Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The senses taker

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Writing about Borges last week led me, inevitably, to think of his blindness, and what the loss of one’s sight might mean to an author. Borges began going blind around age thirty, and his sight had failed completely by his mid-fifties—although he didn’t live in the world of darkness that we tend to imagine, but in a sort of “luminous greenish mist,” and in fact no longer saw the color black at all. We often think of Borges as a blind seer, and doubtless his later work was influenced by his blindness, as when he speaks of “God, who with such splendid irony granted me books and blindness at one touch.” In reality, though, his best work was produced before his sight failed, and his later stories, while often remarkable, wouldn’t be read at all if it weren’t for these early masterpieces. (It’s remarkable, and humbling, to note that the most famous stories we associate with Borges, the ones published in Ficciones, were written over a period of less than five years in his early thirties.)

And as much as Borges is now defined by his blindness, it’s hard to see it as anything but a tremendous loss. For one thing, he had worked as a film critic for over a decade, and while we have memorable accounts of him doing to the movies after he lost his sight—he went to see West Side Story multiple times—one wishes that he had been able to write, for instance, about the later Hitchcock. And as an author whose work was defined largely by his engagement with books, the loss of the ability to read could only result, as it in fact did, in the more circumscribed quality of his later stories. Borges’s earlier fictions, with their engagement with Pascal’s sphere, with Zeno’s paradox, with The Conference of the Birds, have a wonderful serendipity of influence that his blindness eventually denied him. A blind author can do many things, but except in a limited way, he no longer has the ability to browse.

The relationship between a writer and his own senses is a fascinating problem. Some writers, of course, suffer from inordinately keen or unusual perceptions; Nabokov, for one, wrote at length about his synesthesia. Yet it’s unclear whether good eyesight or other forms of perception would confer any advantage in what writers do for a living: the inner refinement of outward experience. Exceptionally vivid senses might even hinder the imagination. In On Directing Film, David Mamet makes fun, and rightly so, of a critic who expressed surprise that an author might try to become a screenwriter while blind: “One does not have to be able to see to write films,” Mamet notes; “one has to be able to imagine.” And that’s true of all kinds of writing. Even if you don’t believe in the tradition of the blind Homer, the examples of Milton, Huxley, and others speak for themselves. As Huxley’s brother Julian wrote:

I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking up medicine as a career…His uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.

As for me, I’m hardly a model of sensory perception: my eyes are as bad as you might expect, given a lifetime of reading, and I’m pretty sure that my other senses are below average. (I have no taste for wine, for instance.) At times, I wonder if this means I’ve chosen the wrong career. But the thing about writing is that it forces you to see better than you normally can. You’re constantly thinking about all five senses, and when you’re in the zone, hungry for material, everything around you seems vivid and relevant, which strikes me as the best kind of hyperesthesia. In my own case, I usually feel this way only for a few weeks at a time, when my work is really cooking, and if I have any goal as a writer, it’s to get to the point I’m living this way all the time, as I imagine Nabokov did. I’m hoping, in other words, to will myself into the world of senses. And maybe then I’ll know what it means to use my eyes at last.

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2012 at 9:34 am

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