kestrell: (Default)
[personal profile] kestrell
Some forms of fiction seem particularly prone to inscribing meaning upon the physical body;

in her nonfiction work _Rhetorics of Fantasy_ (2008), Farah Mendlesohn suggested that "fantasy is thus often the last resting place of physiognomy..."

In _The Bell at Sealey Head_ by Patricia A. McKillip (Ace, 2008)
The father of the male protagonist is blind and is represented as completely powerless, never even leaveing his room despite having lived in the same house his entire life. One doesn't have to be a Freudian to get the link between blindness and impotence, just like the aged Isaac in the Bible. Equating the father with age and powerlessness means that the story can now focus on the male son as being that much more kind, gentle, and responsible for everyone in the household.

However, blindness can also be used to indicate morality. Early in McKillips's novel, we become aware that there is an evil sorcerer lurking about, and when the only character who is described as being physically non-normative turns out to be the villain, it isn't really a big surprise, especially to anyone familiar with medieval iconography. In medieval paintings, Satan was represented as having one eye smaller than the other in order to suggest blindness, as in he was blind to the knowledge of virtue and goodness.

However, if blindness can be used as a sign of moral weakness, it can also be used to indicate moral virtue, as in _The Storyteller's Daughter_ by Cameron Dokey (Pulse, 2002).
Here we have Scheherazade recast as a blind storyteller, but ultimately her virtue proves to be a magic cure for blindness.

The reason blindness works so well to signify both moral weakness and moral virtue is that blindness can be used as a metaphor for almost anything.
In "The Country of the Blind" by H. G. Wells (orig. pub. in The Strand, 1904, revised 1939)), a sighted male adventurer discovers an isolated community of blind people. He believes his sight will make him superior and allow him to rule the community, but instead he finds that he is considered stupid and even insane for talking about things which are outside the experience of the blind culture. Wells wrote this story as an allegory of how society is blind to people of genius (like himself?), and persists in not seeing the truth or recognizing new ideas.

And yet as far as metaphorical blind people are concerned, the most outstanding example is _Blindness_ by Jose Saramago, (which won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature)

I need to say that as a blind person I found this book extremely depressing to read and that I had to bribe myself to get through it by promising that for every three chapters I read I could read a chapter of the new Holly Black book. I find it extremely ironic that this book has as its theme how human beings ignore the pain and suffering of others, and the way it develops this theme is by completely pathologizing blind people.

Short synopsis: the blind apocalypse occurs in a Portuguese city which incarcerates the newly-blind victims in a former insane asylum as first the asylum and then the entire city becomes a festering barbaric pit of chaos and despair.

This story more than any other I mention fails to be about blindness.

Instead, it possesses what I think of as the "Miracle Worker" trope--the story is not about the blind people, it is all about the nobility, morality, courage, wonderfulness of the sighted person who helps the poor helpless blind people, and everything which occurs in the story must serve that primary purpose.

The second reason this book is not about blindness is because it is about metaphorical blindness. It throws in just about every negative blindness metaphor (many of these are Biblical): blindness is unclean, blindness is impotence, blindness is insanity, blindness is death. Any statement it makes about real blindness is wrong. Blind people so did not need this novel.

However, this novel does share a characteristic with many other stories which have blind characters: their blindness is never explained. I find this to be one of the most interesting ways in which blind characters in fiction fail: they are blind because it serves the story and that is all one need know about them.

So, I've critiqued a lot of canon literary favorites; I should mention at this point that there are stories which I love for their blind characters.

"The Green Hills of Earth" because Rhysling really is a hero who actively saves a lot of people.
as a horror fan, I'm fascinated by the character of Zampanò, the blind character who supposedly wrote the main manuscript of _House of Leaves_ (2000), particularly as his blindness pushes the entire story toward the uncanny.
I know she's a magical blind person but I don't care: I love the character of the blind swordswoman Shrike in _Blind Shrike_ (2005), later retitled _Butcher Bird_ by Richard Kadrey--this is a kickass character (plus having a white cane that transforms into a sword...I want one of those).
[Note: During the talk an audience member asked about the tradition of the blind swordsman in Japanese films and anime, and these characters which include Zatoichi come from a very old tradition in Chinese/Japanese/Korean stories, going back to at least _The Romance of the Three Kingdoms_ by Luo Guanzhong circa 1300-1400. (try Wikipedia for links to online texts)]
Ellen Kushner's _The Privilege of the Sword_ (2006), which has a blind swordsman character, based upon a real blind swordsman.
_The Memory of Whiteness_ (1985) and "The Blind Geometer" (1986) by Kim Stanley Robinson, which both contain blind scientists--the ability to perceive the world through its scientific principles fascinates me, and I for one would like to read about more of these blind scientist characters.
"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin (first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Nov. 1987), which has a young girl who loses an eye meeting Coyote, who has a story or two about the time she lost both of her eyes...
"Captive Girl" by Jennifer Pelland from _Unwanted Bodies_ (2008), in which a blind guardian of Earth must adjust to her changing identity when she decides to attempt to initiate a romantic relationship.
_Four Freedoms_ (2009) by John Crowley features not a blind character but a character with a completely different disability, but the theme of the novel is really about how, as human beings, much of our effort and imagination is focused upon transcending all sorts of limitations. Really an amazing novel which I would recommend to everyone.

It is from John Crowley that I discovered a very useful word: ekfrasis ( http://bostonreview.net/BR32.3/crowley.html
), which describes texts which are concerned with visual art. I have a great preference for novels by such authors as John Crowley and Liz Hand, who both have backgrounds in the visual arts and whose works include a lot of visual description.

However, since Readercon is ultimately about literature and the experience of being a reader, I would like to suggest that all literature is a sort of ekfrasis. To use an example, how many of us, while reading _The Lord of the Rings_ were quite certain that we knew exactly what Gandalf looked like? It's a problem when making films that the actors and action in the story must be made to resemble the fictional counterparts, but for readers, all readers whether sighted or blind, it is a gift that we have this thing we call imagination which allows us to see, within our mind's eye, every detail of a character and a story, and if language can become this monster of metaphor which runs amok through a text, it can also be a tool by which writers can give shape to infinite possibilities:

block quote start
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name
block quote end

For many of us, the ability of language to give form to the infinite shapes of imagination describes not only why we write but why we read in the first place.

Date: 2010-07-11 11:15 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: The Wire's Kima in a baseball cap squints with a serious grin (Kima squints meaningfully)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Awesome! There are many gems, in particular that Farah Mendelssohn quote "fantasy is thus often the last resting place of physiognomy..."

Any intriguing questions? Knowing you, I bet you had a plan on how to handle questions you didn't want to ask: what was it? Did you need to use it? Did making this presentation end up turning you into a self-narrating zoo exhibit for the rest of the con?

Date: 2010-07-11 11:32 pm (UTC)
sharpest_asp: Nate Ford sitting on a bench, Sophie Devereaux resting against his lap (Default)
From: [personal profile] sharpest_asp
Very well written. And I think you caught my heart in flutters for mentioning Rhysling.

Date: 2010-07-12 12:40 am (UTC)
sasha_feather: Retro-style poster of skier on pluto.   (Default)
From: [personal profile] sasha_feather
This is wonderful, thank you.

Date: 2010-07-12 03:06 am (UTC)
sqbr: (up)
From: [personal profile] sqbr
This was a really interesting set of essays, thanks for putting it online. As someone with a very different disability I know what it's like in broad terms to be stereotyped/pigeonholed in fiction but there's a lot of specific things I hadn't thought of.

Date: 2010-07-12 04:21 am (UTC)
rhivolution: David Tennant does the Thinker (lost in a good thought: DW/DT)
From: [personal profile] rhivolution
This talk/essay set was fascinating. Thank you for writing and giving it.

Also, off-topic, a second thank you for mentioning 'The Persistence of Vision'. I had been thinking about it in a different context (analyzing the 60s/70s hippie guy in sci-fi) and couldn't recall the title to track it down.

Date: 2010-07-12 05:31 am (UTC)
leecetheartist: A lime green dragon head, with twin horns, and red trim. Very gentle looking, with a couple spirals of smoke from nose. (Default)
From: [personal profile] leecetheartist
I would be very interested in hearing what you have to say about The Day of the Triffids. Particularly about the brief encounter the protagonist has with the fellow who was blind before the meteor shower.

Thank you for sharing your talk with us, that was very interesting.

Date: 2010-07-12 02:19 pm (UTC)
leecetheartist: A lime green dragon head, with twin horns, and red trim. Very gentle looking, with a couple spirals of smoke from nose. (Default)
From: [personal profile] leecetheartist
I hope you can give it another try. I always wondered about the character who the protagonist met in the early chapters, and what he went on to do. He sounded like he'd go places. A nice touch I thought.

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