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Friday, 5 October 2018

Blindness Gain and the Art of Non-Visual Reading

This is the text of my inaugural lecture, 'Blindness Gain and the Art of Non-Visual Reading', which I delivered at Royal Holloway on 30 October 2018.


An image of me delivering my inaugural lecture


When we think of blindness in nineteenth-century-French literature, we think first of its presence in canonical texts. We think of Gustave Flaubert’s grotesque blind beggar who haunts Madame Bovary; we think of Charles Baudelaire’s “awful” and “vaguely ridiculous” Blind Men from The Flowers of Evil who are objects of scrutiny, speculation and pity. We think of the dramatic ending of the first volume of Eugène Sue’s monumental serial novel The Mysteries of Paris in which the enigmatic main character Rodolphe decides to blind the escaped convict and murderer known as the School Master as punishment for the grisly crimes he has committed.

Le maitre d’école aveuglé pour ses nombreux crimes, par Staal gravé par Lavieille dans les Œuvres illustrées d'Eugène Sue, 1850. (wikimedia commons image)

This mage is for the visually dependent amongst you; those of you who seek something to look at whilst you listen to me. Audio description is usually provided separately for blind and partially blind people via headsets in cinemas and theatres and through special tours in museums and galleries. I am going to provide audio description for everyone because as we will see, an awareness of the pleasures and pitfalls of audio description, and the language we use when putting the visual into words has immense benefits for non-blind people. Here I am showing an engraving from the 1850 illustrated edition of Sue’s novel: the School Master is bound tightly to a chair as Rodolphe sentences him with his pointed finger. Rather than hand him over to the French judicial system, where he would be sentenced to death, Rodolphe decides that blinding the School Master is a more fitting punishment.  This is indeed a fate worse than death: the once formidable criminal is now weak, defenceless and isolated: he has only his guilt and remorse for company as he lives out his days as a pitiful and dependant invalid.

It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I find this depiction of blindness both shocking and offensive. You will also not be surprised to learn that in French and English literature blindness has almost always been associated with a whole range of negative stereotypes – stereotypes which add up to what David Bolt calls The Metanarrative of Blindness. What is more surprising, and more worrying, is that most people (including some of you listening to me now) still believe that blindness is a dreadful affliction which reduces a person’s chances of a happy and successful life.

There is no doubt that blindness has its challenges. It is inconvenient, time-consuming and costly to be a blind person living in a non-blind world and sudden blindness, particularly in adulthood, can feel devastating. But blindness is not a tragedy and it is not a fate worse than death. Blindness is a valuable and important way of being in the world. As the protagonist of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sacred Night puts it, “I try to make blindness into an asset and I do not see it as a disability.”

My term "blindness gain" is inspired by the notion of “deaf gain” coined by Bauman and Murray as well as by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s concept of “disability gain” and Georgina Kleege’s reflections on “gaining blindness” rather than ‘losing sight’. Blindness gain is the idea that rather than thinking of blindness as a problem to be solved, we think of blindness as a benefit. Blind and partially blind people benefit from access to a multisensory way of being which celebrates inventiveness, imagination and creativity. Non-visual living is an art. But blindness gain is also about how blindness can benefit non-blind people.

The audio book is a powerful example of "blindness gain". Thanks to the activism of previous generations of blind people who worked to secure access to books in audio form, blind people now have access to thousands of audio books. As the audio book has become mainstream, non-blind people have gained access to the conveniences and pleasures of this new format.

Today I would like to share two other examples of blindness gain with you: close- reading and what that tells us about the non-visual text, and the art of creative audio description. When I read books rather than listening to them, I use magnification to make them accessible to me. This means that I read only a couple of words at a time.


Here I am showing an image of my kindle. The screen is set to maximum magnification and we read the following sentence: “They say - , you know, they say, ‘What’s the story? What’s the scoop with the blindness.” from Rod Michalko’s recent book Things Are Different Here.

This close-reading means that I focus on the details of a literary text’s use of language rather than its broader context or place in literary history. In his Literary Memoirs, nineteenth-century French writer Maxime du Camp divides literary description into two types, “the short-sighted school and the long-sighted school”. Camp’s formulation can just as easily be applied to reading. Indeed, his description of the short-sighted school is very like the way magnification mediates my own relationship with what I read:
Short sighted people see the tiny things, they study each contour, prioritize each thing because each thing appears to them in isolation; they are surrounded by a kind of cloud onto which each object is projected in apparently excessive proportions; it is as if they have a microscope in their eye which magnifies everything.

Camp’s description of the importance of detail to the short-sighted reader is an example of blindness gain because it encourages us to value non-normative ways of accessing information. French literature’s blind characters perform a similar function.

In Honoré de Balzac’s 1844 novel Modeste Mignon, the blind mother of the eponymous heroine announces to the family that she can identify a change in Modeste’s behaviour invisible to the novel’s non-blind characters. It is the mother’s detection and explanation of this change that allows the reader to understand why Modeste is suddenly behaving as she is. Without the perceptions of the blind mother, the story of Modeste’s secret passion for a Parisian poet would be unintelligible. Although Balzac’s use of the blind mother in this way mobilises two negative stereotypes of blindness – the blind clairvoyant and the myth of supernatural compensation - it also foregrounds the creative power of blindness by allowing a blind character to advance the novel’s plot with her non-visual observations. Nineteenth-century French realism, not unlike the French nineteenth century more generally, was a highly visual phenomenon. Balzac was France’s most prolific realist novelist and his work shares his country’s - and his century’s - ocularcentrism. Yet his novels are also a celebration of the power of non-visual reading. The eponymous hero of Facino Cane is also blind. His blindness makes him both more legible and more narratively interesting:
Imagine the plaster mask resembling Dante lit by the red glow of the oil lamp, and topped by a forest of silvery-white hair. The bitter and painful expression on this magnificent face was heightened by its blindness; for the dead eyes relived through thoughts; it was as if a burning light was emanating from them which was produced by a unique and incessant desire which was energetically inscribed on the bulging forehead criss-crossed by wrinkles resembling an old wall’s foundations.

The importance accorded by the narrator to Cane’s appearance, as well as his call for the reader to picture the figure in her mind’s eye, reinforces the ocularcentric notion that seeing leads to knowing. And because his pale face reminds him of a statue of Dante, the narrator assumes that Cane’s blindness has given him the talent for creative insight associated with the poet. Yet his words in fact undermine realism’s belief in the predominance of the visual by according the blind man a significance which the ocularcentric realist narrative should logically deny him. By inviting us to elevate the blind man to the position of author figure, Balzac paradoxically emphasizes that the ability to physically see is not a prerequisite for a realist narrator. By choosing to use a blind character as a fictional representation of himself, Balzac is erasing powerfully negative connotations of blindness. He is collapsing the gulf traditionally created by the hierarchical binary opposition which values seeing above not-seeing.

This description of Cane further challenges realism’s sight-based doctrine by suggesting that although Cane’s eyes do not function to gather knowledge about the visible world, they are not useless:  they have the power to communicate information about the hidden world. They can detect things which are inaccessible to the sight-dependant narrator and reader. This description of Cane thus reveals that blindness can represent a different way of thinking or even being, a way of gathering information which is more effective than the ocularcentric methods usually associated with realism. As the narrator points out: “I believe that blindness speeds up intellectual communication by preventing attention from wdering onto external objects”. By suggesting here that blind people can have a superior intellectual focus precisely because they are not distracted by the physical appearance of the world around them, this description undermines realism’s building blocks by questioning the detailed interest in appearance which is valued by both the narrator and by Balzac himself. Balzac’s blind man represents a different kind of narrator: he rejects straightforward seeing and instead offers us a celebration of the creative potential of the non-visual.

Victor Hugo’s late work The Man Who Laughs is an extension of this celebration of the creative potential of the blind narrator. Hugo tells the story of Gwynplaine, a street performer who was calculatingly disfigured as a child as a way of making money. Hugo’s representation of Gwynplaine’s blind love Dea again reveals that blindness can lead to more enlightened ways of seeing. At first glance, Dea conforms to a widespread nineteenth-century vision of the passive and malleable blind girl: she is beautiful, gentle, kind and utterly devoted to Gwynplaine. She also possesses some of the qualities of the traditional blind clairvoyant: she is spiritual and mystical and seems to have an uncanny connection with another world. Hugo uses a vocabulary usually associated with sight to describe Dea’s non-seeing eyes:
Her eyes, which were large and clear, were dull for her but strangely illuminated for others. Mysterious blazing torches which only lit up the outside. She gave out light, she who had none of her own.

By using the imagery of light to describe Dea’s blind eyes, Hugo challenges our understanding of the difference between light and dark. Familiar binary oppositions collapse as light becomes the concept most associated with Dea’s blindness. As well as reminding us that blind people are not necessarily engulfed in darkness, Hugo’s language suggests that Dea, like Balzac’s Cane, can both notice and communicate information not accessible to her non-blind peers.  Like Balzac’s blind characters, Dea fulfils the role of narrator-surrogate because she is able to provide information to her spectator-readers. Whilst non-blind people see things superficially and are thus first amused and then horrified by Gwynplaine’s deformed face, Dea sees below surface appearance to the elements of Gwynplaine which really matter and yet which most non-blind people remain ‘blind’ to: "Only one woman on earth could see Gwynplaine. It was this blind woman”. This reference to Dea’s second sight is yet another evocation of the myth of supernatural compensation as well as an example of the ‘seeing-knowing’ synonymy problematized by Bolt’s ‘metanarrative of blindness’. But Dea’s access to non-visual knowledge also emphasizes that the act of physically looking at someone is over-valued because it is not necessarily an effective way of gaining accurate information about them. For Victor Hugo, blindness is less about what a person does or does not see, and more about how a person exists in relation to other people. In a powerful foreshadowing of the social model of disability, Hugo recognises that blindness is a socially constructed phenomenon. Hugo’s novel, like my work, is a call for a redefinition of blindness which acknowledges its ability to both generate and communicate narrative.

Like Balzac and Hugo, Emile Zola is a very visual novelist. Unlike them, he does not include any blind characters in his work. But Zola unwittingly provides us with another example of ‘blindness gain’. Zola’s close friendship with Paul Cezanne gave him a passion for Impressionist painting. And this passion is translated in his novels into some of the best examples of creative audio description that I have ever found. Museums and galleries are increasingly providing audio descriptions for blind visitors. But their efforts are not always successful. Putting pictures into words is a difficult business. If every viewer looks at a picture in their own way, how can any description hope to capture not only how a painting looks, but also how it makes us feel? In his 1885 novel The Masterpiece, Zola describes fictionalized versions of some of Edouard Manet’s most famous paintings. His painter-protagonist Claude spends the early part of the novel battling to finish a version of Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass. As Claude paints he becomes another narrator surrogate, as he provides a series of creative audio descriptions of his work. Claude is an accomplished describer because he can capture different ways of seeing his art. In this first description Zola uses free indirect style to capture the joyful novelty of the painting:
As a sketch, it was remarkable for its vigour, its spontaneity, and the lively warmth of its colour. It showed the sun pouring into a forest clearing, with a solid background of greenery and a dark path running off to the left and with a bright spot of light in the far distance. Lying on the grass in the foreground, among the lush vegetation of high summer, was the naked figure of a woman. […] while in the foreground, to make the necessary contrast, the artist had seen fit to place a man’s figure.

This description does not necessarily allow us to see the picture in our mind’s eye. But does this really matter? Creative audio description is an attempt to capture how a picture makes us feel. Here Claude appreciates the fresh colours of the ‘open air’ movement. But when the picture is exhibited at the salon des refusés, it is laughed at by the bourgeois audience. As well as reminding us that a picture’s reception is influenced by its surroundings, this second description captures Claude’s disappointment when he sees the painting displayed in public for the first time:
It looked yellower in the light that filtered through the white cotton screen; it looked somehow smaller, too, and cruder, and at the same time more laboured […]; the man in the black jacket was all wrong, he was over-painted and badly posed; the best thing about him was his hand, […]. The trees and the sunlit glade he liked, and the naked women lying on the grass he found so resplendent with life that she looked like something above and beyond his capacities, […].

When taken together, these descriptions provide a multi-layered account of the painting which provides both blind and non-blind readers with a detailed impression of it. Creative AD is an example of ‘blindness gain’ whose benefits should be embraced for all museum visitors. The kind of creative AD modelled in these examples from Zola encourages discussion and dialogue about art and about the language we use to describe it; it breaks down barriers between visitors and the art on display; it provides creative content for museums and encourages conversations between blind and non-blind people. Until creative AD is as ubiquitous as the audio book, we could do worse than turn to Zola’s prose for a sense of what looking at Impressionism feels like.

If Balzac, Hugo and Zola all illustrate the art of non-visual reading in different ways, my final example, Lucien Descaves, wrote the best French example of a non-visual novel. Descaves’ 1894 novel The Trapped is a detailed and carefully researched account of how blind people live. The novel is minute in its attention to detail and includes information about practical issues which non-blind people tend to be interested in (but afraid to ask about) such as how a blind person reads, shops, threads a needle, plays cards, earns money and gets around Paris. In keeping with my myopic approach to texts, it is Descaves’s non-visual style which interests me here. The novel tells the story of blind musician Savinien. In order to provide his reader with a detailed understanding of how his blind protagonist relates to the world, Descaves’ descriptions are much more focused on touch, smell, sound and taste than they are on sight. The description of Savinien’s future wife Annette demonstrates that the novelist has no need to refer to physical appearance in order to describe his characters. Rather than tell us what Annette looks like, the narrator focuses instead on a description of her voice because this is what Savinien first notices:
Annette’s voice, […] evoked those everyday natural white wines which have a bouquet of gun flint and sandstone. At first it was surprising and not very nice. But, in the ear which had gulped it down it left a ‘refrain’, a feeling of sharpish coolness which was so exquisite that a second mouthful was enough to render it eminently quaffable. The expression ‘To drink in someone’s words’ which sighted people used, at last made sense to Savinien: he was drinking in this voice and reveling in every last drop of it.

This description is striking for the layering of sense impressions which Descaves uses to capture the intensity of Savinien’s feelings. Once his sense of hearing has been mobilised by the sound of Annette’s voice, its effect on him is described through a synaesthetic allusion to the sense of taste whose impression is then evoked through references to the sense of smell. The playful meta-reference to language in the expression ‘to drink in someone’s words’ foregrounds the narrator’s knowing use of this kind of multi-sensorial layering to evoke an effect whose immediacy it is difficult to capture in words. As Savinien’s attraction for Annette grows, Descaves adds his sense of touch to the senses of smell, hearing and taste already evoked. By encompassing all four senses within this extended metaphor of the violin player he further captures the intensity of his feelings without recourse to the visual:
The young woman’s bow had thus far only made the strings of smell, hearing and by extension the E-string of taste resonate within him. As she touched him, it was the turn of his sense of touch to gently vibrate. And as if this human violin had been awaiting the decisive participation of this particular note before speaking, the perfect chord was reached at last in the minor key characterised by the agreeably tart traits shared by his impressions of smell, sound and taste. These impressions were then combined with the sensation caused by the touch of that small hand which was both dry and gentle, delicate and firm, tart, yes, like the bewitching combination of her voice and her lilac perfume.

We are never told what Annette looks like. But this hardly seems to matter. These powerful multisensory descriptions provide us with all the information we need. Like Savinien, we operate without the sense of sight. And like him we feel no sense of deprivation or loss. Quite the opposite. By gaining blindness we are gifted rich and sensual access to deeply evocative prose.
As well as celebrating non-visual reading in his descriptions, Descaves also celebrates it in the material production of the novel. Whilst reading the first edition of the novel in the Taylorian Library in Oxford I made a surprising discovery. At the novel’s climax, Descaves took the highly unusual decision to include a page of braille in the novel itself.


Here I am showing a picture of the page of braille 
which I found bound inside the first edition. 

At the climax of the novel, Savinien returns home to an empty house. When his non-blind wife fails to return for supper, Savinien cobbles together some leftovers and sits down to eat at his usual place at the table. As he is eating, his wandering hand comes across a piece of paper covered in braille. As first he ignores it, thinking it must be some old notes he had left lying around. But then his fingers return to it and read it more carefully: he is shocked and shaken by its contents. In the 1894 edition of the novel that I read, this crucial letter is reproduced in braille and inserted into the novel just before Savinien’s discovery of it is described. The placement of the letter is significant because its contents are not revealed in the body of the text until four pages after Savinien first reads it. So, at this crucial moment in the story only a braille reader has access to information which is deliberately denied the non-braille reader. Descaves’s decision to include this letter is intriguing. The rest of the novel is in print and thus inaccessible to a blind person except via the intermediary of a non-blind reader. A braille edition of the novel was published in the late nineteenth century, but blind readers at the time make no reference to the extraordinary presence of the letter – presumably because it is not noticeable if the rest of the novel is also in braille.  Perhaps Descaves’ decision to include a braille letter in the print edition of the novel is merely a quirky celebration of the medium of braille or a kind of tactile illustration to give his non-blind readers a sense of what reading braille feels like. But given the practical and financial implications of the letter’s inclusion, as well as Descaves’ commitment to changing non-blind people’s attitude to blindness, I think that his decision to include the letter demonstrates his desire to undermine his non-blind readers’ dependence on, and privileging of the sense of sight. Throughout the book, Descaves depicts blind people’s struggles for equality and fair treatment in fascinating detail. He is particularly interested in the opportunities provided for blind people to earn a decent wage and to live independently and he is especially empathetic towards those characters who fight for the rights of blind people by challenging the assumptions of ocularcentric French society. But the non-blind reader’s own reliance on sight – which allows us to read the book in the first place - necessarily also contributes to, and perpetuates, the ocularcentric society which Descaves is seeking to criticise. The non-blind reader can thus only really understand this unfair exclusion of blind people when she experiences it for herself by being put into an analogous situation of exclusion. Descaves cleverly uses the braille letter as a means of purposefully withholding crucial plot-related information from the non-braille reader. The non-blind reader is excluded from information – because it is in a format inaccessible to her – and thus frustrated in her attempts to make sense of Savinien’s reactions to a letter which she cannot read. In this moment the non-blind reader understands what it feels like to be a blind person in a society that is heavily reliant on print as a means of communication. As well as describing the unfamiliar experience of blindness, Descaves uses this letter to transport non-blind readers into the world inhabited by the blind protagonists of the novel so that they experience – albeit temporarily – what it feels like to be excluded from an essential piece of information through no fault of their own.

This evening we have met several blind characters who have all provided us with non-visual ways of relating to the world. Their blindness has given us multi-sensory accounts of the world that are not usually available to visually dependent people. We have seen how non-visual reading is indeed an art-form. I hope that these examples of ‘blindness gain’ have encouraged you to reconsider your own preconceived notions of vision and its place in the hierarchy of the senses. I hope that you can think of blindness not in terms of loss but in terms of gain. 

With thanks to the eminent French researcher and doyenne of blind history, Zina Weygand, who delivered a vote of thanks after the lecture.


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