BLINDNESS OF FAMOUS WRITERS ACROSS HISTORY


PLX Academy · Personal Experience · 29 April 2022

It is easy to associate writing with the visual act of putting pen to paper, but across history, some of the most culturally important writers have been blind or had low vision.  How can a writer continue to work having lost the faculty to see the sliding of the pen or the movement of the letters across the screen?  Reading, too, becomes a struggle, forcing the author to depend on books being read aloud or to learn a tactile writing system like Braille.  From Homer to Borges, for some legendary authors, loss of sight was a terrible obstacle, while for others it was a changing force, one that ultimately became integral to the work and creativity of the author.

HOMER

It is true that poetry was oral long before it was written. Homer’s Iliad was not written down until centuries after it was composed. For the early poet Homer, blindness would have cultivated a sharpened sensitivity to the musicality of words, as well as a trenchant understanding of how words are converted into images in the mind. While we are unlikely to know the truth about Homer, the myth that Western literature has its roots in the cognitive advantages of blindness prevails.

I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth created in critical days, and serving to remind us not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.

Oscar Wilde

JOHN MILTON

Perhaps no canonical author is more famous for circumventing the obstacles and appropriating the virtues of blindness than John Milton. Living in the 17th century, he benefited neither from Homer’s oral culture nor the availability of Braille  (1824). The world of his literary vocation was thoroughly tethered to the flat, printed word of the book.  Milton lost his sight in the winter of 1651-52, threatening the career of an already accomplished man of letters.

His rivals believed his blindness to be a punishment for his criticisms of the King. Milton himself was forced to reexamine his purpose on Earth – a process artistically rendered in his poem “On His Blindness.”

Already a well-established writer, Borges dubbed his progressive blindness as a “slow nightfall” and that he was “modestly blind”. Once blind he wrote his lectures and committed them to memory. It has been argued that due to his output of work, Borges found his blindness liberating.

JAMES JOYCE

Joyce struggled with eye pain and failure for the latter half of his life. He was legally blind and was fortunate that his periods of blindness were outnumbered by his periods of eyesight. His blindness was eventually the result of surgeries performed to ameliorate his worsening eye pain.

Unlike Milton and many of the authors on this list, Joyce was largely uninterested in overcoming his failing sight, and he hated the idea of dictating his work. Paranoia about blindness and ocular injury made numerous subtle appearances in his works.

The eyes were also depicted as a battleground for justice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, in which a warning has the child Stephen Daedalus anxious that eagles will gouge his eyes if he is sinful. This sense of loss of sight as neutering of vitality came to matter a lot to Joyce. He spent 17 years writing his final novel, often writing through a small sliver of his eyes and using crayons to write as boldly as possible.

JORGE LUIS BORGES 

Poet, short-story writer and literary critic Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) went blind from an inherited eye disorder. He was taken care of by his mother (who lived well into her 90s) for his unsighted life and turned to lecturing and teaching when the physical act of writing became impossible.

Already a well-established writer, Borges dubbed his progressive blindness as a “slow nightfall” and that he was “modestly blind”. Once blind he wrote his lectures and committed them to memory. It has been argued that due to his output of work, Borges found his blindness liberating.

In his 1985 poem “On His Blindness he wrote:

At the far end of my years, I am surrounded
by a persistent, luminous, fine mist
which reduces all things to a single thing
with neither form nor color.

In allegiance with Homer, Milton, and Joyce, Borges proves that blindness is not uncommon in the most visionary of authors.

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