Book of the Week: Touching the Rock – An Experience of Blindess

Touching the Rock - An Experience of Blindness
Shattering, inspiring, and brilliant – a masterpiece? Oliver Sacks thought so.

Last week we reviewed the brilliant docudrama Notes on Blindess (2016). In part, this was adapted from John M. Hull’s 1990 literary account of coming to terms with his condition – Touching the Rock. Naturally, we had to get this short account of Hull’s read, which he dictated in the late 1980s based on the audio cassette diary he maintained earlier in that decade.

It’s a noble and insightful account of a condition we all hope to avoid, but Hull’s neurological revelations on the world he inhabited (he died in July 2015) are pretty remarkable. Whilst there are heavy religious overtones in some sections (if you’re religious that’s all grand, but if you’re an atheist it drags somewhat), largely he focuses on the neurological descent into “deep blindness” and how he adapted to his world. This is why the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks hailed it as a masterpiece. He could well be right.

Touching the Rock

This is as candid an experience of blindness you’ll likely find in written form. Hull remarks other books about blindness (certainly the ones he read, as he explains) typically focused on the blind person’s attempts at continuing with their life – books which read like novels with a beginning, middle, and an end.

Touching the Rock doesn’t do this – it’s a contemplation of the human psyche as much as a personal account of blindless, with Hull recording in detail his changing perceptions of the world around him. Really, this book is the one which truly depicts what it must be like to go blind and how a person has to adapt in order to live.

A Sightless world

It’s something we’ve all considered at one point another. Shut your eyes and you’re blind for the time being, but you can open your eyes and, oomph, you’re back on with your life. A real experience of it is surely when you enter a dark room – even one you may know. Try and navigate your way around and you’ll face problems, even with locating the light switch. Human memory, whilst remarkable, suddenly becomes vulnerable when the visual world is dimmed.

Most of us would consider what blind people can “see” is blackness. I’ve seen in other documentaries on blindness one man describe it as “nothingness”. For us, it’s a peculiar world, but Touching the Rock throws up an endless amount of questions you normally wouldn’t consider. For instance, how do you talk to someone when you’re blind? Normally your would turn you head to look at the person you’re addressing, nod, and engage in conversation. This isn’t possible, of course, without sight and Hull states how this created unusual incidents.

Once, when interviewing a student at the University of Birmingham, Hull’s colleague later revealed the woman involved didn’t look at Hull at any stage – even when she was talking to him. This may seem callous or rude, but it seems born out of a situation the woman felt uncomfortable or ridiculous in – why look at a blind man when he has no idea you are looking at you? I’m not entirely sure what I’d do in the same situation.

This is what Hull notes of the differences between the blind and non-blind worlds and how these individuals interact with one another. Hull remarks about getting lost and asking for advice from anyone nearby, with uncertain helpers promptly grabbing his cane (Hull always claimed he was too busy to train with a guide dog) and thrusting it in the direction he should be headed as if Hull would be able to recognise where this direction was.

As a professor at the University of Birmingham (UK), he had to deal with such incidents all the time, but found a routine and familiarity with his surroundings opened up new possibilities and enhanced his senses. This pitched him into a striking new world of perception and even an existential crises.

In Dreams

One of the most remarkable assertions in the book belongs with Hull’s dreams. He would dream vividly (almost with lucid dreams) about locations and human faces quite strikingly apparent to him – a visual and dramatic landscape lost to him in his waking hours. Of course, on awaking, he would return to his world of nothingness.

More alarming, the longer he spent blind the more he began to lose a sense of self. He couldn’t remember what he looked like, what his life looked like, or what his children looked like. This creates a warped version of visual agnosia where visual memory, imagery, orientation, and concepts ensure the blind person is abandoned in a world of sensory deficit and awakening.

Hull goes on to document what eating food is like when blind, how a glass of water can prove a monumental disturbance on one’s senses, and how taking a bath is one of the most disconcerting experiences. Most painfully, he also records attempting to teach his young children what blindless is, as his infant son, Thomas, couldn’t comprehend what the problem was. Hull conceived a unique way to describe it to him, explaining his eyes were “poorly”.

Inevitably, this led to some depression for the university lecturer (who somehow continued with his work unabated). He had a unique technique to combat this:

My response is to go even further inwards, into a deeper deadness. I sink into quietness and passivity. I might sit in a chair alone, without moving, reducing my breathing to the barest minimum, simmering down until I am aware of less and less. I try to think of nothing, and often drift in and out of sleep. I might cover myself with a blanket, cutting out any faint sounds, and by emptying myself completely, I become the cipher that my blindess tells me I am. In this state, I can continue for hours.

Touching the Rock isn’t a depressing read, though. The account of his diaries run from 1983 to 1986 and documents his daily existence over time. If anything, it’s inspiring stuff for anyone, disability or otherwise. Indeed, one of Hull’s conclusions is:

But if blindness is a gift and death is a gift what have we to fear? If life is death, then death is life. If darkness is light then light is darkness. The conscious and the unconscious lives are one. We have nothing, yet we have everything. The world, life or death, or the present or the future, all are ours.

ANother Conclusion

I could pull endless excerpts from the book but this would be doing it a disservice. The best option available to anyone, sighted or otherwise (there is, of course, a brail version), is to head off and read Touching the Rock.

Ultimately, it stands as an inspirational guide to existing, as well as a detailed analysis of what it means to lose your sight. We don’t know what adversity or disabilities we may face in a life but, for many, losing all vision would be considered a personal tragedy. In this record, Hull documents that, although a severe limitation, it also opens up a new world of intellectual and spiritual opportunities (if the latter is your thing), which confirms it doesn’t have to be the end of anyone’s world.

Notes on Blindness

If reading isn’t your thing, then you can watch what is essentially the movie adaptation of this book. This will go down as one of the best films of 2016 – the docudrama offering an inspiring, if challenging, account on blindness and how Hull adapted to his disability with grace and fortitude, with his wife Marilyn’s inspiring support.

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