Leaving Me My Eyes: On Andrew Leland’s “The Country of the Blind”
By Deanna K. KreiselFebruary 3, 2024
The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight by Andrew Leland
None of my many eye doctors are entirely sure what is causing my current vision problems. The retina guys think it’s optic nerve damage from glaucoma, while the glaucoma dudes pin the blame on an epiretinal membrane (a sort of scar tissue causing my left retina to pucker). Like the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant, each specialist is only able to vouch for the part of the eyeball that he studies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one seems willing to pin responsibility for my vision loss on his own little ocular fiefdom.
These difficulties in reaching a diagnosis stem from the fact that I am severely myopic. My nearsightedness is so extreme—currently clocking in at about -12.00 diopters—that optometrists and opticians cluck in surprise when they first see my prescription, occasionally calling their colleagues over to “get a load of this.” The severe elongation of my eyeball complicates things further: my optic nerves attach to my eyes at a 45-degree angle (instead of hitting the back of the eyeballs straight and true), so they are harder to examine for deterioration. The blind spots on my visual field tests could be due either to nerve damage or to my puckered retina. Diagnosis aside, one thing is for certain: these recent problems have sent my lifelong anxiety that I am going blind into overdrive.
Andrew Leland addresses this prevalent fear of blindness among sighted people in his heart-wrenching new memoir The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight (2023), which details the writer’s progressive loss of vision from retinitis pigmentosa. According to Leland, “[t]here are a few common souvenirs that sighted tourists tend to take away from day trips to the country of the blind. The primary one is pity masquerading as empathy: ‘How difficult their lives are,’ one might conclude, while more quietly affirming, Thank god for my eyesight.” Leland occupies an unusual position: not only is he losing his sight as an adult, but he’s also losing it gradually. He perceives the world with a “paradoxical double vision: through sighted eyes, and through blind ones,” and is thus particularly attuned to the challenges, slights, and condescension to which blind people are frequently subject.
I’m not sure where to put my own fear of going blind. On the one hand, I worry that expressing such a fear is ableist or insensitive. On the other, I don’t think there is anything wrong with admitting to oneself, privately, that one prefers to be able to see. Still, there is a paradox I feel about my fear of vision loss, which Leland articulates: “How can a thing that causes so much alienation also be a source of growth and joy? How can something that estranges us from so much of the world also bring us closer to it?”
My motivations for reading The Country of the Blind appear very similar to Leland’s in writing it: curiosity, terror, and a desire for comfort. Leland recalls encountering the autobiography of theologian John Hull, who painstakingly recorded his loss of sight in middle age. Hull’s 1990 memoir Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, Leland writes, is “easily the scariest book I’ve read. […] More than once, I read [it] just before bed, and woke up an hour later in the midst of a full-blown panic attack, unable to breathe or see in the darkness of the bedroom.”
If Leland can honestly acknowledge his own fears around blindness, then someone like me, who also has legitimate causes for concern about her vision, probably shouldn’t waste too much time worrying that she’s not being woke enough. As Mark Paterson notes, sighted people often characterize vision loss as “the worst disaster that can befall a human being.” He quotes the blind philosopher Martin Milligan, who excoriates this kind of lament: “[T]he message seems to be that ours is a ‘darkness’ from which we can never come in.” At the same time, our collective sense of the importance of vision is so deeply entrenched that it is understandable why sighted folks have difficulty imagining life without it. “Blindness is a radically distinct way of being in the world,” writes Leland. “Humans are so fundamentally visual in their understanding and experience that blindness requires its own domain.”
To contemplate visual impairment is to confront, quite dramatically, the gaps and holes in our social safety net. Many things—other kinds of disability, unemployment, or lack of health insurance, for example—force similar confrontations. Yet to lose one’s sight as an adult is uniquely frightening. It is to confront the fear of living in a state of at least partial dependency for the rest of one’s life. This is, of course, a sighted person’s fantasy of what becoming blind is like; many blind people (including those who have lost their sight as adults) live completely independent lives. But the fear itself is telling. It reflects a deep truth about the human condition: that we are all codependent and vulnerable, and, if we live long enough, will almost certainly end our days relying on others.
Leland’s memoir was born of his decision to join the domain of the blind with thoughtful deliberation—with his metaphorical eyes open, as it were. “The blinder I get,” he writes, “the more curiosity I feel about the world of blindness and what possibilities might exist there. […] I feel a new motivation to temper my speculations and fears with knowledge and direct experience.” Subsequent chapters follow Leland’s exhaustive research into that world. He traces the development of braille and other reading systems for the blind; discusses the work of blind hackers, makers, tech tinkerers, and artists; digs into the history of the warring national groups for the blind; and considers the visual nature of sexual attraction and desire. He also learns about the process of producing spoken-word transcripts of TV shows and movies, explores new advances in treatment for eye diseases like gene therapy and implants, discusses political activism and blind civil rights, and describes his stay at a residential training center for the blind.
Leland’s voice is wry, thoughtful, and vulnerable. He expresses the hope that sighted readers will “likewise discover the largely invisible terrain of blindness, as well as other ways of living and thinking they might not have previously considered.” I have no idea if he also hoped to comfort those of us who contend daily with the fear of blindness—to take the edge off our terror of the unknown—but he has done so for at least one reader.
The book repeatedly suggests that there are gains to be had in becoming blind. This idea has a long literary and philosophical history. Paterson highlights the passage in Plato’s Symposium where Socrates claims that “[a] man’s mental vision does not begin to be keen until his physical vision is past its prime.” Alluding to “the permanent truths of deep introspection as opposed to the fleeting visual distractions of the outside world,” Plato is thus suggesting the possibility of “a more intuitive, noetic form of knowing,” open only to those who lose physical sight.
Another author who famously went blind later in life, Jorge Luis Borges, also wrote about unexpected compensations. In response to his vision loss, Borges decided to embark on a new course of language study. He characterized his inability to see as a “gift”: “It gave me Anglo-Saxon, it gave me some Scandinavian, it gave me a knowledge of a Medieval literature I had ignored […] Moreover, blindness has made me feel surrounded by the kindness of others.” The humorist James Thurber claimed that blindness is “actually an advantage for a writer. There are less distractions.” And, at one point in his investigative journey, Leland meets the blind journalist Will Butler, who exclaims, “[W]henever someone tells me their son has RP or they’re going blind, I have to stop myself from saying, ‘That’s awesome!’ Because aside from a few obvious obstacles, blindness has really opened up a lot of intellectual doors for me.”
Yet Leland cautions against romanticizing blindness as affording some kind of “second sight” or quasi-mystical understanding of the world. His response to Borges’s “gift” characterization is, frankly, skeptical: “Borges listed the ‘advantages’ that blindness had brought him, but they all strike me as banal, things he could have easily had as a sighted writer.” Leland also acknowledges his negative reaction to meeting a blind young man with multiple severe disabilities, who challenged the romantic fantasies he had been nurturing—Leland’s “sense of blindness not as a disability, but instead as some rare and wonderful literary attribute.” In other words, not only is there a danger of overshooting the mark and allowing the compensation rhetoric—as comforting as it may be—to shade over into condescension, but also we should be careful not to downplay the experience of blindness as a disability.
In his 1836 essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson introduces the somewhat bizarre image of the “transparent eye-ball”:
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; […] I am part or particle of God. […] In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.
On an immediate level, the transparent eyeball refers to a loss of our habitual self-consciousness, or “mean egotism,” as we forget ourselves and directly apprehend the truth of nature. Yet note the phrase “leaving me my eyes.” As long as he can still see, Emerson suggests, he has access to the truth of nature, to the divine (the opposite of the Platonic model of blindness). This connection between sight and understanding is quite literal; without vision, one cannot focus on “the distant line of the horizon” that allows “man” to behold something “as beautiful as his own nature.”
Emerson’s image captures the commonplace fantasy of a relationship to nature unencumbered by the self. The eyeball is, in its potential transparency, a metaphor for immediacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most poignant moments in Leland’s memoir occurs after his ophthalmologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, informs him that he is not going to lose his vision as rapidly as he had anticipated. “I don’t want you to be alarmed that you’re rushing down a hill in a roller coaster,” she announces; “there’s potential for your central vision to change, […] but hopefully not any time in the next twenty years.” As he leaves his appointment, amazed and buoyed by this news, Leland is suddenly struck by the beauty of the world around him. While “walking through the snow-reflected dazzle of the park, winding my way through trees and birds and joggers and pathways,” he writes, “I experienced the first purely visual pleasure I’d allowed myself in years. The world seemed to pour in and out of my eyes simultaneously.” A short drive from where Emerson wrote Nature nearly 200 years earlier, Leland enjoyed “the ease of seeing, where vision flows from the eyes unobstructed, ranging effortlessly for miles.”
Privilege has a lot to do with how one experiences life as a blind person. The standard of living for blind people in the United States is much lower than for their sighted compatriots, and Leland does not shy away from shocking statistics: only 16 percent of blind Americans have a college degree, more than 20 percent do not have high school diplomas, and the poverty rate for blind people is double the national average. Their unemployment rate is an astonishing 70 percent. Part of this disparity has to do with the sheer difficulty of navigating complex social structures and educational institutions built around sightedness: Leland observes that “[t]he blind person in the developed world of today must contend with […] a tremendous social and civic premium placed on the ability to read print and interact with visual information.”
The book argues that life for a newly blind person in ancient Greece would have presented far fewer obstacles; there was no traffic, for example, nor were there expectations of literacy. Yet modern technology can ameliorate many of the struggles faced by blind people. Screen readers, bionic implants, iPhone apps that read soup can labels, doodads that beep to alert you when your coffee cup is full—assistive devices like these make life much easier for blind folks. Leland marvels, “[T]he more I learned about blindness, the more I realized that tech-savviness was an essential skill for any blind person.” Even so, many of these technologies are expensive, beyond the reach of anyone but the upper middle classes. In the end, Leland notes, “The most salient factor determining the quality of a blind person’s life may not be what culture or historical period they live in, but the economic and familial situation they’re born into.” He somewhat sheepishly goes on to acknowledge that, as the grandson of playwright Neil Simon, he has “a financial cushion to soften [his] fall into blindness.”
I am lucky too—very lucky. My retina guy has concluded that I am not a good candidate for surgery at the moment. That said, I’ve come to understand that measurements of sight are pretty crude. My vision (with glasses) is technically almost 20/20, even as I peer through a scuzzy scrim of grayish goo and squirming black centipedes; the technician administering the vision test doesn’t notice or care how many times I blink or rub my eyes or tilt my head before reading the letters back to her. Evidently, for someone who sees people on the verge of blindness every day, my vision problems are mild. They’re not mild to me, of course. Still, I can sometimes go a couple of hours without noticing the spiders in my eye. Then, I too am transparent, am an eyeball—if just for a short while.
Many of the most moving and fascinating parts of Leland’s memoir engage with his desire to get it all over with and finally be “really” blind. But what would that mean? “Blindness” rarely denotes an absolute and total lack of vision; only about 10 percent of legally blind people have no light perception whatsoever. In the essay “Blindness” (1977), Borges describes his world as one of swirling—even intrusive—color, averring that “[t]he world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.” Leland’s own experience attests that blindness is not so much an absolute as a continuum.
The word “paradox” appears 10 times throughout The Country of the Blind. Perhaps the memoir’s greatest gift is the way it compels the sighted reader to confront not only the paradoxes of blindness but the paradoxes of vision as well. Sight offers a deeply entrenched metaphor for experience, knowledge, and understanding. The threat of its loss forces an encounter with some of our most dearly held fantasies of autonomous selfhood. And yet never to question the limits of that fantasy would also be a profound loss, a truncation of the fullest possible scope of one’s powers of imagination and insight.
In “Experience” (1844), Emerson writes, “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” Each of us has eyes full of monsters and ghosts; all things swim and glitter. Maybe some of us are lucky to live with literalized versions of these figures—a reified sleep lingering about our eyes, compelling us to notice.
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