Journalist H. L. Mencken was no friend of religion or its apologists and took every opportunity to savage them with his biting wit. There is a great line of his that I have used on many occasions where he expressed his contempt for theologians, saying: “A theologian is like a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat which isn’t there – and finding it!”
But while funny, I have since realized that the joke is based on a flawed premise. The idea behind it is that it is hard to find a black cat in a dark room (even if it were there) and being blind makes it even harder. But that is not true. In reality a blind person would figure out if there were a cat in the room far more quickly than a sighted person because for the blind, darkness is not the severe handicap that it is for the sighted.
I was reminded of this (which like many things that are ‘obvious’ I did not realize until it was pointed out to me) when I read a wonderful review of the book For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind by Rosemary Mahoney. The review was written by Arthur Evenchik, a friend and colleague of mine at the university, a graceful writer who has taught me a lot about that craft and how to teach it to students.
Mahoney acts as a guide to the sighted to help them understand better that their horror at the thought of being blind is because the sense of sight overwhelms all the other senses so that we do not fully appreciate their value and utility. She quotes Sabriye Tenberken, a German educator who co-founded Braille Without Borders, the first rehabilitation and training center for the blind in Tibet, who says:
Sight is a slick and overbearing autocrat, trumpeting its prodigal knowledge and perceptions so forcefully that it drowns out the other, subtler senses. We go through our day semi-oblivious to a whole range of sensory information because we are distracted and enslaved by our eyes.
But because blind people are so adept at using these other senses that are overwhelmed by sight in the rest of us, their use of them seems almost magical to us. In his review, Evenchik describes the reactions Mahoney gets when she gives talks.
During a talk she gave in January, shortly after her new book came out, Rosemary Mahoney alluded to various myths that distort sighted people’s perceptions of the blind. Across time and cultures, she said, one finds the idea that blind people are intellectually deficient and cannot be educated; that blindness is a form of divine retribution; that the blind have supernatural powers that make them eerily different from the rest of humanity. When Mahoney referred to this last notion as something widely believed even now, audience members laughed in recognition; in a YouTube video of the event, a woman who appears to be blind whispers to a man beside her, “That’s so true!” Blind people’s skill in attuning themselves to their surroundings often mystifies and disconcerts the sighted, who cannot imagine navigating the world without the aid of vision.
She admires her students’ skill in navigating the physical world, their fearlessness, their patience and self-possession. At the same time, she notices the challenges and mishaps that make their patience a necessary virtue. The students leave “horizontal finger streaks” on the windows as they feel their way along an outdoor corridor. They have “scarred shins and bruised knees.” When they cross the dining hall bearing full cups of tea, Mahoney darts out of their path. But anyone expecting “constant accidents” among the blind—as she perhaps once did—would be mistaken: “Nobody fell off a balcony, got electrocuted, caused the school to go up in flames. Nobody drowned while swimming in the lake. Nobody got lost on expeditions into the city. And nobody ever used blindness as an excuse for anything.”
Mahoney’s students have only one habit she can’t get used to: they divine her presence even when she thinks to pass unnoticed. One of them hails her on a footpath and claims he recognized her by the sound of her footsteps.
Of all the revelations Mahoney recounts in this book, the most exhilarating may be the spectacle of blind people casting off the myth of their inferiority. At Braille Without Borders, the students astonish her with their high spirits and their eagerness to teach one another. Part of the explanation, she suggests, is that they had “been found by someone who saw beneath the surface of them, who knew that behind their dull eyes, a whole universe of thought was simmering, waiting to be given a chance.” The standard metaphors for blindness equate it with a prison or a tomb, but only prejudice makes it so. In their own ways, Tenberken and Mahoney demonstrate that affirming blind people’s capacity to take part in the common life, in a whole universe of thought, is a means of deliverance.
A great review of what seems like a fascinating book.