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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Taboo of Blindness

Taboo: Corporeal Secrets in Nineteenth Century France
(Oxford: Legenda, 2013)
(Cover image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)

When I was a child, blindness was a taboo subject in our house. We never mentioned the word if we could help it and I remember a feeling of icy awkwardness descending if we ever encountered references to blindness or the blind on television. With the exception of The Little House on the Prairie I don't remember being read any books with blind characters in them and I suspect that my mum would rather not have read me the blindness episodes in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. When we had to talk about what I could and could not see, I referred simply to 'my eyes'. When asked, I might say that I was 'half-blind' or 'registered blind' (in fact I was quite proud of being 'different' or 'special' sometimes) but I did not see myself as 'blind'. This was why I would not carry a white cane and hated 'mobility training' with a vengeance.

It was this refusal, both by me and by those around me, to address my blindness directly which led to my ferocious desire to 'pass' as a sighted person and deny my blind identity. The taboo status of 'blindness' made it a negative notion which I could not relate to my own reality. But it was also this negativity which surrounded 'blindness', a negativity learnt from prevailing societal attitudes to it, which rendered it taboo in the first place. Rather than admitting that I was blind, it felt easier to ignore it and hope others would do the same. It is only in the last eighteen months or so that I have been able to happily embrace my blind identity, an identity which now sits in a sometimes easy, sometimes conflictual, but always interesting relationship with my sighted self.

When I started thinking about how taboo aspects of bodily reality such as female sexual desire, illness, sado-masochism, disability, impotence and incest are represented in nineteenth-century French texts, I had no idea that this project would lead to my own personal interrogation of the taboo on blindness. But in my book, Taboo: Corporeal Secrets in Nineteenth-Century France, published this month, I demonstrate that it is only by engaging with potentially difficult subjects that we can rid them of the negativity which surrounds them. As I argue in my Conclusion:  

'The taboo bodies which this study has uncovered are crucially important because they invite us to look again at our own misconceptions of what makes the body normal, beautiful, or perfect. Like the social model of disability, they urge us to rethink our understanding of how bodies relate to the world. [...] Exposure to the taboo is a necessary, though not always a comfortable, part of becoming an engaged and insightful reader. By discovering the form and function of the taboo bodies hidden at the text's heart, the reader is finally free to question his or her own misconceptions and thus begin to relate to bodies of any kind in new and enlightened ways.'

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