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.