Blind Man’s Guff

My older brothers used to have a friend named JT who was something of a stoner’s stoner. It was said that he had come across a copy of “Revolver” but somehow gotten the idea that it was by a Beatles tribute band. They were good, he claimed, but you could tell they weren’t the real Beatles.

That is more or less how I feel about Ursula K. LeGuin’s novels of the last 15 years or so–they’re like very good fan fiction, sharing the themes and quirks of her real books but lacking the power of her real stuff.  Nonetheless, I can’t resist trying one out from time to time, and have just finished Gifts, the first in a recent series of fantasy novels for “young adults,” as they say.  It turned out to be readable but tepid, like a washed-out reworking of A Wizard of Earthsea.  But there is one passage that has set me to thinking.

The narrator, Orrec, for reasons that make sense to him and his father, decides to wear a blindfold all the time.  Here is his description of learning to live as a blind person:

The best way I found to be blind was to try to act as if I could see; not to creep and feel my way about, but to step out, knock my face against the wall if I met a wall, and fall, if I fell.

Having walked around at various levels of blindness, taking some tumbles and greeting several walls and at least two steel I-beams with my face, I guess I am a sort of expert, so allow me to tell you: this is terrible advice.  I certainly hope that no aspiring blind person tries it out, stepping out boldly without feeling ahead, slamming into walls and rocketing down staircases–who wants to be a blind person in a hospital room?

So what happened here?  LeGuin, though living in reduced creative circumstances, is not stupid or cruel.  The advice could be intended as a metaphoric life lesson, though Orric evidently means what he says; when eventually he begins using a stick outdoors, he is careful to tell us that it is a weapon and not a cane.  Still, we are probably supposed to take his precepts to heart as an encouragement to be bold and not fearful.  The use of the word “creep” is a hint, since blind people don’t really creep…we walk slowly, we grope, but “creep” is just there to make a pejorative contrast.  I’ve got nothing against boldness, but it is cheap and unworthy of LeGuin to shoehorn a little self-improvement homily into the mouth of her character.

I think the “act as if you could see” idea is attractive partly because it would spare the sighted person some embarrassment.  It is socially awkward to have someone groping or tapping around, and it is a scary reminder of what has been taken from them and could be taken from you.  It would be nice to think that blind people could just act like sighted people–the most extreme example of this need for reassurance is the fact that blind men in Hollywood movies always have to drive a car (Sneakers and Scent of a Woman are well-known instances, but I’ve seen at least two or three others.  The fact that blind guys can’t drive is just too painful for people (at least people in LA) to cope with.

Of course the temptation to ‘pass’ is strong for people with visual disabilities too.  For me, it was bound up with being shy–I didn’t want to expose myself to strangers, and I certainly didn’t want to ask them for help.  I don’t want to counter platitudes with more platitudes, but to the extent I have learned anything, it is to try and put yourself in situations where you can get help from people you trust, and to give up on trying to be normal.  That last bit might even be useful for normal people.

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23 Responses to Blind Man’s Guff

  1. beth mchugh says:

    Awesome post, Roy! Made my day ! Kind of fun to see mention of those older brothers and JT….I never knew that particular story! Great comparison to the shift in LeGuin’s writing evident in the “Gift”. Keep ’em coming…best entertainment all week! Boodle

    • lippenheimer says:

      Of course I may have that story all wrong, but I doubt JT will be reading this.

      The same thing happened with Kurt Vonnegut…I think most of us gave up after _Slapstick_.

      • Megan Kasten says:

        True! I gave up when I read a review of Slapstick…didn’t make it as far as spending my time on the actual book.
        Speaking of Vonnegut, we listened to Slaughterhouse 5 on our way home from Vermont. I first read it decades ago, and I loved hearing it as well.

  2. Megan Kasten says:

    Thanks Roy. I’m with Emily; this was the best yet. LOL is overused, but I did LOL twice: first at your dismissal as ‘terrible advice’ the idea that LeGuin’s character has to walk around blindfolded yet behave as if he could see (a notion worthy of a teenage eye-roll) ; second at the reference to LeGuin’s “living in reduced creative circumstances”. I’ll have to file that away for future plagiarism – it’s too funny to be used just once. It smacks of Jane Austen, but I like it anyway.
    I’m somewhat relieved to hear your opinion regarding the quality of LeGuin’s writing declining over the years. Her YA books have been recommended to me several times by people whose opinions I value, but I have always found them bland and a bit empty. I have yet to pass one along to my kids as something I think they could actually persevere through reading to the end. (They do not share the literary patience of my sisters children, so I have to recommend carefully.) I may have to go back to her older writings to find the LeGuin everyone is talking about.
    Roy, I believe there may be many more sighted people walking around as if they cannot see than the converse. I have myself had many painful meetings with I-beams and other large objects. I had no decent excuse, since I should have seen them just innocently standing there. I assume that because I can see something, that I will indeed see it. I mean that quite literally, but it works as a pithy metaphor, too, I guess.
    And yes, let’s all give up on being normal, shall we? Where would FB be without the outrageous?

    • lippenheimer says:

      Thanks, Megan! I will accept the Austen comparison even though you don’t like her.

      Even the good LeGuin might be too girly for your kids…for yourself, try _The Dispossessed_ or _The Left Hand of Darkness_, or the short story “Semly’s Necklace,” which you can find in the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

  3. Dana Andreasen says:

    Your “living in reduced creative circumstances” comment makes the Al Pacino clip especially appropriate. His acting hasn’t been the same since winning the Oscar for his horrible up-and-over-the-top performance in Scent of a Woman.

  4. Miran says:

    Loved this entry Roy.

  5. Mary Evelyn White says:

    Whatever method you use – it is pretty impressive. I think that many people don’t realize you are blind and so, when they hold a hand out to be shaken, they’re taken aback that you don’t respond. I think Emily used to do something – touch John’s elbow if someone held out a hand, but hey! who cares if they’re a little ruffled – you have to deal with it all the time. I’m amazed.

    • Megan Kasten says:

      You’re right, Mary. I forget it myself, and I’ve known Roy since back in the Terry (last name?) days when we were getting chased home from Flynn Park by 8th grade thugs on bicycles. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why I do forget, since I’m not sure it ever occurred to us to consider Roy needing help, let alone asking for it.
      I remember Boodle reading “Salem’s Lot” to you, Roy, after your first retinal surgery. I was lying on the floor in the living room with Boodle’s soothing voice reading aloud, and I wanted to stay and listen, but it scared the bejeezus out of me and I never heard or read past the first 2 chapters. The sound of her voice reading that text was so jarring to me that I never went back to that book.

      • lippenheimer says:

        Berg…Terry Berg. Oy.

        Boodle was certainly kind to read to me after working all day, making dinner, and studying for her classes…though I remember her reading _The Stand_, not so much _Salem’s Lot_. They were both from King’s good period…speaking of reduced etc.

    • lippenheimer says:

      Well, I hate to be rude…if I’m lucky, one of the sighted people present will alert me to the extended hand. And I do use a stick now, so that should help people understand what’g going on.

  6. Tony Renner says:

    No disrespect to Klaus Voorman, but the cover of “Revolver” is pretty amateurish. I can see how someone could believe that it’s the work of a Beatles tribute band, especially since it doesn’t have “the Beatles” on it.

    • lippenheimer says:

      That’s what made it possible, though I do wonder what aspects of the album made JT think he could distinguish it from the real Beatles. In general, I suppose we overestimate how easy it is to distinguish the second-class work of a genius from the productions of a really good imitator.

      I once saw an exhibit of Picasso imitators (from his own day) at the Walker (our local modern art museum). I wasn’t qualified to judge them, of course, but the idea that someone would aspire to be a painter and then devote his life to doing knockoffs is terribly depressing.

  7. Nancy Murzyn says:

    I enjoyed your comments very much Roy, even though I haven’t read the book. It’s interesting to hear your perspective on dealing with the world with limited sight. I particularly resonated with the idea that people can be troubled by the realization that their own gift of sight may not always be with them when they see someone who is blind. It made me think of the awkward ways many people treated me after my mom and dad died in a car accident. At times it was as if I had leprosy. I think I understand that type of reaction better now. Some realities are hard to face and the inclination to pretend that everything will be okay if we would only act “as if” they are okay is hard to resist. Normal is in the eyes of the beholder.

    • lippenheimer says:

      Thanks! One alternative response that I’ve occasionally gotten is “Seeing you makes me grateful for my own eyes.” Understandable, but who likes to hear “I’m sure glad I’m not like you!”

      • Nancy Murzyn says:

        I’m grateful to you for your willingness to share something about who you are. It helps me to understand a bit about something I haven’t experienced. Blindness abounds, and every opportunity I receive to expand the horizons of my vision are a blessing. Thanks Roy!

      • Megan Kasten says:

        If you really wanted to be catty, you could reply, “Hearing you speak makes me wish it were my ears.”

      • lippenheimer says:

        No, Megan, I don’t wish for deafness even in jest. In most cases, I could return the compliment with some aspect of the other person’s life that I am happy not to share.

        How many people would one honestly trade lives with? It’s an interesting question…in my case it’s not many, and that is partly because I am very fortunate in some areas of my life and partly because I’m rather change-averse (if I changed places with a straight woman, I’d have a hard time getting used to having sex with men, for example).

  8. Trudy Andreasen says:

    This was my first read in your blog. I really enjoyed it. I will be back.

  9. Ann Foxen says:

    to try and put yourself in situations where you can get help from people you trust, and to give up on trying to be normal.

    I loved that line. Would you agree that that was the lesson for everyone who grew up in our family?

    • Roy says:

      Yes, I think that lesson was there to be learned for any of us who were open to it. For all the drawbacks of our domestic environment, most of us learned that we could form a community of mutants and thus avoid the twin tragedies of isolation and conformity.

      On Wed, Oct 9, 2013 at 10:04 AM, lippenheimer

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