He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know

HERE’S THE SETUP: You have a man, a largely admirable man—capable, intelligent, strong, if slightly quick to anger—with a problem. Unbeknownst to him, he has committed the two most hideous crimes in the human catalog of evil. So unaware is he of his sins that he agrees to hunt down the criminal, promising all kinds of punishment. An information specialist, someone who can shed light on the search he has undertaken, who can show our hero the truth, is summoned. When the specialist arrives, he’s blind. Can’t see a thing in the world. As it turns out, though, he is able to see things in the spirit and divine world, can see the truth of what’s actually happened, truth to which our hero is utterly oblivious. The blind specialist gets into a heated argument with the protagonist, who accuses the specialist of fraud, and is accused in turn of being the worst sort of malefactor, one who by the way is blind to what really matters.

What did this fellow do?

Nothing much. Just murder his father and marry his mother.

Two and a half millennia ago Sophocles wrote a little play called Oedipus Rex. Tiresias, the blind seer, does indeed know the whole truth about King Oedipus, sees everything, although that knowledge is so painful that he tries to hold it back, and when he does blurt it out, it is in a moment of such anger that no one believes him. Oedipus, meanwhile, who until the very end remains in the dark, makes constant reference to sight. He will “bring the matter to light,” will “look into things,” will “show everyone the truth.” Every time he says one of these things, the audience gasps and squirms in its seats, because we see what’s going on long before he does. When he finally sees the horror that is his life—children who are also siblings, a wife-mother driven to suicide, a curse like no other on him and his family—he exacts a terrible punishment indeed.

He blinds himself.

There are a lot of things that have to happen when a writer introduces a blind character into a story, and even more in a play. Every move, every statement by or about that character has to accommodate the lack of sight; every other character has to notice, to behave differently, if only in subtle ways. In other words, the author has created a minor constellation of difficulties for himself by introducing a blind character into the work, so something important must be at stake when blindness pops up in a story. Clearly the author wants to emphasize other levels of sight and blindness beyond the physical. Moreover, such references are usually quite pervasive in a work where insight and blindness are at issue.

For example, first-time readers or viewers will observe that Tiresias is blind but sees the real story, and Oedipus is blind to the truth and eventually blinds himself. What they may miss, though, is the much more elaborate pattern running through the fabric of the play. Every scene, it seems, every ode by the chorus, contains references to seeing—who saw what, who failed to see, who is really blind—and images of light and darkness, which have everything to do with seeing or not seeing. More than any other work, Oedipus Rex taught me how to read literary blindness, taught me that as soon as we notice blindness and sight as thematic components of a work, more and more related images and phrases emerge in the text. The challenging thing about literature is finding answers, but equally important is recognizing what questions need to be asked, and if we pay attention, the text usually tells us.

I didn’t always know to look for the right questions—I grew into asking. Coming back to “blindness,” I distinctly remember the first time I read James Joyce’s little story “Araby.” The first line tells us that the street the young narrator lives on is “blind.” Hmm, I thought, that’s an odd expression. I promptly got hung up on what it meant in the literal sense (a blind alley in British/Irish English is a dead-end street, which has another set of connotations, some related and some not), and missed entirely what it “really” meant. I got most of the story, the boy watching the girl at every opportunity, even when the light is poor or he has the “blinds” (I’m not making this up) pulled almost all the way down; the boy blinded by love, then by vanity; the boy envisioning himself as a hero out of a romance; the boy going to the supposedly exotic bazaar, Araby, arriving late to find much of it already in darkness, registering it as the tawdry and antiromantic place that it is; and finally the boy, nearly blinded by his own angry tears, seeing himself for the ridiculous creature he is. I think I had to read the story two more times before I got hooked into North Richmond Street being “blind.” The significance of that adjective isn’t immediately evident or relevant in itself. What it does, though, is set up a pattern of reference and suggestion as the young boy watches, hides, peeks, and gazes his way through a story that is alternately bathed in light and lost in shadow. Once we ask the right question—something like, “What does Joyce intend by calling the street blind?”—answers begin presenting themselves with considerable regularity. A truly great story or play, as “Araby” and Oedipus Rex are, makes demands on us as readers; in a sense it teaches us how to read it. We feel that there’s something more going on in the story—a richness, a resonance, a depth—than we picked up at first, so we return to it to find those elements that account for that sensation.

Periodically throughout this book, I have felt obliged to issue disclaimers. This is one of those times. What we have discussed is absolutely true: when literal blindness, sight, darkness, and light are introduced into a story, it is nearly always the case that figurative seeing and blindness are at work. Here’s the caveat: seeing and blindness are generally at issue in many works, even where there is no hint of blindness on the part of windows, alleys, horses, speculations, or persons.

If it’s there all the time, what’s the point of introducing it specifically into some stories?

Good question. I think it’s a matter of shading and subtlety—and their opposite. It’s a little like music, I suppose. Do you get all those musical jokes in Mozart and Haydn? Well, neither do I. The closest I came to classical music in my youth was Procol Harum ripping off a Bach cantata for “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Eventually I learned a little, including the difference between Beethoven and “Roll Over Beethoven,” even if I prefer the latter, and between Miles Davis and John Coltrane at their peak, but I remain a musical numskull. Those subtle jokes for the musical initiates are lost on an ignoramus such as myself. So if you want me to get the point musically, you’d better be fairly obvious. I get Keith Emerson better than I get Bach. Any Bach. And some of the Bachs aren’t that subtle.

Same with literature. If writers want us—all of us—to notice something, they’d better put it out there where we’ll find it. Please observe that in most works where blindness is manifest, the writer brings it up pretty early. I call this “the Indiana Jones principle”: if you want your audience to know something important about your character (or the work at large), introduce it early, before you need it. Say we’re two-thirds of the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark and suddenly Indy, who has heretofore been afraid of absolutely nothing, is terrified of snakes. Do we buy that? Of course not. That’s why Steven Spielberg, the director, and Lawrence Kasdan, the writer, installed that snake in the airplane right in the first sequence, before the credits, so that when we get to the seven thousand snakes, we’ll know just how badly they frighten our hero.

The principle doesn’t always work, of course. In his absurdist dramatic masterpiece Waiting for Godot (1954) (about which, more later), Samuel Beckett waits until the second act to introduce a blind character. The first time Lucky and Pozzo show up to relieve the boredom of Didi and Gogo, the main characters, Pozzo is a cruel master who keeps Lucky on a leash. The second time, he’s blind and needs Lucky to escort him around, although he’s no less cruel for all that. Of course, what this means is up for grabs, since Beckett is employing irony, and not very subtly. More commonly, though, the blind character will show up early. In Henry Green’s first novel, Blindness (1926), his schoolboy protagonist is blinded by a freak accident when a small boy throws a rock through a railway carriage window. John, the schoolboy, has just become aware of, has just begun to see, life’s possibilities, and at that moment in his life a rock and a thousand shards of glass come sailing in to rob him of that vision.

Back to Oedipus. Don’t feel too bad. When we meet him again, in Oedipus at Colonus, it’s many years later, and of course he’s suffered greatly, but that suffering has redeemed him in the eyes of the gods, and rather than being a blight on the human landscape, he becomes a favorite of the gods, who welcome him into the next world with a miraculous death. He has acquired a level of vision he never had when he was sighted. Blind as he is, he walks toward that death without assistance, as if guided by an unseen power.