I am reading the most extraordinary book: Touching the Rock, by John Hull. Hull went completely blind in his 40’s, after having various difficulties with his sight from childhood. He’s written a narrative about the early stages of entering into deep blindness, covering a three year period after his sight was completely gone. The narrative is personal — we are privy to conversations between Hull and his young son Thomas about Daddy’s inability to see — revealing of blindness in ways I never would have imagined, and completely engaging.
Here’s one of those curious thoughts that never occurred to me: when you are sighted, you can locate yourself in space simply by turning your head this way and that and looking. When you are blind, the world is invisible to you — and you have no reference points with which to pinpoint where you are — until something makes a noise.
The late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote the Introduction. Interesting to Sacks is the apparent reality that the blind person not only loses sight, but visual memory as well. Not only was Hull unable to see anything in his current world, he gradually lost the memory of what the world had looked like when he could see it. That, in this excerpt from the book, included his own face:
“When I was about seventeen I lost the sight of my left eye. I can remember gazing at my left shoulder and thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’ll see you without looking in a mirror!” To lose the shoulder is one thing, but to lose one’s own face poses a new problem. I find that I am trying to recall old photographs of myself, just to remember what I look like. I discover with a shock that I cannot remember. Must I become a blank on the wall of my own gallery?
To what extent is loss of the image of the face connected with loss of the image of the self? Is this one of the reasons why I often feel I am a mere spirit, a ghost, a memory? Other people have become disembodied voices, speaking out of nowhere, going into nowhere. Am I not like this too, now that I have lost my body?”
Can you imagine holding on to a sense of self when you can’t remember what you look like? I find the thought astonishing.
Hull was a professor of religious studies, a husband, the father of five children only one of whom he ever saw — he led an active and interesting life in a world he couldn’t see or really remember. He is a remarkably courageous writer.
This is a book you may want to read in print form, so that you can easily go back and reflect on the more evocative and moving passages. I highly recommend it. Rarely does a book make me stop, stock-still, and say to myself, “I never thought of that.” This book does it every few pages. If you are a reader, put this lovely meditation next on your list.