As Kate Tunstall shows in the Prologue to her important essay 'Blindness and Enlightenment' (2011), the cataract operation, or, more precisely, its triumphant post-operative illumination, is a familiar trope in the narrative of blindness. Three hundred years ago it was the focus of sustained philosophical interest; today it is used by international charities to construct sentimental stories which encourage western generosity. The operation to remove cataracts is a simple one; it takes around 20 minutes and is usually considered low risk, almost always resulting in improved vision. So why do I have such distinctly mixed feelings about this Friday's operation to remove a cataract from my right eye?
Cataracts are the most common cause of vision problems in people over forty. Their removal is a moment of joy and revelation as the world's blurriness is corrected and colours become vibrant once again. 'It is like being a child in a sweet shop' someone once told me. But my case is a little different. Even if my cataract operations go smoothly (something which is far from certain because of the shape and size of my eyes), I will still be registered blind. My underlying condition - retinal coloboma - won't change. What will happen is that I stop seeing the world as I do now. Instead I might see things more clearly, more colourfully, or I might no longer see anything at all.
For most people, the decision to have a cataract operation is a straightforward one driven by the understandable (although ocularnormative) desire to see as well as possible. But my decision to finally allow surgeons to remove the dense disks which cover both my eyes is more complicated. My ophthalmologist first noticed my cataracts 20 years ago and they have been growing, and thickening, ever since. They now prevent me from distinguishing colours and make reading difficult, even with my special glasses and my beloved kindle. I have always used sight where I can but increasingly I am finding that the flawed sight I have is more of a hindrance than a help. Sometimes I think that it would be easier to have no sight at all than to have this unpredictable, fallible sight which I can no longer rely on. And I have noticed that most people feel more comfortable relating to a totally blind person than to one who seems to be able to see some things but not others. Since I started properly exploring my blindness four years ago, I have learnt braille, become a more confident white cane user and discovered the pleasure and potential of the audio book. If the operations don't work, I am confident that I will be happy to live, love and work as a totally blind person.
I know that most of my friends and family are hoping that these forthcoming operations will lead to a marked improvement in my sight. I know that they are hoping for a cure of sorts and I know that they will be upset if I end up blinder than ever. I know that despite my best efforts, most people still think that sight is better than no sight, and that partial blindness is better than total blindness. And on one level they are right. We live in an ocularcentric world in which life is certainly less complicated with sight than without it. Of course I am hoping for some improvement in what I see. Believing that blindness is not a tragedy does not stop me from wanting to be able to read as I could five years ago. The fact that I have had some sight makes it impossible for me not to remember that I used to be able to see much better than I can now. But if the operations lead to total blindness - which is a distinct possibility - I don't think I'll be as upset as those around me.
Any operation performed under general anaesthetic is a little bit scary so whatever the outcome, I am looking forward to several days of enforced bed-rest, accompanied by Radio Four, my new audio book reading machine, regular cups of tea and copious amounts of flowers and chocolates.