In a review of the theatrical staging of Jose Saramago’s novel “Blindness” Maya Philips can’t resist telling readers that the hackneyed trope of vision loss as catastrophe is “stimulating and immersive.” As Philips is a poet one expects more than this. Ableism remains as inauthentic, cliched, and destructive as racist depictions of Black folks or trivial displays of weakened femininity. But because the play employs blindness as metaphor the implications of the offensiveness are overlooked. Beyond Philips, this violation is overlooked by every sighted audience member of this specious, distasteful production–a play which invites people to sit in the dark, listen to disembodied voices, and hear a tale of ophthalmic contagion where the entire world is afflicted by the loss of sight.
Blindness is the perfect trope for smug ableist treatments in the arts. A few years ago the summer performance series at Lincoln Center offered up a musical version of Metternich’s “The Blind” which is a similar affair, with lost blind people groping in an existential wilderness. I wrote about that travesty here.
Blindness lends itself to paltry and derisory metaphors–psychic imminence, vaticism, despair, death, compensatory talent, and of course utter hopelessness. These things have no genuine connection with blindness save that figurative influence holds a strong place in the public imagination. But you see, bad art does real damage to the blind: it reinforces the ancient idea that there’s something sinister and even predatory about blindness in particular and disability in general. 70% of the blind remain unemployed in the US. In many countries they’re still hidden away from the public. Fear-metaphors are out of date, appalling, and deeply offensive yet they go on.
And poets like Maya Philips who should know better, who would be horrified by a contemporary revival of Amos & Andy where white men play black men with every known racist stereotype attached, well, they’re AOK with medieval presentations of blindness as COVID art.
If you think my Amos & Andy analogy is too harsh, think again. The blind do not grope, stumble, howl, beat their fists on walls while declaring their cosmic misfortunes. How can artists in this day and age still dine out on this offal?
I’ve spent the last thirty years writing poetry and nonfiction and occasional journalism about disability, art, epistemology, human rights, and yes, the poetry of difference. Like many disabled writers I argue alterity of the body is just another human feature like being left handed or having funny ears. And yes, there’s more to disability than this of course but let’s not throw nets over the cripples and re-inscribe all the ugly symbolisms of the past.
Shame on the New York Times.