Friday, September 5, 2014

Hull: Touching the Rock (1990)

John M. Hull is a former (now retired) professor of religious studies who struggled with poor heath and receding eyesight for decades, finally going completely blind at age 48. In this sort-of-autobiography, based on a series of tape-recorded diary entries, he recounts the slow and painful process of adjusting to his new condition.

He writes about the everyday challenges and frustrations of his new life: How to lecture without notes, how he struggles to find his way around the snow-covered streets of Birmingham, how he copes with the difficulties of meeting new people at conferences and in bars. He is honest about his moments of panic and depression, but you also sense how he gradually, over the span of about five years, learns to live with his blindness.

I just finished reading the book now, and I'm completely in love with it. It's frankness and its small nuggets of wisdom and lived experience give an extraordinary sense of the difficulty of living with blindness, but also of the new and different world that comes with it. I really recommend reading it; but since we're all busy people, I'll also give a few long quotes below.

'See You'

I originally picked up the book because of its testimony of the strange linguistic situation blindness causes: Not being able to see yet having to use the visual metaphors of sighted language.

Hull explains:
'Well, I'll see you around.'
'Nice to see you again.'
'I see what you mean.'
When I use expressions like these, some of my sighted friends are surprised. They laugh, perhaps teasing me, and say, 'You don't really mean that, do you John?' I explain that, when I say I am pleased to see you, what I mean is that I am pleased to meet you, pleased to be with you, glad to be in your presence. I explain that this is surely what anybody, blind or sighted, would mean by that expression. (p. 21)
Not just words like see that are affected by these changes. So does the role of people's eyes, faces, and expressions, and the language surrounding them:
Another strange feature of not knowing what people look like is the effect this has upon reported speech. When I am describing an encounter with someone, I may want to say, 'He looked blankly at me'. I feel a little sensitive about this, because I cannot help thinking that the sighted person to whom I am talking would know that I could not possibly know how my friend looked at me. To say, 'He responded in a blank manner' is absurd and pedantic. … To say, 'He paused before replying and seemed to be at a loss' would be perfectly accurate, but to use the brief, concrete idiom of the sighted exchange is so natural and vivid. What am I to do? (p. 16–17)
This is interesting in itself, but it also makes me wonder to what extent such descriptions ever really report visual observations. Do I, as a sighted person, describe my social or my visual experience when I say a cold stare, give me the eye, and sparkling eyes?

Face to Face

Hull continues:
Another result of all this is that the face no longer has the central place for me which it has in normal human relationships. The face is merely the place from which the voice comes. I look towards the face with conscious effort, for there is no real reason why I should do so. … I no longer have any natural sense of needing to be face to face. (p. 17)
The marine biologist Geerart Vermij (who had his eyes removed at age three) makes a similar point in his discussion of "sentimentalists" who lament the loss of sight as a tragedy for social competence:
What these sentimentalists forget is that the face is only part of the whole person. The voice—its quality, its intonation, the use of language—is unique and every bit as informative as the face. I can detect surprise, disgust, pleasure, boredom, dishonesty, thoughtfulness, and a hundred other states of mind from the voice. (p. 17)

On Pretty Women

Hull mostly remains quite vague and abstract about sex, but he does make some very interesting remarks about his continued desire to associate with pretty women:
Sometimes I ask one of my sighted friends to give me a quick impression of what somebody else looks like. I am often interested in a sort of thumb-nail sketch of a new acquaintance. This is particularly true if my new acquaintance is a woman. What colour is her hair? What is she wearing? Is she pretty? Sometimes I long to know. I remain, after all, a man, reared in a certain sighted culture, conditioned to certain male expectations. Perhaps I should change, and be less influenced in my judgment of women by my male conditioning, but it is painful to have this change forced upon me by mere blindness.
It makes a difference to the way I feel about a new female acquaintance if a colleague, having caught sight of her, remarks on her beauty or plainness. There is a double irrationality in this. In the first place, by feelings should not be so dependent upon a woman's appearance. I know that, and I apologize. But I still feel it. The second thing is that it is surely a deplorable lack of independence on my part to be so affected by a criterion which can be of no significance to me.
What can it matter to me what sighted men think of women, when I, a blind man, must judge women by quite different means. Yet I do care what sighted men think, and I do not seem able to throw off this prejudice. (p. 17)
Again, this says as much about sighted relationships as it does about blind. Do men pursue pretty women for pleasure or prestige? To have sex or to assert their power over other men?

The thought does not come up again, perhaps because its importance to Hull gradually wanes. However, he does later note (with, perhaps, an undertone of despair) that the loss of vision has cut him off from one of the most intense sources of sexual excitement:
So it is possible, I think, for a heterosexual blind man to be bored by women and yet to be conscious of sexual hunger. The trace of a perfume and the nuance of of a voice are so insubstantial when compared with the full-bodied impact upon a sighted man of the appearance of an attractive woman. It must take a long time for a man who loses sight in adult life to transfer the cues of sexual arousal from the visual to other senses. There must be many men in that position who wonder whether they will ever again be capable of genuine sexual excitement. (p. 38)
This is interesting because it negates the popular conception that the sense of smell somehow bypasses our "rational minds" and penetrates directly into our subconsciousness. (Billy Jean may have looked "like a beauty queen from a movie scene," but the intensity only goes up as Michael Jackson can "smell the sweet perfume.") Whatever the physiological facts are, Hull does not seem to find the effect very impressive.

What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

A few months after Hull finally lost his sight completely, he started to noticing that he was picking up a new sensitivity to the space around him, a kind of intuitive sonar:
I gradually realized that I was developing some strange kind of perception. … As the months so past, sensitivity seems to be increasing. I find that I am now quite often aware of approaching lampposts … (p. 19)
He elaborates:
Not only have I become sensitive to thinner objects, but the range seems to have increased. When walking home, I used only to be able to detect parked cars by making contact with my cane. These days I almost never make contact with a parked car unexpectedly. Nearly always, I realize there is an obstacle in my path before my stick strikes against it. This is in spite of the fact that I am now using the very long cane. I think the range for detecting parked cars must be approximately six to eight feet. Another feature of this experience is that it seems to be giving me a sort of generalized sense of the environment. There is one part of my route where I must step aside to avoid an upward flight of steps. I am expecting these, of course, since I come this way every day. Nevertheless, I am now aware of their approach, and not merely of the lower, closer steps, but of the whole massive object, looming up and somehow away from me. The phenomenon seems to be partly dependent on attention, since at home I can easily walk into the edge of doors, having had no warning of their proximity. Possibly in a house where sound is muffled by carpets and curtains, echoes would be less easily perceived?
The experience itself is quite extraordinary, and I cannot compare it with anything else I have ever known. It is like a sense of physical pressure. One wants to put up a hand to protect oneself, so intense is the awareness. One shrinks from whatever it is. (p. 20)

Space and Time

These and other changes to his perception naturally changes the way he relates to his environment. In particular, he reports that the difference between front and back becomes less important:
Here is another feature of the acoustic world: it stays the same whichever way I turn my head. This is not true of the perceptible world. It changes as I turn my head. New things come into view. The view that way is different from the view looking this way. It is not like that with sound. New noises do not come to my attention as I turn my head around. I may allow my head to hand limply down upon my chest; I may lean right back and face the sky. It makes little difference. (p. 63)
This also sounds a lot like a remark a blind informant made to the (sighted) anthropologist Gili Hammer during one of her interviews: "Hearing operates in 360 degrees; however, you can't see what's behind you."

Hull also notes that his relationship to time changes, although in a different way and for quite different reasons:
When I had sight, I would have worked with a feverish haste, correcting forty footnotes in a single morning. Now, I am happy if, with the help of a sighted reader, by the end of the morning I have corrected ten. I do not think to myself, 'Oh damn. I've only done ten'. I think, 'Good. That's ten done. Only another three mornings like this and the job will be finished.' I am so glad that I am able to do it at all. (p. 60)
He seems to find some hope or comfort in the indefatigable spirit others bring to the fight:
I think of my friend Chris with his multiple sclerosis. … It takes him 45 minutes to tie his shoelaces in the morning. It doesn't matter. He does not get impatient. He just does it. That is how long it takes to tie shoelaces. (p. 60)
As he notes towards the end of the book, his solution cannot exactly be Stoicism, not exactly acceptance of the situation, but perhaps some sense of reaching the other side of the ocean of despair.

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