Thursday, 4 September 2014


The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart.” - Helen Keller

Sight is arguably the most important of our senses (and I am prejudiced, as I am a person who can see). I have always felt an enormous admiration for the blind, who even in the case of congenital blindness seem to accomplish so many great things without recourse to this most essential of our senses. The most famous blind person everyone knows of, is of course Helen Keller (1880-1968), who not only had to contend with blindness, but also deafness, and yet went on to achieve greatness as an educator, author, speaker and political activist.

Other great creators who were blind or became blind and yet could not only see the spark of the divine but freely and unstintingly transmit it to others were:

Homer, the great Greek epic poet of the 8th century BC (“Iliad” & “Odyssey”)
•The great English poet John Milton (1608-1674), who wrote “Paradise Lost”;
•The artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who spent the last 20 years of his life as a blind recluse;
•The impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), who despite his near blindness by glaucoma continued to paint until his death (eg. His famous “Waterlilies” series);
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was another composer who became blind and paralysed and yet is one of the most famous of English composers of the 20th century (“Brigg Fair”);
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the Argentinian author who went blind in 1955, but continued to write until some years before his death in 1986 (“The Book of Sand”);
•The composer Joaqúin Rodrigo (1901-1999) who composed “Concierto de Aranjuez”;
Ray Charles (1930-2004) who went blind at the age of 6 years but became an accomplished musician, nevertheless (“Georgia on my Mind”);
Stevie Wonder (1950-) is another musician who became blind shortly after birth, but his prodigious musical talent ensured him success (“You are the Sunshine of my Life”).

Louis Braille (1809-1852) is perhaps the most important blind person to have lived thus far, thanks to his extremely useful and ingenious writing system, which he devised when he was only 15 years old. Braille was himself blinded at the age of three in an accident that occurred while he was playing with tools in his father’s harness shop. An awl slipped and plunged into his eye. Sympathetic ophthalmia and blindness followed. Nevertheless, he became an excellent organist and cellist. Upon receiving a scholarship, he went in 1819 to Paris to attend the National Institute for Blind Children, and from 1826 he taught there.

Braille became interested in a system of writing, exhibited at the school by Charles Barbier, in which a message coded in dots was embossed on cardboard. When he was 15, he worked out an adaptation, written with a simple instrument that met the needs of the sightless. He later took this system, which consists of a six-dot code in various combinations, and adapted it to musical notation. He published treatises on his type system in 1829 and 1837.

Allegorical blindness is another kettle of fish… In literature, physical blindness can be seen as an allegory of spiritual blindness. Several books have been written on this topic, a well known one being John Wyndham’s science fiction book, “Day of the Triffids”. A more recent example is by Nobel Laureate (1998), Portuguese writer Jose Saramago. Jose Saramago is a writer, playwright and journalist. His work is full of themes that have been criticised as being subversive, but often it is his lucid interpretation of current events in his unique style and fresh perspective of looking at them that startles people and make his writings controversial. His work is rich in allegory on multiple levels.

Saramago was born in 1922, the son of rural labourers, and he grew up in great poverty in Lisbon. After holding a series jobs as mechanic and metalworker, Saragamo began working in a Lisbon publishing firm and eventually became a journalist and translator. He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969, published several volumes of poems, and served as editor of a Lisbon newspaper in 1974–75 during the cultural thaw that followed the overthrow of the dictatorship of António Salazar. An anti-Communist backlash followed in which Saramago lost his position, and in his 50s he began writing the novels that would eventually establish his international reputation. (see his short autobiography on the web).

His novel “Blindness” (“Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira” in Portuguese) is an interesting allegorical work in which the population of an unnamed city mysteriously become blinded by a contagious form of “white blindness”. The novel has an uncanny atmosphere, with many references to how we function as a society, what cements us together, how we define “our neighbour”, what it takes for us to conquer our “base animal instincts” in a crisis and how we can rise above them altruistically. It reminded me of Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague”, to a certain extent.  “Blindness” is a difficult book to read, not the least because of the author’s narrative style, replete with large sentences and “generalised” dramatis personae, but the book is also very rewarding.

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