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Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John M. Hull

August 4, 2015

TTR2We in the Religious Education world owe so much to the author, who died last week, aged 80, after a serious fall at his home. He came to our attention when Birmingham became the focus of progressive, multi-faith RE (it has since regressed) and was also an Anglican Lay Reader and campaigner for nuclear disarmament.

As a young university lecturer in the early ’80s, Hull had adapted to cataracts and the early signs of retinal detachment brought on by numerous surgeries. He continued to read with the aid of magnifiers and walked to work following the yellow lines in the street.

As a resilient teen, Hull even taught himself Braille during a period of blindness between surgeries, devouring Bible passages while in the hospital. For years, Hull meticulously marked and measured the black shadows that drifted in and out of his vision. In 1983, he lost the last bit of light perception. It was then that John Hull realized he was no longer just a visitor to the condition of blindness. “I had taken up residence in another world.”

Not wanting to burden his family with his inner turmoil and the grief of his loss, Hull began to record an audio diary on cassette tape where he meditates on the transformative experience of blindness. In this diary, he contemplates a world where smiles are not received and gazes cannot be met and observes the insensitivity of persons who are sighted. Most poignantly he reflects on how blindness impacts his relationships. Hull feared blindness would rob him of the intimacy he shared with his wife and he was pained by the laughter of his son Thomas at play knowing he couldn’t interact with him the way he used to.

The title comes from an experience he had at Iona. He went into the abbey late at night, alone, and embraced the stone altar, touching it al over and feeling its contours.

I met him at a conference and was acutely aware of the need to talk through things – milling around, people chat and then move on but a blind person cannot see the bodily cues people move as they move away so he is still talking to someone who is no longer there.

TTRQuotations:

The relationship between dreaming and waking and the nature of consciousness itself is one of the persistent themes of this book. Other themes are the changing perception of nature, the transformation in my understanding of what a person is, and the problem of making sense of such a terrible loss…. There are bits and pieces all over the place…[and] if there is repetition, it is because the same problems and the same experiences went round and round, interpreted from many aspects.

I am in a little coal-truck in a mine shaft. This opens off the side of a hill. In I go, being trundled deeper and deeper into the hillside. Looking back, I can still see the light . . . The little round circle of daylight is getting smaller and smaller. I know that whoever is driving the train of little coal buckets will stop soon. At any moment trucks will slow down, pause and reverse. The little well of light will start to enlarge . . . But no, this does not happen. Are we out of control? Is there nobody driving? . . . Now I become aware of the weight of mountain overhead. It hides the light, the day, the air. I am still trundling deeper and deeper into the weight, into the solidity of it. I cannot even orient myself by the slightest pinprick of light. I know now that between me and the world there lies this mountain of rock

Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience…. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn…. I know all these things are there, but I know them from memory…. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another…. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me.

This evening, at about nine o’clock, I was getting ready to leave the house. I opened the front door, and rain was falling. I stood for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of it. Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience.

I hear the rain pattering on the roof above me, dripping down the walls to my left and right, splashing from the drainpipe at ground level on my left, while further over to the left there is a lighter patch as the rain falls almost inaudibly upon a large leafy shrub. On the right, it is drumming, with a deeper, steadier sound upon the lawn. I can even make out the contours of the lawn, which rises to the right in a little hill. The sound of the rain is different and shapes out the curvature for me. Still further to the right, I hear the rain sounding upon the fence which divides our property from that next door. In front, the contours of the path and the steps are marked out, right down to the garden gate. Here the rain is striking the concrete, here it is splashing into the shallow pools which have already formed. Here and there is a light cascade as it drips from step to step. The sound on the path is quite different from the sound of the rain drumming into the lawn on the right, and this is different again from the blanketed, heavy, sodden feel of the large bush on the left. Further out, the sounds are less detailed. I can hear the rain falling on the road, and the swish of the cars that pass up and down. I can hear the rushing of the water in the flooded gutter on the edge of the road. The whole scene is much more differentiated than I have been able to describe, because everywhere are little breaks in the patterns, obstructions, projections, where some slight interruption or difference of texture or of echo gives an additional detail or dimension to the scene. Over the whole thing, like light falling upon a landscape is the gentle background patter gathered up into one continuous murmur of rain.

I think that this experience of opening the door on a rainy garden must be similar to that which a sighted person feels when opening the curtains and seeing the world outside. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn. As I walk down the path, my head will be brushed by fronds of the overhanging shrub on the left and I will then come to the steps, the front gate, the footpath, the culvert and the road. I know all these things are there but I know them from memory. They give no immediate evidence of their presence, I know them in the form of prediction. They will be what I will be experiencing in the next few seconds. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.

If only rain could fall inside a room, it would help me to understand where things are in that room, to give a sense of being in the room, instead of just sitting on a chair.

This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world. I am no longer isolated, preoccupied with my thoughts, concentrating upon what I must do next. Instead of having to worry about where my body will be and what it will meet, I am presented with a totality, a world which speaks to me.

Have I grasped why it is so beautiful? When what there is to know is in itself varied, intricate and harmonious, then the knowledge of that reality shares the same characteristics. I am filled internally with a sense of variety, intricacy and harmony. The knowledge itself is beautiful, because the knowledge creates in me a mirror of what there is to know. As I listen to the rain, I am the image of the rain, and I am one with it.

I can tell when other things are moving by the sounds they make. Cars swish past, feet patter along, leaves rustle, but a silent nature is immobile. So it is that, for me, the clouds do not move; the world outside the car window or the window of the train is not moving. The countryside makes no noise as the train passes through it. The hills and fields are silent.

If the movements of other bodies are revealed by sound, the movements of my own body are revealed by the fact that it is being made to vibrate, or I feel the sway of the carriage as we round the bend at high speed. I am held back in my seat as we accelerate, and thrust forward as we slow down.

This means, however, that the knowledge I have of my own body’s movements and of the movements of other things is not symmetrical. The cues are provided by external sound and internal sensation. This is not the case for the sighted person, who can tell whether other things are moving and whether he himself is moving by the same faculty of sight. You know when the train starts by looking out of the window. You tell it, as a sighted person, by seeing a changing relationship between your body and the world. The different ways in which the blind person experiences motion indicate that the normal relationship between the body and the world has been severed.

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?

About a year after I was registered blind, I began to have such strong images of what people’s faces looked like that they were almost like hallucinations…. I would be sitting in a room with someone, my face pointed towards my companion, listening to him or her. Suddenly, such a vivid picture would flash before my mind that it was like looking at a television set. Ah, I would think, there he is, with his glasses and his little beard, his wavy hair and his blue, pin-striped suit, white collar and blue tie. There are his polished shoes and his briefcase, standing neatly beside his chair. Now this image would fade and in its place another one would be projected. My companion was now fat and perspiring with receding hair. He had a red necktie and waistcoat, and a couple of his teeth were missing.

I do not see how the dreamer can cease to see unless the dreamer ceases to know. Perhaps it is significant that I cannot remember having dreamed about people’s faces for a long time.

In my dream, I was aware of other people, of the colours of their suits and dresses. I had a general impression of them being there, in their bodies, visually but without faces, although I knew who they were. How did the dreamer know who these people were? The dream was not particularly auditory, so recognition was not by means of voice. The dreamer has ways of recognizing people without knowing what their faces look like. Will the day come when the dreamer will discover ways of knowing that people are scattered around in space, here and there, without representing them bodily, as blobs of coloured presence?

“On the whole, my experience has been that, if I have a bad habit, it causes me some inconvenience of inefficiency in my movement, and is naturally corrected in the effort to move more freely. In other words, blindness itself imposes an iron law upon the user of the white cane. Lampposts, curbs, and stairways are the best teachers.”

“Perhaps all severe disabilities lead to a decrease in space and an increase in time. When I had sight, I would have worked with feverish haste, correcting forty footnotes in a single morning. Now I am happy if, with the help of a sighted reader, by the end of the morning I have corrected ten. Sighted people can bend time. For sighted people, time is sometimes slow and sometimes rapid. They can make up for being lazy by rushing later on. Modern technology seeks to expand human space and compress human time. The disabled person, on the other hand, finds that space is contracted and time is expanded. It is because of the space-time coordinates within which the blind person lives that his life becomes gradually different from the lives of sighted people.”

“The acoustic world stays the same whichever way I turn my head. This is not true of the perceptible world. It changes as I turn my head. New things come into view. The view looking that way is quite different from the view looking this way. It is not like that with sound. New noises do not come to my attention as I turn my head around. The acoustic world is mainly independent of my movement. This heightens the sense of passivity. Acoustic space is a world of revelation.”

“When I am walking along this, my most familiar route, I have in my mind a screen with a sort of map of the area, and my own presence, like a pinpoint of light, moving along it. I continually refer to this to check up on my position. Here I am, coming along this portion of my route, having crossed the road, being about to cross that road, knowing that around the next corner there will be the traffic lights. I must never forget my position. That would be as if the light went out. I am continually verifying my position on this map by taking into account all sorts of little, familiar features. On this corner, the curb is slightly higher. The curvature of the footpath is slightly more pronounced at this point. The road surface here is not quite the same as it was there. Here comes that little smooth patch. There are certain points along my route where I actually have to count the steps in order to avoid the lampposts. All of this requires constant attention. If I allow my concentration to lapse for a moment, I may get slightly out of position, I might walk into something, I might stray on to a busy road. I cannot do any of this and have a conversation at the same time.”

“Over this weekend, I have become sharply aware of how much sighted children live in a visual world. Their play, their humor, their dressing-up and their tumbling around, everything is in the context of sight. It is by way of contrast with this that I developed a sense that am not in the presence of these sighted children. I am, of course, an object in their visual field, but the world of common experience, the world which we know together, the world before which we stand in a sort of mutuality of presence, that is so fragmented by blindness.”

“Being a W[hole] B[ody] S[eer],” he writes in his postscript, “is to be in one of the concentrated human conditions. It is a state, like the state of being young, or of being old, of being male or female; it is one of the orders of human being.”

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