On Blindness and Insight

“So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You [Oedipus] with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life…” Tiresias to Oedipus


At first, I saw him each morning walking westward down the grassy, uneven borrow pit on the south side of Rimrock Road, his cane tracking a telltale arc before him. Later I would see him walk with a seeing eye dog that didn’t seem particularly trained, and so tottered forward with both dog and cane, one wound around the other in a precarious shuffling incongruity. Finally, I would see just he and his dog, in sync together towards the shade of the large cottonwood on the corner.

This man haunts me.

There are many kinds of blindness. Oedipus rips out his eyes to cover his shame. Milton exhausts his eyes till they fail him trying to perceive The Word more clearly. He spends most of his life composing orally in his darkness, perfect blank verse rolling off his tongue and captured by his amanuenses. The Apostle Paul encounters the same Word on the Damascene Road and goes blind in order to see more clearly.
That trickster Odysseus (he of the Trojan Horse), convinces the Cyclops Polyphemus his name is “nobody” (Polyphemus, on the other hand, means “very famous”). “Nobody” sharpens a stick into the shape of a pencil and drives it into the sleeping oracular eye of the “very famous” and the Greeks escape out the cave by dressing in sheep skins or clinging to the underside of the sheep as they exit the cave as the blind oracle screams for revenge.

Strike one for the little guy? Maybe. Or maybe Homer gives us a parable about the dawn of culture: we develop a written language, embody it with oracular power, and use it to silence and blind our oracles, and in return ourselves. We use the pencil not to enlighten but to dissemble while hiding our bodies and our wild nature under the skins of animals (clothing).

Perhaps it’s a gesture by Homer, a nod to the fact that he was writing a national epic, and writing of the great deeds of the Greeks while, perhaps, slightly, undercutting some of the oracular power of the written language. Perhaps I’m projecting, making Homer into a postmodern man adept at ironic self-distancing. I can just as easily read it as Homer jamming a pencil into his own eye for having to slave with his words, singing the praises of this King who is really just a nobody.

Of course we don’t know if “Homer” even exists. He’s like Shakespeare in this. Homer’s name is homophonous for “hostage” and some say he was Babylonian, a prisoner and foreigner among the Greeks. We only know that there are no records, no written traces of Homer the biographical man. What we do know is that in some Greek dialects, Homer means “blind.”

It’s a long tradition, our equating of blindness with discerning some deeper truth. This losing of earthly sight for being able to see the divine, the oracular, the prophetic. And of course, there is an even longer tradition of female saints who tear our their eyes so as to be tempted by earthly visions.

I’d like to think this man, taking his daily walk, knows something special. I would like to believe that when he reaches the shade of the enormous cottonwood tree at the corner, he feels the shade more deeply than I. And that now that they have torn down the tree, he feels its absence more acutely, he senses the denuded landscape of concrete foundations more sharply than I. That his affliction affords him access to some divine compensation. At worst, I’m just a patronizing fool; at best, a futzing delusional forcing sense from unknowing.

When I see him I am reminded of Wordsworth poem Stepping Westward which begins with the poet walking past a woman who asks “What, are you stepping Westward?” — “Yea” answers the poet. From this brief exchange, Wordsworth sees an entire journey and life moving inextricably towards an end (the poem was written after the death of his brother).

For Wordsworth it was the imagination that shaped the world into coherence and gave it beauty. But even with his dexterous genius, his ability to wrap enormous disparity together into a tidy imaginative package, Wordsworth’s poems often fragment. On seeing the dead of the September Massacres, Wordsworth writes:

!Upon these
And other sights looking as doth a man
Upon a volume whose contents he knows
Are memorable, but from him lock’d up,
Being written in a tongue he cannot read,
So that he questions the mute leaves with pain
And half upbraids their silence.
(from Book X of The Prelude)

I want this man to translate the tongues I cannot read, and bend the mute leaves into song. But I suspect he cannot. He can, like me, only mourn the loss of shade and take refuge from the whine and hydraulic screams of the bulldozers.