ve got rhythm. Possibility. I’m fantastic. Do you see how fantastic I am? And of course the sighted can’t believe it. They’d sooner believe in alien abductions than rest assured that a man, woman, or child can have a lyrical, involved, sophisticated and examined life without billboards, Keep Off the Grass signs, and all the other quotidian junk the sighted absorb minute by minute. In fact I’ll admit it right here. I feel sorry for the sighted who are prisoners of whatever dopey nonsense they encounter: panel truck messages, junk mail, commercial art, what the Beatles once called “corporation tee shirts.” Far from needing to prove my life has value I think the sighted are the most wanton people, walking about with advertising slogans on their lips.
Now you’ll say I’m being a little hard on the sighted and you’d be right. But I’m not wrong to suggest the blind are forced across the globe to play out the “fear of blindness absolution charade” by performing logo-rhythmically a dance that says our lives have value. This is true for all disabled people. Our crippled existences are OK. You see? We are happy just like you! With blindness though there’s this extra twist: “We can be happy despite your all encompassing dread that objects and pathways forward exist only because of sight.” Our lives are more difficult to imagine owing to the weakness of the average man or woman’s visual centric ego. It’s as if the customary sighted person is no more than a child who believes that when his or her parents turn out the lights everything in the room disappears.
I’ve just returned home to Syracuse from a trip to Kazakstan where I met with blind children and their parents. Inclusive education is still not customary for disabled kids in much of Central Asia and I spoke to an audience of parents and young people with vision loss about having a life. After the hour was up I was on the verge of tears. The sighted believe the blind are not of this world. They believe it from Kansas to Nur Sultan. How many rooms have I entered just to say “your customary fears are groundless.” I”d put a question mark there but I don’t know.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger