Sunday, November 8, 2015


In my response to Letter 8 in Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan’s On Blindness, I said that the best pieces in this blog were written out of a sense of urgency. This urgency arose when I was beset by the challenges of my first years of teaching and later returned when I faced the possibilities of going blind. Uncertainty about my future in general, and my vision in particular, has not left me, but the urgency has. I would consider this a good thing. It’s unhealthy to live for years at a time in a state of continuous anxiety, though we know that too many people do it for reasons beyond their control. I had meant to keep this blog going until I finally felt resolved about what I’ll be doing next year, but now I realize that I may never feel resolved. My time seems more limited than ever—not so much the time I still have left to live as the time I have left to think and see. I am ready to move on to fresh endeavors. I have, as Thoreau wrote, several more lives to live.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Blindness: Letters Between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan

Below are gathered my pieces in response to On Blindness, by Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan. The first one serves as an introduction to this series.

End-of-Summer Reading: On Blindness
On Blindness: Response to Letter 1
On Blindness: Response to Letter 2
On Blindness: Response to Letter 3
On Blindness: Response to Letter 4
On Blindness: Response to Letter 5
On Blindness: Response to Letter 6
On Blindness: Response to Letter 7
On Blindness: Response to Letter 8
On Blindness: Response to Letter 9

On Blindness: Response to Letter 9

Dear Bryan Magee,

In earlier letters, when you’ve raised a hypothetical scenario in which human beings are somehow creatures without sight, I’ve rejected it because I’ve argued that such creatures—like us in every respect, except without sight—could not exist. And even if they did exist, they wouldn’t be human. Likewise, in Letter 9, when you consider what it would be like for a human being to gain an additional sense, one equivalent in capacity to sight, I reject the scenario because, again, such a person would cease to be human. The point at which one of us gained that extra sense the rest of us would no longer be able to understand what it would be like for that person, because she would no longer be one of us.

In your discussions with Martin Milligan, I have agreed with you that it’s a mistake to underestimate the catastrophe of losing eyesight. That it is survivable makes it no less a catastrophe. We are profoundly sighted creatures because, over the millennia, we evolved a capacity to see upon which so much of what makes us human depends. For example, our mirror neurons, as explained by Dr. Ramachandran, are activated through sight and allow us to experience empathy and learn so quickly from one another that human culture wouldn’t exist without the neurology of sight. A third to half of our brains is involved with seeing, and much of infancy is dedicated to acquiring sight. As you’ve read in Oliver Sacks’ “To See and Not See,” it can be overwhelming for those born blind or blind from an early age to have their capacity for sight restored. It is overwhelming because sight comes to them long past the time when they are developmentally ready for it. After learning to construct and live in a touch-world, a newly sighted person is presented with an emerging capacity that requires an exhausting effort to learn to use effectively. That process of transforming from a touch-person to a sighted person is also profoundly disorienting, so much so that many newly sighted people are not equipped psychologically to handle it and ultimately insist on remaining blind. All of this is not to say, as you have, alluding to T.S. Eliot’s famous line, that human beings can only handle so much reality. Rather, we are such fundamentally sighted creatures that to be born into sight requires that we survive years of sustained, unrelenting concentration, something we’re most equipped to do in infancy. In effect, we are all twice-born: the first time into the world and the second time into sight.

In “To See and Not See,” Oliver Sacks wrote that in the newly sighted

learning to see demands a radical change in neurological functioning and, with it, a radical change in psychological functioning, in self, in identity. The change may be experienced in literally life-and-death terms. Valvo quotes a patient of his as saying, "One must die as a sighted person to be born again as a blind person," and the opposite is equally true: one must die as a blind person to be born again as a seeing person. And here, blindness is no more a negative condition, a privation, than seeing. It is a divergent condition, a different form of being, with its own sensibilities and coherence and feeling. It is indeed what John Hull calls "deep blindness ... one of the orders of human being."

Our lives are one long birth into awareness, and losing one of the primary means of attaining that awareness involves, as Oliver Sacks wrote, a kind of death and rebirth of self. When those of us who are sighted contemplate the loss of vision, we can’t see beyond the dissolution of our current self and the emergence of a new. The loss of sight is a radical discontinuity, the other side of which appears to us as an “unknown country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns.” Even the threat of blindness is traumatic, and the longer one lives with the fear of possible impending blindness the more difficult it is to return to equilibrium after that threat seemingly subsides.

As I suggested in my previous post, I’ve had to write my way to a new self, a long labor that is beginning to feel mostly behind me. It’s one reason I‘ve wanted to bring this blog to a close. For a long time, I imagined that I would end it when I decided to take a break from teaching. That seemed like a natural stopping point. Now I realize that there aren’t any natural stopping points, and I’m content to exit this blog with the sense that the uncertain is still before me.

In the meantime, as you have finished your book with the feeling that there was no more you could say in response to Martin Milligan, I am leaving your joint effort with the feeling that I have written out all that I can usefully say in response to your fruitful and ennobling conversation. I will only add that I am grateful for the way your exchange ranged well beyond the strictly philosophical, into the questions of perceptual loss that have so consumed me here.

The sprawling of winter might suddenly stand erect,

Pronouncing its new life and ours, not autumn’s prodigal returned,
But an antipodal, far-fetched creature, worthy of birth,
The true tone of the metal of winter in what it says:

The accent of deviation in the living thing
That is its life preserved, the effort to be born
Surviving being born, the event of life.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 8

Dear Martin Milligan,

In Letter 8, you have turned almost entirely to the non-philosophical, touching on your experience and the experience of other blind people with dreams, waking life, the loss of sight, and the prejudices of the sighted. What most resonated with me was your account of how your wife feared losing what remained of her failing eyesight.

My wife Joan, who thinks she may now be close to the point of losing her sight completely, says that one effect of approaching this point has been suddenly to sharpen the pleasure she gets from looking at flowers and landscapes—but that the fear of losing these pleasures is dwarfed by other fears: the fear of not being able to get about safely by herself, of not being able to do her own shopping (already very difficult), of not being able to cook in the way she likes, of needing the kind of help that for years she has herself been giving to other totally blind people.

In this passage, there is an implied dichotomy between taking pleasure in what one sees and doing the things that sight enables one to do. In the latter case, at least one of the things that Joan wanted to continue doing was itself pleasurable: cooking “in the way she likes.” For me, aesthetic pleasures have been very important—even central—to my life, and so my fear of not being able to see “flowers and landscapes” has not been dwarfed by anything. That fear is of a piece with fears of an inability to read and write, to read people’s faces, to stay in contact with friends, to care for my wife, to live a socially active life. The reason they are of a piece is that for me they are part of my conception of a meaningful and dignified life. It isn’t possible for me to see beyond my present capabilities into a life of blindness that is as meaningful and dignified as my life is now. To me, the possibility of blindness presents itself as a kind of existential condition in which I would have to create out of my own resources what meaning and dignity I could in the astonishing circumstances I would find myself in. I say “astonishing” because I imagine that I would long struggle to believe what had happened to me, even as I now can hardly believe that my eyesight has become continually distorted and won’t just clear up some day when I least expect it.

Maybe there is something philosophical in this after all. Abrupt changes in our life challenge our sense of a continuous self. They make us doubt whether we are any longer the same person. Whether there is such a thing as a continuous self, we have a need to feel a sense of continuity with our previous selves, much altered as we are in relation to them. Indeed, part of the challenge of surviving changes central to our selves is making sense of the discontinuities they represent and restoring our altered selves to our previous selves. This is not just a work of memory but of the imagination. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I elected to revive this blog after my vision-altering retinal detachments of May, 2013. Since then, I’ve devoted increasing attention to my writing, not because I somehow anticipate a wider audience for these pieces,—indeed, I currently have no audience for them because I’ve taken the blog offline—but rather because making something redeemable out of my experience has become acutely necessary to restoring a sense of a recognizable self. As has been pointed out to me, I have rebuilt my identity on the changes I have endured, and while I would never choose distorted vision for myself, I have come to see it as the material out of which I’m capable of creating something valuable. If what I’ve written proves to be valuable to few or none, at least I can say that it’s valuable to me.

This summer and fall I've been slowly working my way through these pieces, editing them, thinning out the weaker ones. In the process, I’ve learned that the pieces most worth keeping were born of urgency. In the earlier ones, the urgency arose out of a recognition of how much my struggling students needed from the adults in their lives and how much the system had failed them. The second wave of pieces came, starting in June 2013, out of my struggle to reorient myself in the midst of a crisis of perception. In both cases, I’ve tried to make something that would help me sort out the internal dislocation I’ve experienced—first under the extreme pressures of an all-consuming job, and then from the catastrophic loss of vision that was in part the result of overwork.

This sense of dislocation has stemmed from what Wallace Stevens, writing of a fictional Ludwig Richter in “Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion,” has characterized as losing "the whole in which he is contained." It's not that the self has been literally removed from familiar surroundings. Rather, the changing conditions of the self have been so altered that one no longer can see the context in which the self is recognizable to itself. There is a kind of bewilderment—that is, a feeling of being lost in the wild—to this state of being, as David Ferry has written in “Soul”:

What am I doing inside this old man's body?
I feel like I'm the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment . . .

It is a confounding, a beguiling of the soul, and I have used these pieces to, in effect, answer the opening question in Emerson’s “Experience”:

Where do we find ourselves?

The writing has not been the creation or re-creation of a continuous self or soul, but the restoration of the context in which I could see, once again, who I am and where I am standing. This has been a long process, as it is for most everyone, I suppose—a process that doesn’t end until we end.

Martin Milligan, I would have said that I looked forward to learning more about who you are and where you are standing, except for my awareness that some time after Letter 8 you died and that there will be no more letters from you. Although I never knew you, I feel the loss of your voice, and I now look to Bryan Magee to give us some measure of that loss.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 7

Dear Bryan Magee,

In Letter 7, you treated at length the question of whether all knowledge is propositional or whether there is a distinct category of knowledge that comes from direct experience. While I have learned a great deal from your discussion, I find that, once again, I’m more interested in what you might consider to be a relatively minor issue.

On page 118, you offered a view of artistic knowledge arising out of your reading of Schopenhauer. As you explained it, Schopenhauer believed that everything that exists exists in its particularity, including “not only material objects but perceptions, thoughts and experiences.” Because it would be impossible to invent a word for each particular thing that exists, language is by necessity conceptual in nature. However, the conceptual can’t capture the particular of existence, and so it is the function of art, “in every society known to us, . . . to store and articulate unique perceptions, insights, and experiences.”

Your views on art are related to your earlier statements, in Letter 3, that you see, all around you, an "undervaluation of sensory, emotional and aesthetic experience, and an inflation of the importance of the intellectual out of all proportion to its real significance. . . .” I would argue that one of the values of aesthetic experience is the way that it can corroborate one’s “unique perceptions, insights, and experiences.” In this there is a paradox. In our aesthetic experience of, say, Emerson’s “Experience," we recognize his assaying of his own grief, a grief that engendered a crisis of perception and compelled him to work out where it was he had found himself. Yet, unique as this essay is to Emerson, we can also locate, in our struggle to hold on to an understanding of his struggle, where we find ourselves in our own grief. The imaginative effort to orient ourselves to Emerson’s displacements of perception can also orient us to our own particular displacements.

Your concern about the unwarranted elevation of the intellectual to the detriment of “sensory, emotional and aesthetic experience” undoubtedly reflects your experience as a philosopher whose social milieu features a large percentage of philosophers, academics, and intellectuals. What but an emphasis on the intellectual would one find among your peers? As a teacher working in a school system in which we are pressured to develop in our students marketable skills at the expense of aesthetic experience, I worry more about the denigration of art forms that celebrate both our individual subjective experience and our common conditions of humanity. One of the reasons I wanted to leave the Language Arts department some years ago was that the district, succumbing to state mandates, imposed curricula that turned novels and poetry into material for developing skills that, as the cliché goes, students need for adapting to a global market economy. What is never talked about anymore is the way that novels and poetry might help students cultivate an appreciation for the aesthetic power of art to celebrate, corroborate, and elevate our internal lives.

What does this have to do with the philosophical issues that you and Martin Milligan discuss in your letters? Art, inasmuch as it’s concerned with the unique experience of individuals, tells us something about the limits of philosophy. You and Martin Milligan are grappling with the way that sightedness and blindness render two profoundly different modes of being human. You are debating issues of language not only because the attainment of propositional knowledge depends on uses of language, but also because each of you are struggling to convey to the other how you live in and perceive the world. You and Martin Milligan have come far in defining the philosophical issues about which you disagree, but I wonder if, at a certain point, you may falter in your ability to communicate your viewpoints to each other because of some fundamental differences in the way you experience the world.

I look forward to seeing in your remaining letters how far you can go in conveying your perspectives to each other and to what ends and possibly dead-ends that ambition may take you.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 6

Dear Bryan Magee,

I gather that you regard your letter to Martin Milligan as non-philosophical in nature. However, as you pointed out yourself, “What is a philosophical question?” is itself a philosophical question. One of philosophy’s long arguments with itself is over the question of what will and will not count as philosophical discourse. Be that as it may be, I hope that it will become apparent, in my response to your letter, that the issues you raise there are philosophical.

Several times in your letter you use the words “handicap” and “handicapped” to refer to what we might now call “disability” or “disabled.” When I say that many of us in the United States no longer use the terms “handicap” or “handicapped,” I hope that I’m not merely being politically correct. To be fair, Martin Milligan used the terms himself in Letter 4, when he argued that blindness was not a socially imposed limitation but rather a limitation on what the blind are able to do in a world overwhelmingly geared for the sighted. Yet, it’s on this last point that I see an important distinction between how you regard blindness and how Milligan regards it. Specifically, Milligan is concerned with the limitations on the interest he, as a blind person, might take in the world and the activities he might pursue in it while you are concerned with the much more profound limitations that the blind experience.

Indeed, I would suggest that one reason we don’t use the term “handicapped” anymore is because it implies that those with such limitations fall short of the ideal we associate with being fully human. You have gone out of your way to say that you don’t believe that the blind are in any way less than fully human, and yet, because your use of the term “handicapped” refers to the absence of a capacity that you regard as "foundational" to ordinary human living, it resonates with the very connotations you wish to avoid. I agree with you that blindness is a condition that imposes more than a limitation on doing, but I also maintain that it is a particular type of limitation that the terms “handicap” or even “disability” don’t really capture.

For example, newborn babies can’t walk and speak, and yet we don’t consider this limitation to be a handicap or disability because it is developmentally normal for babies to have these limitations. Likewise, at fifty-six, my short-term memory is not as sharp as it once was, but no one considers me to be cognitively handicapped or disabled. I’m just experiencing a limitation typical of late middle age. Yet, handicaps and disabilities aren’t merely about whether we’re adhering to a developmental norm. My mother-in-law, at ninety-four, is seriously memory-impaired, a condition that is not unusual for someone her age. Yet, we consider her to be suffering from a disability. What handicap meant, and disability now means, is a capability that we want people to exercise but which they are not able to exercise because of some physical or cognitive limitation. That is, what we consider to be a disability is a socially defined limitation that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, has legal implications.

Nevertheless, I agree with you that there is “something foundational to ordinary living about seeing.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “seeing is an appetite, and what is more a greedy and lustful one.” As I have explained elsewhere, we generally maintain a habit of seeing what we expect to see. Indeed, we cannot long tolerate a continual surprise at what we see without becoming overtaxed by the unfamiliar. For example, in a foreign city, one of our first tasks is to orient ourselves by connecting what we see with what we know. Upon arrival at the airport, we look for patterns that fit what we've experienced at other airports. We look for signs that guide us where we need to go. At the hotel, if we don’t already have a map, we ask for one at the desk. Out on the street, we begin immediately to internalize the layout of the immediate neighborhood and match it up with the map we carry. Slowly we build up a sense of the continuity of the world, a sense that depends on a continuity between what we see and what we’ve seen and know. As soon as we can, we turn an unfamiliar city into a more familiar one, and we slowly stop seeing it with the freshness we experienced on the first day.

Yet, even if much of our seeing is habitual, we are still creatures geared to the visual. In “Secrets of the Mind,” it is claimed that the “main visual centers in humans occupy nearly half the brain. . . .” Your extended list of quotes from John H. Hull’s Touching the Rock demonstrates how devastating the loss of sight can be. I also can’t accept the way that Martin Milligan seems to downplay the importance of becoming blind. It is, as you aptly describe it, a profound loss that must be grieved like other profound losses. And yet, Borges, with the example of his father and grandfather before him, survived his loss of sight and even learned to regard it as a writer’s gift of material. My wife, a social worker, has an elderly client who became blind years ago, and she has survived, uncomplaining, alert, and socially integrated, into her nineties. We should all be so lucky.

So while the loss of sight to creatures so sight-oriented is hardly trivial, it is survivable. Over the last two years, I’ve found it difficult to understand how I might survive blindness, should it come to that, and only now that I’ve become less fearful of it can I begin to fathom how life without seeing might be. While you might not consider my struggle to understand such a fate as philosophical, I would argue that there is a kind of wisdom in learning to make sense of our most devastating losses. If the questioning we undertake to achieve wisdom isn’t philosophy, what is?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 5

Dear Martin Milligan,

As you promised in your fourth letter, Letter 5 largely consists of a technical discussion of questions about what I’ll call the epistemology of blindness and seeing. Rather than respond to your argument as a whole, I’d prefer to focus on what might seem to be two minor points. The first occurs near the beginning of your letter, on page 63. Here you suggest that we can have sensations or sense-impressions without knowing them. You say, for example, that we could meet President Bush and, as if drunk or drugged, we could walk away not having learned anything about him. You follow this hypothetical scenario by comparing it to the more common experience of waking from sleep with a fuzzy awareness of our surroundings. In those first moments of waking, we can have a “dim, unspecific and unfocused consciousness which is not a knowing of anything.”

I would like to reinforce your claim by taking up the rare phenomenon of “blindsight.” In the NOVA episode “Secrets of the Mind,” Dr. V.S Ramachandran examines the case of Graham Young, a blindsighted person, and offers a neurological explanation of how it is that he can detect movement of an object in his blind eye:

Well, if you look at the anatomy, you can begin to explain this curious syndrome. It turns out from the eyeball to the higher centers of the brain where you interpret the visual image, there's not just one pathway. There are two separate pathways, which subserve different aspects of vision. One of these pathways is the evolutionarily new pathway, the more sophisticated pathway, if you like, that goes from the eyeball through the thalamus to the visual cortex of the brain. Now, you need the visual cortex for consciously seeing something. The other pathway, which is older evolutionarily, and is more prominent in animals like rodents, lower mammals, birds and reptiles, goes to the brain stem, the stalk on which the brain sits. And, from the brain stem, gets relayed eventually to the higher centers of the brain. Specifically, the older pathway going through the brain stem is concerned with reflexive behavior orienting to something important in the visual field, making eye movements, directing your gaze, directing your head toward something important.

In these patients, one of these pathways alone is damaged—the visual cortex is damaged. Because that's gone, the patient doesn't see anything consciously. But the other pathway is still intact. And he can use that pathway to guess correctly the direction of movement of an object that he cannot see.

Dr. Ramachandran shows how, under laboratory conditions, Graham Young can detect the movement of an object without actually seeing the form, texture, dimension, or color of the object. That is, he can see the movement of an object without actually seeing the object. Dr. Ramachandran goes on to discuss how the phenomenon of blindsight raises questions about consciousness and the ability of our brains to receive sensations and react to them without our conscious minds actually being aware of those sensations.

One of the goals of neuroscience is to understand which parts of the brain are dedicated to what function—how different mental capacities map onto different pathways and different neurocircuits in the brain. And surely this fascinating syndrome is going to help us understand not only the nature of seeing, not only the division of labor between these different pathways, but the question of, "What is consciousness? What does it mean to be consciously aware of something? Why is one pathway alone conscious but does the other pathway behave like a zombie that's trapped inside him, that's unconscious? The syndrome is so strange that when it was initially reported people didn't believe it, and there are some people who still don't believe it. But in a sense it's not that strange if you think about it, because in a sense we experience blindsight all the time in our daily lives. For example, as I am driving this car and having this conversation, all my attention is on the conversation...on the person next to me. And, in fact, I'm not conscious of what's going on around me even though I'm negotiating all this traffic, avoiding obstacles, avoiding that car on my right, avoiding the car on my left. That's all being done in parallel by another part of my brain and it never emerges into conscious awareness unless something very strange happens like a big truck passes by and I might notice it.

I have quoted Dr. Ramachandran at length to lend evidence to my earlier claim that there is an important distinction to be made between seeing as the reception of visual sensations and seeing as conscious visual perception. Rather than reiterate my earlier argument, I will merely add that it’s that latter form of seeing that you’re concerned with at the end of your letter when you make the point that you don’t so much yearn for the pleasures of seeing as you do the fascination of it. While the longed-for practicality of seeing—the way it enables doing—is arguably bound up with both forms of seeing, the interest you believe you would find in seeing is largely dependent on seeing as a conscious mental activity.

Let me put it this way. I have no doubt that you would find great interest in seeing. However, I’m not sure that we all do—or at least we don’t all of the time. There are times when we go through our days dull to our surroundings. We might find ourselves stuck in a routine in which we’re seeing too much of the same thing, day after day. Or perhaps we live in circumstances—a neighborhood or an institution—in which there is little variety in what we see. Overly controlled situations can be like that. Or perhaps we’ve suffered a loss and become so grief-stricken that we fail to notice what we see. Or perhaps we’re merely preoccupied with intellectual pursuits and we’ve so turned inward that we’ve temporarily lost interest in the things surrounding us. Whatever the case, we only take an interest in what we can see if we are consciously interested in it.

I sometimes think that the two most interesting things to see are vivid colors and human faces. However, I didn’t think that before these two things were restored to me with the surgery on my right eye in August of 2014. I value them most because they were lost to me for over a year. Which is to say, I take conscious interest in seeing them not because of something inherently fascinating in the visual sensations they afford. My interest is subjective, and I believe that if you were to become a sighted person you would have your own subjective reactions to the things in your visual field.

After reading accounts in “To See and Not See” of people who had become sighted after being born-blind, I’ve come to the conclusion that responses to newly acquired sight vary from individual to individual, and those responses aren’t always pleasant. What we learn as we develop our sense of sight from infancy is to discern what is in our visual field. If you were suddenly able to receive visual sensory input, you would have to learn to order your inchoate sensations into recognized visual patterns with common cultural meanings. This would involve a lot of work—work that, with your inquiring mind, you would undoubtedly find interesting, but work nonetheless. That we find anything at all interesting in our surroundings is the result of a life-long struggle to make sense of what we experience in the world. My interest in vine maples turning colors in the fall or the faces of my students lighting up with excitement is the fruit of achieved perception, the result of fifty-six years of effort at living.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 4

Dear Martin Milligan,

In your second letter, you return to the question of doing, although in your first letter you were more interested in making a distinction between doing and knowing, and here you’re more interested in explaining how the born-blind sometimes desire to be sighted for what it would allow them to do. In other words, the born-blind don’t so much yearn for the experience of seeing as value the practical consequences of it. I can imagine that getting around an unfamiliar city or building would, in general, be so much easier for the sighted. You’ve also described how blind people are sometimes excluded from certain lines of work that they are eminently qualified for. As you explain it, this often occurs when the sighted make faulty assumptions about the blind. If the blind were to be given sight, the social barriers associated with blindness would be removed, and the practical barriers would also fall away, opening up new possibilities of work for formerly unsighted people. In your second letter, you devote much space to considering the social conditions that keep the blind from finding satisfying work, and this is no trivial concern. One of the ways that many of us experience our worth as human beings is through ennobling and satisfying work, and to be deprived of the opportunity of something so central to a dignified life can be a debilitating deprivation. Yet, you also disagree with those who maintain that disabilities in general, and blindness in particular, are socially imposed handicaps—a view you describe as “fashionable.” Although your second letter covers a great deal of ground, I want to focus on the question of whether disabilities are socially defined.

What we generally consider to be abilities does not include those skills or capabilities for which there is no demand in a society. For example, pre-colonial Europeans didn’t consider it an ability to be able to collect or trap moisture in the Kalahari Desert. They couldn’t have considered it an ability because there was no call for it in their society. However, for pre-colonial San people, this was an all-important ability crucial for their survival. Likewise, among the pre-Columbian Caduveo of Brazil, driving an automobile was not recognized as an ability because the automobile hadn’t yet been invented and imposed as a technology necessary for survival in a modern society. Of course, the ability to see is more fundamental than the ability to find water or drive a car. The latter are skills we have to be taught, and they in turn depend on the more elemental ability to discern spatial relationships, textures, and shapes, and coordinate hand motions within a visual field. Yet, very little about seeing is innate. As documented in Oliver Sacks’ “To See and Not See,” an article I referred to in a previous post, we may be born with the ability to detect motion and color, but most of what we consider to be seeing has to be learned over time. To discern the expressions on people’s faces or read a book or enjoy a painting requires a society to teach us to invest such seeing with cultural meanings.

I suppose that you might argue that while there is much that we must be taught to do with our senses to be able to master the complex activities you suggest the blind might yearn for, their inability to do them is not socially imposed. They are simply a consequence of not possessing functional sight. Yet, there are many tasks we can’t accomplish without the technology that society has developed. I can’t shout loud enough for a friend to hear me across the other side of the city. However, with a telephone and the knowledge of how to use it, my friend can hear me. In the case of driving, the blind will be able to drive automobiles if and when affordable self-driving cars are brought to market, and the infrastructure and legal system accommodate them. While the inability to drive is socially imposed on women in Saudi Arabia, it is not imposed because they are blind. The impediment of blindness is only an impediment because we live in a society in which the ability to drive is recognizably valuable and the technology to overcome the lack of vision doesn’t yet exist. Thus, I would argue that while the blindness of the blind is not a socially imposed handicap, the limitations of blindness are contingent on the social circumstances (including extant technologies) in which the blind find themselves.

You described how the blind have some awareness of spatial dimensions, and the shape, number and texture of objects through a kind of echolocation. As I understand it, the blind tap their canes not only to feel their way through spaces filled with objects and obstacles, but also to discern the shape and texture of their surroundings through the echoing sounds of the tapping. Imagine the development of a technology that could send out a kind of radar that could be transformed into a mosaic of signals broadcast in an earpiece. Suppose that a blind person could learn to translate these signals such that it gave her the ability to discern, in sophisticated and nuanced ways, the shape, texture, color, light, dimensionality, and movement in her environment. This would not be seeing per se, but it might enable a blind person to engage in most or all of the activities that the sighted engage in. If the technology were universally available, would we consider blindness to be a disability at all? Would it come to have no more significance than, say, far-sightedness?

Of course, radar-equipped blind people would not be able to enjoy the visual beauty of a painting or a landscape. It’s possible that the radar signals might translate a view of the Grand Canyon into a mosaic of sounds that a blind person would find powerful and sublime. However, it’s possible that it wouldn’t, depending on an individual’s interpretation of those sounds. I can even imagine a scenario in which the mosaic of sounds representing the Grand Canyon came off as technically accurate but cacophonic. In any case, however a particular blind person responded to sonic representation of the Grand Canyon, it would still be sonic and not visual. For Bryan Magee, it would be cataclysmic to lose the ability to enjoy the beauty of visual world. Would it be cataclysmic for radar-equipped blind people?

As noted previously, Bryan Magee memorably recalled in his second letter the experience of seeing huge flocks of flamingoes at Lake Nakuru in Kenya. It’s his most compelling example of the kind of powerful aesthetic experience that a person would miss out on if he were blind. “The sight,” he wrote, “was so breathtakingly beautiful it gave me gooseflesh all over my body, and I shall remember it for the rest of my life.” I do not deny the authenticity of this experience and memory when I say that Bryan Magee’s reaction to the flamingoes of Lake Nakuru reflects an attitude toward nature inherited from the Romantics. Before Romanticism, Europeans sometimes found scenes of wild nature to be appalling and frightening wastelands. There was a marked preference for domesticated landscapes, which were less threatening and more familiar. Bryan Magee’s aesthetic appreciation of wild nature—one which I share—is the result of his sensibilities having been shaped by a sophisticated cultural tradition. His enjoyment of the beauty of the natural world isn’t merely a blessing of sight. It’s also the fruit of a cultural education in perception, one in which his responses to nature have been developed in such a way that his interpretations of what he sees renders his experience powerfully pleasurable.

Would it be possible for a radar-equipped blind person to receive an equivalent education in sensibility? If, through such technology, blindness were to become as inconsequential as far-sightedness, blind people might be able to enter into a Romantic appreciation of nature just as readily as a British professor of philosophy. Radar-equipped blind people might be able to learn to interpret the signals representing huge flocks of flamingoes at Lake Nakuru as intensely beautiful. While the qualitative experience of seeing the beauty of a million pink flamingoes gathered along the shore would be different than hearing the beauty of a sonic representation of those flamingoes, I'm not sure that, in this scenario, blindness would be the cataclysm that Bryan Magee makes it out to be. In any case, I don’t think we can preclude the possibility that in certain cultural circumstances the lack of a sensory capability is the loss we see it as. At a recent seminar, a Native American educator recalled how in one tribe deafness was considered a gift, and a born-deaf person was regarded as having uniquely important experience to offer the other members of the tribe.

You have advertised your next letter as being more of an epistemological discussion along technical lines. I look forward to the unique perspective that, as a born-blind person and a member of the tribe of philosophers, you will bring to questions of knowing, perception, and language.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 3

Dear Bryan Magee,

Your third letter covers so much ground that I would prefer to focus on those passages where I find your argument most striking. For example, you spoke of the shock of recognition when you first read the opening words from Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

All men desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else.

You go on to describe how there is something elemental about seeing, how it is foundational to ordinary living, how everyday, moment-to-moment human interaction depends on it. In a previous passage, you admit to feeling passionately about the importance of direct experience through the senses, because you see all around you “a failure to appreciate it leading to an undervaluation of sensory, emotional and aesthetic experience, and an inflation of the importance of the intellectual out of all proportion to its real significance; and these things are directly destructive of true values and the quality of life. . . .”

One of the anxieties I’ve had about reading and teaching philosophy is that it might take me away from “sensory, emotional and aesthetic experience.” There are times when I’ve wondered, Wallace Stevens notwithstanding, if philosophy and poetry weren’t in opposition, as Plato seemed to suppose. Indeed, the threat of blindness was one of the factors in drawing me back to poetry. When the possibility of becoming blind began to sink in, I realized how much poetry was bound up in a valuation of the senses. I’m not merely thinking of poetry that is imagistic or sonically rich. Rather, I’m thinking of how much poetry is drawn out of an enjoyment of the senses. To undervalue it is to undervalue an important source of creativity, and while I may have long neglected this capacity in myself, the threat of blindness awakened in me a fear of losing this capacity, too.

At one point in your letter, you argue that the reason blind-from-birth people don’t recognize blindness as cataclysmic is that they’re not aware of how much of the world they are missing. You include several examples, including most memorably your experience of seeing huge flocks of flamingoes at Lake Nakuru in Kenya. However, your larger point is that, from a “transcendent” perspective, we all suffer the same fate. None of us gives a second thought to what we might be missing out on by not possessing the kind of echolocation that bats have. We all share the common fate of perceiving only the tiniest sliver of all that is, and this troubles us very little, if at all.

Here I want to interject by introducing a distinction between perception and awareness. There is much that we perceive without being conscious of it. For example, we can unconsciously sense people coming up on us from our right or left, and so when they enter our conscious field of vision they are no surprise to us. This is one way that we maneuver within crowds without having to fully concentrate. However, in my case, I have lost peripheral vision in my left eye, and I am constantly startled by people suddenly appearing on my left. Even more disturbing, I sometimes bump into people as I move left because I lack the peripheral vision that would have enabled me to unconsciously sense their presence.

While the partial loss of unconscious perception is unsettling, the failure to be fully aware of what we do see is also a kind of blindness, though certainly not as absolute and profound as the blindness of the blind-from-birth. The point I’m coming around to is that while it may not be cataclysmic to allow ourselves to take little note of the extraordinary visual world we inhabit, it is a waste of the great gift of seeing—or at least it is for me. Because I see the world with a fluidly variable distortion, I can no longer take seeing for granted. I’m constantly reminded, by my difficulty of getting reality to fill out in space and line up as it should, that my vision is unlikely to get much better and will probably worsen in the coming years. I am permanently altered by this condition. Last year, when I regained the ability to see expressions, I became fascinated with human faces in a way that has not left me. I’m afraid sometimes that I might be caught looking a little too intently at someone’s face. Yet, I can’t help myself. What I see on the faces of the people I know is a constant revelation. And perhaps that’s another distinction I should be making: between perception and insight. Seeing enables us to function in the world in particular ways, as Martin Milligan has pointed out, but it also offers us a vision of how we experience ourselves with each other.

I wonder if the title of your book shouldn’t have been On Blindness and Seeing. The profundity of one is engendered by the profundity of the other. Perhaps a better way to think of them is not as disability and ability, but as a gift-exchange in the ways of being human.

Monday, September 7, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 2

Dear Martin Milligan,

In your response to Bryan Magee, you recalled that you lost your vision at a very early age and had no memory of seeing. While your explanation of how you are effectively a born-blind person is only meant to set the background for your larger discussions on the nature of seeing, I want to focus on it as if it were a major point in your letter.

In “To See and Not See,” published in The New Yorker in 1993, Oliver Sacks told the story of Virgil, who became blind during an early childhood illness and, after surgeries forty-five years later, recovered partial vision. After his first surgery on his right eye, Virgil could initially see very little. While some of his impairment was undoubtedly due to the long-term damage to his retinas,—something I believe that Sacks underestimated in his article—much of it was the result of having no visual memory with which to sort out and make sense of the overwhelming flood of unfamiliar sensory input. I have written elsewhere that all seeing is seeing anew—that is, if we’re merely seeing according to habit, our vision is overly determined by what we expect to see. Habitual seeing—seeing from memory—is a kind of blindness because we lack the alertness that enables us to see faces or landscapes or the rooms of our house with freshness. Yet, the paradox is that with no memory of seeing whatsoever, we are also effectively blind. As Sacks explained it, Virgil had “no idea of what he was seeing” after his surgery.

There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur.

Sacks goes on to explain how those of us who are born sighted

can scarcely imagine such confusion. For we, born with a full complement of senses, and correlating these, one with the other, create a sight world from the start, a world of visual objects and concepts and meanings. When we open our eyes in the morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long-forgotten—there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them; he was, as neurologists say, agnosic.

Over time, with a great deal of effort and training, Virgil eventually began to piece together a visual world. However, the absence of a deep visual memory forced him to rely on the long-familiar sense of touch to give him the necessary sensory context for seeing. For example, when he went to the zoo, Virgil had trouble seeing a gorilla as distinctively different than a human being. However, after he touched a full-scale bronze statue of a gorilla, he could suddenly see the distinctive features of a gorilla and describe “the ape’s posture, the way the knuckles touched the ground, the little bandy legs, the great canines, the huge ridge on the head. . . . “ For Sacks, this experience explained why Virgil had been buying “toy soldiers, toy cars, toy animals, miniatures of famous buildings.” He was teaching himself to see by building up, through touch, prior knowledge of the physicality of the objects in his visual world.

All of this is a long way of explaining how our senses do not stand alone from “experience, categorization, memory, [and] reconnection,” and how comparisons of senses as if they were independent of other faculties are bound to be deficient. In your letter, you described your concept of seeing as a sense in which one becomes aware of objects beyond the reach of touch, similar to hearing. You further explained that blind-from-birth people understand visual terms and know how to use them correctly, and so in a Wittgensteinian sense, they have a concept of seeing. Yet, you also argued that while blind-from-birth people know how to use a visual vocabulary, they lack a sense of how these terms relate to inner experiences of seeing. At the end of your letter, you left Bryan Magee this question:

Do you agree that blind people can understand the meaning of visual terms to a major extent, but not wholly, and if so, what would you say about the part of their meaning that blind people can’t share?

I would suggest that part of the meaning of visual terms is the way in which they refer to a capability that is often seamlessly dependent on other capabilities—“experience, categorization, memory, [and] reconnection.” I would also suggest that the meaning of visual terms is partly derived from a concept of their opposites. As blind-from-birth people have a concept of seeing, so sighted-from-birth people have a concept of blindness, a concept that implicitly contributes to defining what visual terms mean. Yet, sighted-from-birth people also lack an inner experience to which some visual terms refer—specifically, the terms of blindness.

In a literal sense, few sighted people know what it’s like to be blind. Virgil, when he became a partially sighted person, still retained a deep understanding of the world of the blind. The seeing-world, for Virgil, proved to be confusing and difficult, and so when his vision began to deteriorate again, he ultimately experienced it as a kind of relief not to see. In fact, Sacks posited that some of Virgil’s intermittent blindness, in the latter stages of his retinas’ deterioration, was the result of his brain willfully turning off sight because it had become too overwhelming. I know from personal experience that one can, in fact, willfully turn off visual input. At the back of my classroom, above a white board, there is a fingerpainting next to a clock. The painting has bright, distinctive colors, and one time while I was staring off into space as my students were taking a test, I noticed that my damaged left eye was projecting the image of the painting onto my right eye’s visual image of the white board. I then somehow realized that, if I concentrated, I could turn off and on at will the left eye’s image of the painting. I could make it there, and then not there. I would not claim this odd gift as somehow affording me insight into blindness. Rather, my point is that sightedness, as a sense, involves a kind of conjuration of mentally enacted images—a conjuration that is mostly transparent to us but which also implicitly contains the possibility of its opposite. We generally experience this opposite as a concept, but it also has, Sacks suggests, a physiological basis. Seeing is, in effect, also a matter of sorting out what we don’t want to see. If our visual field is flooded with inchoate sensory detail, if we lack the ability to selectively focus on and categorize the objects in our visual field, our vision becomes Virgil’s confusing, meaningless blur. Without seeing’s selective blindness, seeing is blind.

In the end, the loss of functioning retinas returned Virgil to his touch-world. Virgil experienced his loss of sight as a kind of release

in the form of a second and now final blindness—blindness he received as a gift. Now, at last, Virgil is allowed to not see, allowed to escape from the glaring, confusing world of sight and space, and to return to this own true being, the touch world that has been his home for almost fifty years.

Like Borges, Virgil saw blindness as a gift, though for different reasons. To return to your question, I wonder how the meanings of visual terms are partly determined by the absence of vision, or the potential absence of vision, and how that absence in itself can be regarded as a gift—which is to say, a present that creates a kind of alternative presence, in the same way that the touch-world is an alternative to a sighted-world. Quoting John Hull, Sacks argued that blindness was not a privation but a different form of being. If that is so, what does it mean to say that “deep blindness” is not merely an absence of an inner experience to which certain words refer, but one of the orders of being human?

Monday, August 31, 2015

On Blindness: Response to Letter 1

Dear Bryan Magee,

I understand that your first letter is meant to kick off a philosophical exchange between you and Martin Milligan on the question of how one’s blindness might affect one’s conceptual framework for knowledge. You don’t intend your letter to sketch out a comprehensive theory of knowledge. Rather, you’re merely laying out some basic assumptions about knowledge acquisition and its relationship to the senses, so as to provide the context for asking how knowledge acquisition might be conceived differently for someone who is blind.

Your assumptions, as I understand them, go as follows. All knowledge is derived from experience. You maintain that this assumption has not only been held by empiricists, but also by Kant and Schopenhauer. You further argue that “the raw material of our experience comes to us through our sensory and nervous systems.” While you wonder if touch or feeling might not be the most important sense, you nonetheless suggest that sight is “one of the primary sources of perception and experience on which human beings generally rely.” For you, this idea raises a number of epistemic questions, but you ultimately settle on two that you want Martin Milligan to address:

First, what in actual experience are the chief ways in which you are made aware of the fact that you lack a sense that others have? Second, what conception do you have of the nature of this missing sense?

I don’t know how Martin Milligan addresses the issues you raised in your first letter, but I can imagine a number of possible responses. He might, for example, bring up the difficulty of, on the one hand, discussing knowledge in the abstract as if there were one unified conception of it and, on the other hand, acknowledging that there are different forms of knowledge. He might challenge the assumption that the different forms of knowledge, derived as they are in different social contexts, have some common properties that allow us to discuss them as equally dependent on sense perception in general and sight in particular. After all, in Letter 1, your only specific example of a form of knowledge is knowledge of a person. However, knowledge of a person is very different than knowledge of particle physics or knowledge of how to operate an automobile safely. He might argue that sightedness is very important for learning how to drive safely, but irrelevant for pursuing knowledge in particle physics. I could speculate on how Martin Milligan might respond to the instance of knowledge of a person, but here I want to interject my own response based on my experience as a visually impaired person.

In 2013, due to a series of retinal detachments, I lost the ability to read the expressions on people’s faces. I experienced this loss as a deprivation, especially when I was teaching a roomful of teenagers and could not gauge their emotional responses to what we were discussing or covering in class. I felt somewhat cut off emotionally from people, even sometimes from my wife. I experienced this loss of vision as an alienation from the fleeting facial expressions that informed me of what people were experiencing in the moment. It was a loss that required that I make extra effort to stay in touch with the people around me. This effort sometimes contributed to the general exhaustion incurred by the difficulty of maneuvering through the world with impaired vision. When, fourteen months later, I underwent surgery on my right eye and regained the ability to read faces, I found the recovery of this capacity to be moving in a way that few things are in life.

Yet, I was also beset by new complications. As I explained in my previous post,

I see the world with what others often find to be bizarre visual distortions. Because I’m unable to coordinate my two fields of vision, my vision is layered. Ghost images from my more damaged left eye float in and out of the field of vision created by my dominant right eye. The ghost images are shrunken due to a condition known as micropsia or Alice in Wonderland syndrome. I also have a flattened sense of space because of a loss of depth perception, and I often struggle to maneuver through the world and coordinate my limbs in complex spatial dimensions. . . .

My response to the two questions you put to Martin Milligan is that visual perception is far more constructed than many fully sighted people realize. I came to realize this soon after I suffered retinal detachments in my left eye in 2013. I had already had a retinal detachment in my right eye, and although it was successfully repaired, scar tissue grew over the retina and caused a “macular pucker.” This caused my right eye to view vertical lines as wavy, and it remained that way as long as my stronger left eye was undamaged and dominated my vision. However, when my left eye was severely damaged by the detachments, my right eye took over, and my brain slowly learned to straighten out vertical lines. Where formerly the masts on sailboats had curved back and forth, I learned to see them as straight lines. My brain figured out how to make sense of sensory data such that the world appeared as I had expected it to appear. In short, seeing isn’t merely a matter of taking in the raw material of sensory data. Rather, what we experience as seeing is the product of raw sensory data shaped by a host of factors, including memory, prior knowledge, expectations, emotional engagement, attentiveness, and so on.

Thus, sense perception, by itself, can’t be the raw material of experience, because there is no such thing as standalone sense perception. Our various capacities for shaping sensory data are socially conditioned, so that by the time we are adults, our knowledge of people is highly structured by various influences, including painful memories, biases, and social conventions. My vision is overtly distorted, but even the most perceptive among us can find their perceptions of other people to be distorted by prejudice and false expectations. How much of what we think we know about other people is trustworthy? When Ben Johnson wrote, “Speak, that I may see thee,” he was suggesting that our eyes might too easily deceive us and that our use of language was better evidence of who we are than how we appear. Who among us hasn’t been misled by how another person appears to us and found that our initial visual impressions were a hindrance to getting to know that person?

My sense is that before we can discuss what the epistemic implications of blindness or even visual distortion are, we need a fuller understanding of the social contexts in which we attain our various forms of knowledge. It is an absurdity to ask, as you have, what “conception of the world we humans as a whole would possess” and what “civilization we would have created” if we had all been born blind. It is not overly literal to say that had we been all born blind we would not exist as human beings and therefore would not have any conception of knowledge. Our various forms of knowledge arise out of social conditions—conditions that depend on innumerable factors, including a high percentage of sighted people. We might also ask how our various knowledge traditions depend on a rich diversity of approaches to attaining knowledge, including the approaches of people with varying perceptual abilities.

In his essay “Blindness,” Jorge Luis Borges says that his blindness in middle age was a gift. For a writer, “everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art.” I note that Borges does not deny that this “gift” was made possible within a social context in which he had the help of a small group of students who supported him in pursuing his studies and interests. With their help, blindness gave him knowledge of literatures that he would have otherwise been deprived of.

It gave me Anglo-Saxon, it gave me some Scandinavian, it gave me a knowledge of Medieval literature I had ignored, it gave me the writing of various books, good or bad, but which justified the moment in which they were written. Moreover, blindness has made me feel surrounded by the kindness of others. People always feel good will toward the blind.

My hope is that Martin Milligan will shed some light on how the epistemic conditions of visual impairment, something we commonly regard as a deprivation of perception, are more socially determined than many of us might realize.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

End-of-Summer Reading: On Blindness

I’m going to skip the run-down of my late-summer lowbrow reading—mostly mystery and spy novels—and say something instead about a philosophy book I haven’t read yet.

In a recent post, I wrote that one of the classes I would like to take at the University of Washington during my “sabbatical” is Sara Goering’s on the philosophy of disability. I’ve had over two years to sort out my own reactions to developing a visual impairment, and yet even now I can hardly believe what has happened to me. On some level, I don’t believe it. When I dream, I’m a sighted person. When I’m awake, I’m mystified, on a daily basis, by what’s happened to my vision. My desire to study the philosophy of disability is partly rooted in my contention with that mystification, with my endless questioning of it. I’m ignorant of much of the intellectual context for contemporary discussions of the philosophy of disability (hence the need for the class). However, in Anita Silvers' article on the philosophy of disability in Philosophy Now, I recently read about a book that seems to raise the kind of epistemic questions I have struggled with as a result of my visual impairment.

In On Blindness, philosophers Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan exchange a series of letters on what is advertised as a discussion about the limits of perception and knowledge. Magee, who is sighted, and Milligan, who is blind, approach epistemic issues with decidedly different perspectives. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of writing my own letters here in response to theirs. I don’t have the training of a professional philosopher, but, drawing on my own experience, I might be able to bring something useful to the discussion.

I am neither a fully sighted nor a fully blind person. Rather, I see the world with what others often find to be bizarre visual distortions. Because I’m unable to coordinate my two fields of vision, my vision is layered. Ghost images from my more damaged left eye float in and out of the field of vision created by my dominant right eye. The ghost images are shrunken due to a condition known as micropsia or Alice in Wonderland syndrome. I also have a flattened sense of space because of a loss of depth perception, and I often struggle to maneuver through the world and coordinate my limbs in complex spatial dimensions. For example, I have chipped many a bowl in the process of removing them from the sink, bringing them around the counter, and placing them in the dishwasher. I recently knocked over a full pot of coffee on the stove because I couldn’t see it in my damaged left peripheral vision as I pivoted in the kitchen. And fumbling with items in my hands and dropping them on the floor is a daily occurrence.

Yet, because I don’t take anything I see for granted, I’ve come to appreciate how one can develop a heightened awareness of visual phenomena that fully sighted people often don’t perceive. In 2013, I lost the ability to read facial expressions, and for an entire school year I struggled to see what was written on my students’ faces. After surgery on my right eye in August 2014, I recovered the ability to detect people’s expressions. Since then, I’ve come to realize how much of what we call sight is a complex construction of sensory data shaped by memory, prior knowledge, imagination, emotional engagement, expectations, biases, and so on. In short, I hope that my experience of visual destruction and reconstruction will enable me to bring insight to the exchange between Magee and Milligan.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Something seemed to end the summer with this morning’s rain, a soaking rain, the first in memory for months. It’s right on time. Next week the meetings start, and the business of school will begin to crowd out, for better or worse, the anxieties of personal life, that mythical thing we, as children, could hardly believe our teachers possessed.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Outside of Buckley, Washington

Yesterday, as J. and I drove away from Mt. Rainier, obscured by smoke from wild fires, two children stood in their yard, photographing with their phones the orange setting sun.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


As I discussed in a previous post, I’m planning to take a “sabbatical” after this upcoming school year. If I go through with my plan, I will bring this blog to a close. With that in mind, I’ve gone back to the beginning of my posts and begun correcting grammar, revising sentences here and there, and deleting some of the weaker pieces. When I started this process, there were over five hundred posts. I’m envisioning a thinner collection when I’ve finally finished scrubbing it.

Contrary to Yeats’ famous lines,—

‘ . . . Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’

—this is more pleasant work than scrubbing the kitchen floor. Of course, little if any here rises to the level of art, and so not only might bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen regard me as an idler, but also many writers and poets. However, as idle pursuits go, this typing must be counted as among the least corrosive. As Montaigne wrote,

I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

The same might be said of myself as the frivolous reader of my own work, except that I’m finding it personally fruitful to trudge my way through what amounts to an evolving record of my thoughts over the last eight years. Perhaps I will have more to say about this record when I’ve finished with it, but for now I’m struck by how seriously, in the first couple years, I considered questions of language, teaching, and reading. The more recent pieces in this blog are much different than those of the first two years, mainly because of all that I've experienced in those intervening years: the disillusionment I endured and survived as a teacher, my slow coming to terms with a catastrophic loss of vision, our relocation to a pleasant town north of the city, and now the slow emptying out of my sister’s life due to brain cancer.

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Likewise, these pieces, modest as they are, will undoubtedly undergo their changes as I wrap up one final year in my current assignment as a teacher. I await, with curiosity and caution, what comes next.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


The sprinklers give the illusion that it rained last night, the ground dark, the azaleas and rosemary tipped in dew. It’s a little like those dreams where you’ve suddenly recovered a foreign language, or you can run on youthful legs, or you see again with perfect clarity. The drought is over, and you can breathe the moist air in the ease that all will be cool and green in the garden of illusions.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Salt Spring Island, Canada

That dog barking across
Welbury bay: he has great
silences to fill.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

On the Prospects of Taking a “Sabbatical”

I’m guessing that I have about a five-year window until I will need to have partial corneal transplants. In addition to retinal disease, I have early symptoms of Fuchs dystrophy, a hereditary corneal disease that both my sister and my father have. Over the course of the coming years, my night vision will slowly worsen, and gradually my day vision will become “fogged up,” to the point that reading will become very difficult and transplants will become necessary.

It takes months for vision to improve after corneal transplants, and sometimes the process is drawn out because the first transplant might not “take.” This happened to my sister, and one of the reasons we didn’t react to my sister’s memory loss earlier was that we figured it had something to do with the pain killers she was taking after two successive corneal surgeries. Now her loss of vision seems almost trivial in comparison to what the glioblastoma is doing to her mind.

My every third thought is with my sister. With the other two I’ve directed increasing attention to that roughly five-year window of functional vision I expect to have before I lose as much as six months to a year of my working life to recovery from surgery. By then, I will be about sixty-one, and while I won’t be the first teacher in history to take time off for medical leave, I think it would be wise to do some things that are important to me sooner rather than later, especially if my corneas turn out to deteriorate more quickly than I’d expected.

Of course, most of the things important to me I’m already doing, and I will to continue doing them. Of the things I have control over, my job is the one I've struggled the most with. A little less than a year ago I thought that I might give up teaching. Then I changed my mind. I’ve now arrived at what seems to me the sensible view that it would healthy to take a one-year leave of absence to attend some classes at the University of Washington. In our school district, we no longer have sabbaticals, which tells us something about how much district administrators are concerned with retaining teachers with academic interests. In any case, this upcoming school year will be my ninth straight year of teaching, and I think I’m due for a sabbatical, even if the cost of it will come out of my own pocket and even if it means, per our union contract, that I will likely come back to a teaching position in a different school.

And what classes would I like to take at the University of Washington? The philosophy department offers a number of classes I’m interested in, particularly Sara Goering’s on the philosophy of disability. Beyond that, I might like to take some classes in the English department. After all, when I come back to teaching after my “sabbatical,” I don’t have to return as a philosophy and history teacher. I’m a qualified English teacher, and the main reason I left that department in 2010 was because of conflict with a supervisor. By the 2017-2018 school year, that supervisor may have retired, and even if she hasn’t, I’ll still have the option of applying for English positions at other schools. The point is that I should take whatever classes seem most intellectually stimulating to me, and I shouldn’t worry about whether they fit with a teaching assignment that is subject to change.

As with all of us, I’m a creature of habit, but with my visual impairment, I’ve become even more so. However, I’m overdue for a change in my working life. I wish I had made this decision last winter, so that I would be now looking forward to taking classes in the fall, but last winter I didn’t have a plan. Now I do.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Time Being What It Is

Every Thursday morning at nine, a crew comes to the funeral home to leaf-blow the parking lot clean. They trim the bushes, sitting straight-backed and flat-topped in their beds. They prune the spent orange roses by the back entrance and rake away the detritus from the ground. They do this work so that when the grievers arrive they will feel all is in order, although nothing will be in order, their world holed out and akilter, even the pavement under their feet unleveled.

When the crew is done, in less than twenty minutes, they pack their tools away in the truck and drive off to the next job.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Among the Barbarians

In this post from 2007, I discussed Anthony Hecht’s view that in Robert Frost’s “Woodpile” the poem's “fresh tasks, handiwork and forgotten labor represent Frost's evasions of his deeper anxiety that his work as a poet will go unrecognized within his lifetime and will have to be discovered afterward, as the woodpiles are discovered by the speaker in the poem.”

Recently an old friend reminded me of Horace’s twentieth ode, in Book 2, in which the poet ironically brags about the future fame his poetry will bring. If Horace’s ode hides “evasions of a deeper anxiety,” one is hard-pressed to find them. Rather, Horace plays on the convention of an artist achieving immortality through his art. Here is my loose, unpolished translation:

Not on the usual scraggly wings
will I be carried away through the thin air,
and not on earth will this poet remain
long—I’ll surpass the envious and leave

this city behind. I, born
of poor parents, I, so familiar
to you, dear Maecenas—I will not perish
nor will I be trapped by the waves of the Styx.

Even now rough patches of skin
are forming on my shins—I’m changing
into a swan, light feathers
sprouting on my arms and shoulders.

Already more renowned than Icarus, son of Daedalus,
this melodious bird will visit the groaning shores
of Bosphorus, and the Gaetulian Syrtes
and the plains of the Hyperboreans.

The Colchians, who pretend not to fear
the Marsian fighters, and the Dacians and faraway Geloni
will know me; the ignorant Spaniards and Rhone-drinking Gauls
will become learned through my verses.

Forget the dirges over my non-existent death
and the unseemly grieving and lamenting;
rein in the wailing and don’t bother
with the vacuous honors of a funeral.

The poem is a bit of a put-on, Horace outdoing Icarus by sprouting real feathers and wings, and flying successfully to the faraway lands of the known world. Perhaps Horace’s most outrageous boast is that he’ll achieve fame among the barbarians, who will cease to be barbarians through the study of his poetry. So assured is his immortality that not only is a funeral unnecessary, but also grief itself. In the last line, the honors of the tomb are described as supervacuous. Death is so beyond empty that it isn’t even death. To mourn the loss of someone still among us is thus unseemly. Like Maecenas, we can still enjoy Horace, familiar as wine and talk between old friends, talk that even among us barbarians might momentarily rise above the city and leave ordinary envies behind.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer Rain

Last night’s soft summer rain has gentled the air with the smell of wet trees and asphalt. Grey clouds, grey light—it could be some scene from mid-winter, except for the orange roses on the bush by the back entrance of the funeral home. Who are they for? The dead are too discreet to make much fuss over a little color on an otherwise drab Saturday morning. This is sleeping weather, though the ferry's foghorn and the blasts from an Amtrak train seem determined to wake us on our day off.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Yesterday, as I was walking through road construction on my way to Home Depot, a young man in hardhat crossed in front of me. In his hand was a bent metal bar.

“Re-barrrr,” I sang lightly to myself.

“Oh, are you a pirate, too?” he said, turning around.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Leaf Fossil

We were hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Norse Peak Wilderness, and it had begun to sprinkle. As we took shelter under a scrubby alpine fir, she idly picked up a rock and dropped it. It hit an exposed boulder and broke open into four pieces. Two of the fragments fit together to form the imprint of a leaf.

Now it sits on top of a low bookshelf with the other rocks she’s gathered from our various hikes over the last twenty-five years. The leaf fossil is the only one whose origin I remember. It was early on in our marriage, and it tells a kind of story, one I recall her passing on to her father over the telephone.

He was the kind of father who gathered up and embellished the stories of his children. His listening and retelling made him part of the stories, as he’s part of that rock, a mere thing imbued with something beyond itself, something visible to the smallest of audiences.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

So Much for Summer Reading Plans

In a previous post, I qualified my summer reading plans with the caveat that summer is really a time for exploring whatever books come our way. My summer reading list was tentative, at best, and while I’ve stuck to some books I’d thought of taking up, I’ve put off other reading projects until I’m more ready for them.

For example, I reread Stanley Kunitz’s collection Passing Through: The Later Poems, which contains all of his poems that I really care about. (See my piece on Kunitz’s “Robin Redbreast” here.) Some poets, despite the prowess of their youth, really benefit from an achieved simplicity in old age. Kunitz is one of those poets, as is Wallace Stevens, another poet I’ve been rereading this summer. A third late-career poet I’ve been reading this summer is Ted Kooser. I have not read Kooser comprehensively, as I have Kunitz and Stevens, but so far, based on his work in Out of That Moment: Twenty-one Years of Valentines and Splitting an Order, I would say that I prefer to his poetry the delightful prose pieces in The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book. His prose pieces, organized by month, are presented as the raw material of a poet’s notebook, as in, say, Theodore Roethke’s Straw for the Fire. However, Kooser is more shrewd than that, and his prose pieces aren’t just unorganized, off-the-cuff scraps and fragments; rather, they are crafted vignettes of people, places and objects of daily life. In other words, they represent the art of the ordinary, and Kooser is about as good at this form as any contemporary writer I’m aware of. For that reason, I’ve reread The Wheeling Year several times in last few months, and I’m about to take it up again.

In my summer list, I mentioned Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I reread and found less than satisfying. These days I no longer seem to be able to stomach all that sadistic violence that human beings do to the body. It seems to me that ordinary living, in the end, does its own terrible violence to the body, and I simply have no more room in my imaginative life for the kind that human beings deliberately inflict on one another. Much more in tune with my current moods was Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, a delicate, elliptical and sad novel told from the viewpoint of a Japanese woman from Nagasaki now living in England. Years ago I read Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and An Artist of the Floating World, and I was glad to return to the intelligently crafted work of this novelist in the form of his lovely and disturbing first novel.

One of the Big Books that figured in my preliminary summer reading list was Marx’s Capital, the first chapters of which I slogged through and, for the time being, have set aside. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate this summer, and large projects may simply be beyond my reach. Instead, I reread Montaigne’s “Of experience,” which I referred to here, and I’m slowly working my way through Mercedes K. Schneider’s Common Core Dilemma, a good book for reading while I’m working out my angst on the elliptical machine at our local gym.

One last book I’d like to mention is James Elkins’ Pictures & Tears, which is, to put it a bit too simplistically, a long meditation on the phenomenon of people crying in front of paintings. I’m rereading this book because of Elkins’ contrast between the way artworks are experienced by naïve art viewers and the way they’re experienced by knowledgeable art historians, who apparently don’t weep in front of paintings they’ve studied in depth. Now that the results are in for my IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students, who, on the whole, did magnificently, I’m thinking about how I can improve the course. My biggest weakness as an instructor was in how I taught the TOK presentation, and this year I want to give a new TOK presentation demo on the question of whether the value of art is found more in its role as a collective cultural endeavor or in its appeal to the individual. This formulation may seem a rather simplistic starting point for a TOK discussion, but it’s a question that my students will understand and which I can use to suggest how they might go about their own presentations. In any case, I find Elkins to be a compelling writer, and Pictures & Tears will make for good summer reading, which, I’m concluding once again, ought to be both exploratory and enjoyable.

Friday, July 17, 2015

“Green Wood”

Here is one more of Pavese’s “prison” poems.

Green Wood

(for Massimo)

The halted man has hills in front of him in the dark.
As long as these hills are earth,
the villagers must hoe them. He stares at them and doesn't see,
like a man who shuts his eyes in prison wide awake.
The halted man—who's been to prison—resumes work
tomorrow with a few comrades. Tonight he's alone.

To him, the hills smell of rain, a remote odor
that sometimes arrived in prison on the wind.
Sometimes it rained in the city, opening wide
the breath and blood in a vacant street.
The prison seized the rain, in prison
life didn't finish, sometimes the sun filtered in:
his comrades waited, and the future waited.

Now he's alone. The incredible smell of earth
seems to him risen from his own body, and remote memories
—he knows the earth—compel him to the earth,
to the real earth. It's no use to think
of the villagers beating their hoes against the earth
like an enemy and hating each other to death
like enemies. The villagers still have
a joy: that piece of uprooted earth.
What do others matter? Tomorrow in the sun
the hills will be spread out, each one his own.

His comrades don't live in the hills,
they were born in the city where instead of grass
there are rails. Sometimes he forgets.
But the odor of earth arriving in the city
no longer smells of villagers. It's a long caress
that makes him close his eyes and think of his comrades
in prison, in the long prison of waiting.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

“Poggio Reale Prison”

Pavese wrote the first draft of this poem in a Torinese prison. He memorized it and later sent the draft to his sister in a letter. The second draft he wrote during his confinement in southern Italy. The title actually refers to the prison in Naples where Pavese was probably held briefly on his journey to the confinement. The critical opinion seems to be that this poem is a composite of the prisons of Torino and Naples.

Poggio Reale Prison

A small window open to the tranquil sky
calms the heart; someone is dead, content.
Outside are trees and clouds, the earth
and even the sky. Up there arrives the murmur,
the clamor of all life.

The empty window
doesn't reveal that, under the trees, there are hills
and that a river snakes faraway, uncovered.
The water's clear like the breath of the wind,
but no one heeds it.

A cloud appears,
solid and white, hanging in the square of the sky.
It glimpses the amazed houses and hills, each thing
shining in air; it sees lost birds
gliding in the air. Peaceful travelers
go along that river and no one observes
the little cloud.

Now it's empty, that blue
in the small window: the cry of a bird
hangs there, breaking the drone. That cloud
perhaps touches the trees or descends into the river.
The man stretched out in the field should smell it
in the breath of grass. But he doesn't change his gaze,
only the grass moves. He must be dead.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Pavese had had his own experiences with prison by the time he wrote this “L’uomo solo” poem in Calabria.


The man alone, the man who has been to prison
returns to prison each time he bites into a piece of bread.
In prison he dreamt of hares fleeing
across the winter fields. In winter fog,
the man lives in the walled streets, drinking
cold water and biting into a piece of bread.

You believe that afterwards life comes back,
that the breath relaxes, winter returns
with the smell of wine in the warm tavern,
with the good fire, the booths, the dinners. You believe,
while you're inside you believe. Then one night you step outside:
the hares have all been trapped, and others are happily
eating them hot. You can only watch through the window.

The man alone is freezing and struggles in
for a drink. He contemplates his wine,
its smoky color, its heavy taste.
He bites into a piece of bread. In prison,
it tasted of hares, but now it tastes of nothing,
not even bread. And the wine tastes only of fog.

The man alone thinks of those fields, content to know
they have been plowed. In an empty room,
he softly tries a song. He sees the tufts
of bare branches that in August
were green along the embankment. He whistles to his dog.
The hare appears, and they're no longer cold.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


“Paternity,” which appears before “Morning Star” in Lavorare stanca, is another of Pavese’s “L’uomo solo” poems written during his political exile in Calabria.


The man alone facing the useless sea,
waiting for evening, waiting for morning.
The children play there, but the man wants
to have his own child, to watch him play.
Great clouds make a palace above the water,
each day collapsing and rising again, coloring
the faces of the children. Always there's the sea.

Morning strikes. The sunlight slips
across the damp beach, clinging to nets and stones.
The man steps into the hazy sun and walks
along the sea. He does not watch the wet
restless foam drifting across the shore.
At this hour the children still sleep
in the warmth of their beds, as a woman
still sleeps in hers, a woman who would make love
were she not alone. Slowly the man strips
naked as the woman and slips into the sea.

At night the sea vanishes into a great
emptiness under the stars. The children
in their glowing houses are falling asleep,
and someone is weeping. The man, tired of waiting,
raises his eyes to the stars, which hear nothing.
There is a woman at this hour who undresses a baby
and puts him to sleep. There is a woman in bed
who embraces a man. From a dark window
drifts a hoarse panting, and no one listens
but the man, who knows all the tedium of the sea.

Monday, July 13, 2015

“Morning Star”

As I wrote here and here, Cesare Pavese had a kind of mania for solitude. The last poem in Lavorare stanca, “Morning Star” refers to the “man alone” (“L’uomo solo”), a repeated figure in the book. Pavese wrote this poem during his internal political exile (called “il confino”) in southern Italy. The title, "Lo steddazzu," means "morning star" in the Calabrian dialect. Thus, Pavese deliberately placed the poem in Calabria, the region in which he was confined.

Morning Star

The man alone wakes to a sea still dark,
stars still revolving. A warm breeze
lifts from the shore, from the bed of the sea,
and sweetens the breath. This is the hour when no one
can do anything. Even the pipe between his teeth
hangs spent. At night there is a low rippling.
The man alone has already lit branches into a great fire
and watches it redden the earth. The sea
will soon be like the fire, blazing.

There is nothing more bitter than the dawn of a day
on which nothing will happen. There is nothing more bitter
than uselessness. A greenish star hangs
tired in the sky, surprised by dawn.
It sees the still dark waters, the thicket of fire
where, to do something, the man warms himself.
It sees, and drops off among the foggy mountains,
the bed of snow. The sluggishness of the hour
is merciless to one who waits for nothing.

Is it worth it, the sun rising from the sea,
the long day beginning? Tomorrow will bring back
the tepid dawn with its diaphanous light and it will be
as yesterday and nothing will ever happen.
The man alone wants so much to sleep.
When the last star goes out in the sky,
the man slowly prepares his pipe and lights it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Afternoon Nap

I’d been dreaming I was at the IGA, talking to a therapist about how much I loved teaching. I stretched my arms wide, and tears came to my eyes. Through an open window I could hear someone playing the oboe. I couldn’t tell if she was any good—it was too far away, and I’m no judge of musicians. But the music made me smile. I opened my eyes. The sky had cleared, and sunlight lit up one corner of the living room. The book I’d been reading, A Pale View of Hills, was open, face down, on my stomach. The oboist had stopped playing. A gust of wind chilled the room. Before I fell asleep, I’d been worrying about my sister dying, my parents arguing. I couldn’t catch the thread of my thoughts. In the distance, the drift of traffic sounded like ocean waves, or a rumbling storm.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stanley Kunitz’s “Robin Readbreast”

It’s a truism in poetry that a startling ending must not be too startling. For the poem to achieve a sense of wholeness and completeness there must be preparation for even the most arresting last lines. The last lines of Stanley Kunitz’s “Robin Redbreast,” recounting how the poet, when he held up a robin to release it into the air, suddenly saw “the cold flash of the blue” through the hole in its head, is certainly arresting, but in many ways we are artfully prepared throughout the poem for this terrifying final image.

From the first lines of the poem, the poet describes the bird with the language of emptiness and separation, the double-character of death. It has “all the color/washed from him,” and already it is like a corpse, a body voided of life, “friendless and stiff and cold.” It has been out in the rain “since Eden went wrong,” which is to say, since human beings were forced to abandon it for their transgression. The hole in the bird’s head is also a mark of transgression, a brand and a desecration committed by the hunter, one of the roles consigned to human beings after their exile from Eden. The poet himself is experiencing a kind of separation, living in a room “with an empty page,” the house “marked” For Sale, devoid of people and sound.

The poet is compelled to leave his empty page when he hears the bird tormented by squawking jays. When he picks up the bird, he feels its “ounce of heart” pounding in his palm. Yet, even as he holds the bird in his hands, he sees its gaping beak is “dumb.” The “p’s” and “d’s” of “pounding in my palm” are echoed in the phrase “dumb beak gaping,” thus tying together, at a sonic level, the fragility of life and the dumbness of death. This duality of the bird’s condition is reinforced by the exclamations in the following line, where the death of a poor “foolish life” is anticipated by it also being called a poor “thing.” The bird is “without sense,” “running in desperate circles,” symptoms that presage and are explained by the tunneled-out wits we witness, along with the poet, near the end of the poem. It is “without sense” in two senses: its dying is absurdly meaningless and its death will render the bird senseless. The poet says that the bird needs his “lucky help,” an irony that becomes apparent as we learn, along with the disillusioned poet, that the robin is beyond both help and luck.

The poet’s effort to return the bird to the innocence of its element is as futile as returning to Eden. As the grotesqueness of the robin’s wound dawns on the poet, the pounding in his palm turns to fear clutching his hand. The empty “h’s” of “hole in his head” give way to the hard “c’s” of “cut-whistle clean” and the heavy “d’s” of “old dried wound.” The hard irreversible reality between the bird’s eyes is now in the eyes of the poet, who sees how the hunter’s marking of the bird “had tunneled out its wits.” Like a hunter himself, the poet has “caught” the sight of the blue through the bird’s head. It comes in a flash, quick and cold like death, and the sky, merciless and unmoving, cannot be appeased, any more than the bird in its fatal fall or the poet in his terrible perception.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


A thin summer fog clings to the water, and the ferry lets its long mournful note flood the air as it edges away from the dock and disappears into the all-gathering grey of the Sound.