A friend asked me “who are the blind poets other than Milton, Homer, and Borges?” The question is interesting because it assumes blindness is static and cleanly historic in a biographical sense. At the moment he asked I made a joke and said there’s me. And I mentioned Dan Simpson a blind poet in Philadelphia who is supremely talented. But the question evades its precise answer. Samuel Johnson was blind; James Joyce was also. We don’t think of them this way. Why not?
Dr. Johnson had several disabilities—he was tourettic, had seizures, was legally blind (though the term didn’t exist in his day) and prone to severe bouts of depression. Like me, he could remember everything he read for the pain of reading was profound and you better get it right the first time. This is what made him the right man to craft the first English dictionary. Moreover, when he attended a theatrical production, though he couldn’t see the stage, he remembered every syllable.
Joyce’s eyes were a source of lifelong agony:
“Worsening inexorably over his lifespan of sixty years, the eyes of Joyce were the main source of his misery. It was a feat of preternatural breadth, his undertaking of literary labours via a shroud of painful blindness. Joyce’s struggle with his eyes led him to naming his daughter Lucia, after St Lucia, patron saint of the blind. A scrutiny of him as a young man attests to his longsightedness – his glasses magnify the Irish-blue eyes. The wearing of such spectacles is notable because it reveals that Joyce had eyes of a crowded shape : anatomy which increases the risk of high pressure developing in the eyeball. Ordeals of the ophthalmic type began in youth, but inflammation in Joyce’s eyes (rather than pressure) was the initiator of his sufferings in 1907.”
This is of particular interest:
“Oculists were consulted to assuage the agony. But those attending to him could not acceptably douse the flames. To curb the flammatory pain from his eyes the doctors injected Joyce with arsenic and phosphorus. Since these dosings were inefficacious they would apply a fistful of leeches to his scalp. Ill-advisedly, he had his teeth extracted, on the strength of some advice which ascribed his ocular ills to the bacteria in his mouth. Surgery of the eye was performed and the series between 1917 to 1930 comprised iridectomies, sphincterotomy, capsulectomy, and a removal of cataracts.”
By the time Joyce wrote Ulysses he had ten percent vision in one eye and none in the other.
He carried a cane, not because he was a dandy but because he was afraid of obstacles and dogs.
Again one has to ask why aren’t Dr. Johnson and James Joyce understood as being great blind writers?
Performativity comes to mind—Borges was lead around by a sighted guide. Milton was read to by his daughters. These are accepted blind representations. That Joyce traveled and Johnson rambled the dark streets with disreputable friends doesn’t fit the trope of the helpless blind.
As of this morning, this is my answer.
For the full article on Joyce’s eyes see:
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