Reviewed by Stephen Kuusisto
I’ve been trying for many years (without much success) to think about blindness as a dynamic of imaginative insufficiency. My rhetorical tools have been limited culled as they are from a slumgullion of literature and history with some personal discomfiture tossed in. If you’re blind and you want to write about it you face several obstacles. First, no two blind people are alike. Second, blindness as it’s generally understood is a construction made by sighted people. (Think of Blackness as a white invention with all its horrors.) Thirdly there’s the compensatory and sentimental bullshit that accrues from category two. If the sighted fear us then they’ll always metaphorize us with their bifurcated Victorian view: sightedness is sophisticated and artful; blindness is despair, dread, and primitivism; blindness is a no name nothingness, a “Nemo” without volition. And if this is true, then lack of sight must also be rage. (Think of the blinded Cyclops throwing boulders.) And last but not least there’s juridical blindness, putting out the eyes of thieves, the blindness of Oedipus who wanders the countryside advertising his wanton dishonesty. From this we get the notion blind beggars are sinister. Blind Pew. Now throw in a few blind-compensations, blind Homer, blind Milton, blind seers who have occult powers and you’ve got the waterfront.
Enter a welcome and sophisticated literary and cultural study by the blind scholar and memoirist Leona Godin entitled “There Plant Eyes.” If writing about blindness is complicated (and it surely is) she has the deft touch of reason necessary to take on what I’ve long imagined as the “sighted theocracy” of ophtho-centrism. Don’t kid yourselves, the sighted “do” set our notions of blindness. “There Plant Eyes” calls this out. Godin urges blindness forward in several refreshing ways.
Reader’s note: my own work as a poet and memoirist is quoted in some lively passages, as well as work by many distinguished contemporary blind writers including Georgina Kleege who’s book “Sight Unseen” remains a classic study of blindness and culture.
Refreshing–back to refreshing–Godin dispels the tiresome and hoary sighted idea that blindness is like living inside a tree. She writes in a chapter on Milton (where she quotes me on my own first meeting with the blind poet):
“Yet you may be wondering about those born completely blind, or who went blind so early in life that no memories remain of having been sighted: Surely they live in a dark world? I will let the philosopher Martin Milligan, who lost his eyes to cancer when he was eighteen months old, answer: “Perhaps it’s just worth dwelling for a moment on the word ‘darkness,’ to emphasize that for blind-from-birth people and people like me this word doesn’t have any direct experiential significance. We don’t live, as is sometimes supposed, in a ‘world of darkness,’ because, not knowing directly from our own experience anything about light, we don’t have any direct experience of darkness.”
One may say, just as we understand there’s no true green in nature, so it is with darkness. Perhaps, freeing blindness from its cheap associations with death we might begin to fully live? Imagine! Apologies perhaps to John Lennon.
A favorite passage of mine concerns Godin’s analysis of sighted people’s inability to describe what they see–a pet peeve of mine. This is memorable:
“Sighted people don’t use their eyes nearly as well as they believe they do, and even more than that, they do not use their vocabulary. I believe that the speechless aspect of dealing with a curious blind person has much to do with the fact that so many sighted people take it for granted that a picture speaks a thousand words. Well, maybe they should start attempting to use their words to describe the visual and realize that they can’t. The frustration that sighted friends show when they are asked to put alternative text on their social-media images testifies to that. It’s an impoverishment of education that, if rectified, could go a long way in translating those so-called valuable pictures into complex problems of language and thought.”
Yes indeed. The impoverishment of education described above also translates to the “sighted” employing blindness as a metaphor for their own failings.
This is not, however, a rebarbative or tempestuous book. It’s a tonic if you will.
Title: There Plant Eyes
Author: M. Leona Godin
Publisher: Penguin Random House
This review is reprinted from Stephen Kuusisto’s blog, Planet of the Blind, with permission.
About the Reviewer
Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”) and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening as well as the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light, and Letters to Borges. His newest memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, is new from Simon & Schuster. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, and The Ohio State University. Professor Kuusisto has served as an advisor to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including The Oprah Winfrey Show; Dateline; All Things Considered; Morning Edition; Talk of the Nation; A & E; and Animal Planet. His essays have appeared in The New York Times; The Washington Post; Harper’s; The Reader’s Digest; and his daily blog “Planet of the Blind” is read globally by people interested in disability and contemporary culture.
He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is: www.stephenkuusisto.com