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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Modernism, Morality and Blindness


Through readings of short stories by Hardy, Wells, Woolf and Lawrence, this essay briefly considers the way in which some modernist writers have explored the ideologies of culture and language through presenting alternative ways of seeing (sometimes paradoxically enabled by blindness).


Western culture since ancient Greece has privileged sight as the primary sense, making it doubly powerful because it has been adapted as a definition for the mind's orientation against history, through hindsight, insight and foresight.1 Perhaps the most important version of such inward vision is the hallucination which symbolically challenges its viewer's ethics. Famously experienced by Saul, his temporary blindness is, ironically, a means of deeper insight, since by being unable to apprehend the outside world the internal experience of "Ananias, comming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receiue his sight" cannot be evaded or denied.2 Blindness, then, is a bodily trauma which reverses the primary sense to most intimately connect with the philosophical one, forcing the self to confront its earlier moral errors: Tiresias was blinded but given prophetic powers in reaction to to his revelatory interpretation of sexual intercourse; Oedipus blinded himself to avoid exposure to the subjects of his perverse desire; Milton's Sampson Agonistes reworks mythical blindness informed by the problematic seer-like destiny in which he conceived himself; recollecting Saul's revelation, Rochester's loss of sight in Jane Eyre enables a marriage on terms of sexual and spiritual equality.3

In this tradition, blindness is positioned as a symbolic ending, a catharthic purgatory which implies the rebirth into a reformed life beyond the frame of the narrative. In contrast, Louis Buñuel's film Un Chien Andalou opens with the disturbing image of an eye slit with a razor.4 A mode of the surrealist aesthetic which subverts narrative order, this violence undermines the film watcher's means of creating connection between frames, ironically making the isolated image everything. In artistic modernism, symbols of blindness and versions of unusual sight are often positioned at the beginning, providing a destabilising narrative context which implies a cynicism about the verisimilitudinous relationship between visual signifiers (including the printed word) and the world it relays. Set against historical representations of blindness, alterations in the visual sense are regarded as empowering, forcing reconsiderations of the way the personal identity and human ethics are created in the light of the revolutionary technologies, philosophies and politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Partly predicting the relationship between the body, vision and media explored in Un Chien Andalou, Thomas Hardy's "The Withered Arm" examines how a kind of dramatically sharpened sight, the photograph, violently alters perceptions of the body.5 Rhoda is obsessed by Mrs. Lodge's body as an indicator of class on which the "marks of a lady" may be read.6 She imagines it so intimately that she could "raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs Lodge that was realistic as a photograph" (57) and, indeed, the increasing resolution with which the marks of Rhoda's hand appear on Mrs. Lodge's arm parallels the gradual exposure of an image on photosensitive paper. The pure realism of the photographic image - its representation of the object by chemical processes, rather than by paint or words manipulated by the artist - provides a modern manifestation of the supernatural hallucination, apparently separating the objectively observed body image from the subjective mind of the persona it represents, as in Rhoda's case her intensely "realistic" mental image renders Mrs. Lodge "unconscious."7 By surrounding the modern metaphor of the photograph with the traditions of the supernatural, Hardy aligns the photographic image as a variant on a tradition of telepathic visual impressing fundamental to folk culture (and, although not noted explicitly, to the Christian history of stigmata and the Turin Shroud).

Rhoda's intense vision warps into a physical sensation, and an intrusion onto the body of Mrs. Lodge: "She could feel her antagonist's arm within her grasp even now - the very flesh and bone of it, as it seemed" (58). The more Rhoda looks at Mrs. Lodge's arm, simultaneously repelled and fascinated by its abjectness - in line with Kristeva's analysis of the sensation8 - the more "impressively" painful it becomes for both parties. To cure her ailment, Mrs. Lodge must touch the neck of a hanged man, advice which "raised an image," causing her to "start" (68). Again sight impacts upon her body, predicting the change in her constitution which should occur when she carries out the act itself. As she waits for the corpse to pass by:

By this time the young woman's state was such that a grey mist seemed to float before her eyes, on account of which, and the veil she wore, she could scarcely discern anything: it was as though she had nearly died, but was held up by a sort of galvanism. (76)

Julia Kristeva notes that "Blinding is...an image of splitting; it marks, on the very body, the alteration of the self and clean into the defiled."9 Simultaneously, then, Mrs. Lodge's periodic blindness buffers her from the experience of the corpse (which Kristeva proposes as the most potent site of the abject) whilst forcing her fully self-consciously (in the way of Saul) to recognise the physical intrusion Rhoda has made onto her body.10 Mrs. Lodge is supported and reanimated through galvanism, the contemporary means of regenerating weak muscle. Just as the photograph artificially disconnects body and its controlling consciousness, so bioelectricity denies the instinctive reaction to death - the traditional cure for Mrs. Lodge's symptoms - by keeping her body artificially alive. Whilst the natural rhythms of the body are understood and manipulated in the folk tradition, technology operates against the the body, altering, impressing and intruding on its instincts.

The wise use of sight is an important element of society's construction, as Emily Dickinson suggests:

Much madness is divinest sense -
To a discerning eye -
Much sense - the starkest Madness -
'Tis the majority
In this, as All, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you're straightaway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain.11

The symbol of the discerning eye as the only authoritative way in which physical experience may determine the design of an ethical system is contested in H.G. Wells' "The Country of the Blind."12 In this heterocosm, society is organised according to the non-visual senses: "time had been divided into the warm and cold, which are the blind equivalents of day and night...it was good to sleep in the warm and work during the cold" (114); to be beautiful is to have a "satisfying, glossy smoothness" of skin (121); the environment is organised into mathematical patterns of paths, meadows and houses; being unable to visualise or conceptualise the horizon, the desire to expand beyond their hermetic world is lost. The result of this conversational but rigidly-structured society is that an egalitarian economy has developed, and work is shared to support their mutual needs, with no superfluous production and a meritocratic government.

The country of the blind is an Epicurean utopia, in which the sensual ways in which the physical self interacts with, and experiences, its immediate environment determines the ethics and mechanics of society. In this context, the man who can see is the Other, an inferior, aggressive idiot who inflexibly applies the proverb of his world - "In the Country of the Blind the one-eyed man is King" (110) - as his authority to govern this one despotically. Of course, since its occupants have no concept of vision, the signification of the maxim breaks down: displaced in the valley of the blind, his becomes the disabled body. By inverting the concepts of ability and disability - which in turn define categories of perceptiveness, normality and conformity against stupidity, madness and rebellion - Wells exposes these terms as relative ideological concepts rather than absolute properties.13

Exploring the way in which the definitions of the body cause the establishment of governments which allow it to operate effectively within its capabilities, Wells in part authenticates Spivak's argument that "It is through the significance of my body, and others' bodies that cultures become gendered, economicopolitic, selved, substantive."14 Blindness in "The Country of the Blind" is an experimental mechanism (like the imagined scientific advances Wells more commonly uses) for testing the body-politic, the second of Spivak's terms. However, it does not complicate the fundamental sense of the individual body, even though this is a conflict implicit in blindness. No two pairs of eyes can share the same perspective, as sight provides an individual arc of apprehension in a frontal focus which excludes everything outside it. But two bodies, deprived of sight, can absorb the environmental stimuli which surround them in a sensational panorama (as the blinded Gloucester notes on his new experience of the world, "I see it feelingly").15 The lack of sight blurs the boundary between inside and outside, the body of the self and the body of the other. Thus blindness becomes a way of exploring less binary, less easily inverted ideological categories of difference than ability and disability, in particular that of gender.

In Virginia Woolf's "The Moment," the shift from day to night is sensual experience initiated by the air opening the pores of the skin, an adaptive response mirrored in the natural world as leaves "shiver" in the breeze.16 Such an interaction recollects the "spots of time" explored by the Romantics, moments of heightened sensation in which the self becomes so absorbed in its natural surroundings that memory and the present experience become inextricably linked in a revelatory combination. In perhaps the paradigmatic poem of this sensation, Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," the emphasis is on the visual sense, of "beholding" the scene, on recollection of which "These beauteous forms,/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man's eye."17 This Romantic, visually-dominant perspective is contested by Woolf's essay, since it is as dark brings a blindness that the human organism and the natural environment become increasingly intertwined, "laced about with these weavings to and fro" (3). This cohesion between the self and the world is paralleled by the connection between the different personae inhabiting the scene: "Here in the centre is a knot of consciousness; a nucleus divided up into four heads, eight legs, eight arms, and four separate bodies" (4). In the blindness brought about by night, categories of difference break down to a dispassionate scientific metaphor, rendering the people atomised and androgynous; likewise, throughout the essay bodies are amputated from gender by the passive verbs and impersonal pronouns: "the body is gripped" (5), "issuing from a white arm" (6), "a light is struck; in it appears a sunburnt face" (7).

However, definitions of gender remain powerfully latent in the unseen actions which surround the participants. Talking about the farmer, a disembodied voice notes, "He beats her every Saturday; from boredom, I should say; not drink; there's nothing else to do," an imagined scene mimiced en abyme by the childrens' actions beneath the table, as John catches Liz a blow and then "munches because there is nothing to be done" (7). Although there is common epistemological view, in which "everybody believes that the present is something, seeks out the different elements in this situation in order to compose the truth of it, the whole of it" (3), the harmony of their interpretations is kept ironically undermined by the suppressed presence of gender difference.

The use of the word "compose" (a significant verb for the Romantic artist) implies a link between the spontaneous sense interpretations of the person within the scene and the formal process by which the writer tries to mediate these to the reader. Vocal acts - "the extraordinary arrow which people let fly from their mouths" (4) - reassert the distinctions of gender and subjectivity which had seemed annihilated by the dark. As "The other shape has sent from its arrow another fine binding thread, 'Shall I fetch my Vapex?' She, the observant, the discriminating," this expression establishes sexual boundaries, such that the moment "becomes harder, is intensified, diminished, begins to be stained by some expressed personal juice; with the desire to be loved, to be held close to the other shape; to put off the veil of darkness and see burning eyes" (6). Hélène Cixous felt that the written word, with its visual emphasis, can disconnect from the original, multifarious bodily experiences which stimulate literary creation:

I think that many people speak a language that has no rapport with the body. Instead of letting emerge from their body something that is carried by voice, by rhythm, and that would be truly inspired, they are before language as before an electric panel...That is why I always privilege the ear over the eye. I am always trying to write with my eyes closed.18

Woolf writes with her eyes symbolically closed in "The Moment," feeling rather than observing the rhythms of the natural in this post-Romantic, feminine kind of sign language which temporarily avoids the mechanistic convention in which pronouns tie the speaking voice and its associated body to a specific gender. The loss of sight provides a periodic elision of values of gender and difference, values which, Woolf implies, must be essential in the world outside of the narrative period since the experience of reading and absorbing the periodic summer moment, and the short essay "The Moment," continually reminds of the inevitable temporariness and artificiality with which composition can be kept isolated from gendered inflections. Since reading is a visual mode, narratives of blindness inevitably remind of the apparent privilege of our sight compared to the blinded character. However, Woolf's essay, through its subtle metafictionality, highlights the alternative sensations of which the primacy afforded to visual sight, required by a literary culture, may be depriving us.19

This is the experience presented in D.H. Lawrence's "The Blind Man," in which the blindness that was a common physical injury of the First World War is not simply a powerful symbol of man's moral futility (impelled by the technologies of conflict) but offers instead a revolutionary kind of sensuality for Maurice:20

Life was still very full and strangely serene for the blind man, peaceful with the almost incomprehensible peace of immediate contact in darkness. With his wife he had a whole world, rich and real and invisible. (176)

Isabel is repelled by his Odyssean scars and disfigurements - she does not "look at his blindness" (184) - which identify him with military masculinity against their newly intimate relationship. Vicariously through her husband, Isabel is portrayed as experiencing blindness as well, seeing the world with her "nerves...as if she thought it rather than saw it" (180). When she enters the stable, her experiences are non-visual:

She could hear and feel her husband entering and invisibly passing among the horses near to her, darkness as they were, actively intermingled. The rather low sound of his voice as he spoke to the horses came velvety to her nerves. How near he was, and how invisible! The darkness seemed to be in a strange swirl of violent life, just upon her. She turned giddy. (183)

Maurice possesses not so much a body image as a force of the negative: "he was a tower of darkness to her, as if he rose out of the earth" (184).21

In contrast to the modes of perception of Maurice and Isabel, the latter is still presented in terms of the image of a maternal femininity:

Catching sight of her reflection in a mirror, she glanced at herself with a slight smile of recognition, as if she were an old friend to herself. Her face was oval and calm, her nose a little arched. Her neck made a beautiful line down to her shoulder. With hair knotted loosely behind, she had something of a warm, maternal look. Thinking this of herself, she arched her eyebrows and her rather heavy eyelids, with a little flicker of a smile, and for a moment her grey eyes looked amused and wicked, a little sardonic, out of her transfigured Madonna face. (180)

Confronted with her unscarred body image, Isabel's eyes become "slightly reddened" (181), an effect which mimics Maurice's obliterated sockets and predicts the "sunken eyes...glazed with misery" (196-7) with which Bertie ends the story. In a "transfiguration" of her anxious lines of sight, this passage simultaneously presents the mirror image of Isabel to the reader. The reader, and the writer who represents her "glance" through several sentences of intimate description, becomes the voyeur with the dominant and intimate visual gaze, a perspective which Maurice is denied with the "cancellation" (perhaps symbolically also castration) of his vision (187). As with Woolf's essay, by privileging the visual as a key mode of characterisation the literary act is implicated in establishing difference, in this case through a kind of Lacanian "mirror stage" which forces both both reader and character to recognise Isabel's gender. Visual language works antithetically to the empowering tactile relationship of man to woman and, as explored through Bertie, of man to man.

Lawrence's story provides a paradigm for the way blindness has conclusively shifted from its mythical role. Because the entrance of Bertie draws attention to the "strangeness" (189) of the marriage, the expected baby must symbolise not only the culmination of their sexual harmony, but a threat to that position, as it provides a new, able-bodied persona against which their difference - in their relationship to each other and to others - is heightened. Although blindness in literary modernism maintains a revelatory power drawn from the classical tradition, it is, repositioned as a beginning rather than an ending, a revelation which is threatened by the seemingly already normalised person, rather than a new mode of experience which moves the blinded individual into a socially-acceptable position of moral equanimity.

As Wells' story expresses explicitly, and Woolf's essay implies in its subversion of the Romantic tradition, being sighted has provided the traditional definition for the normal and the sympathetic mind. In fact, as the modern authors' unanimous suspicion of signifiers (be they photographs or literary words themselves) dramatises, the reliance on the visual media actually makes entry into the subjective consciousness more difficult, instead objectifying the observed subject with its associated categories of gender, sexuality and ability. Rather than vision being the principal means for empathic connection between self and other, it is through narratives of blindness that the reader can enter most powerfully, albeit in qualified ways, into alternative minds.22 Even before they explicitly establish their political or sexual re-evaluations, such narratives force the reader into a self-conscious recognition of the essentially stable, but therefore potentially inert and anaesthetised, nature of their own dominant bodily sense.

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  1. The classical world was heavily "ocularcentric," according to Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1993) 23. [Back to text]

  2. King James Bible, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997) Acts 11: 1-21. [Back to text]

  3. Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. and trans. D.E. Hill (Warminster: Aris, 2000) 3.316-38; Sophocles, Oedipus The King, The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin) 157-251; John Milton, Sampson Agonistes, Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey (London: Longman, 1971) 341-400; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Beth Newman (Boston, MA: Bedford, 1996) 439. [Back to text]

  4. Un Chien Andalou, dir. Louis Buñuel, screenplay by Louis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí', Kino, 1928. [Back to text]

  5. Thomas Hardy, "The Withered Arm," 1888, Collected Short Stories, ed. F.B. Pinion (London: Macmillan, 1988) 52-78. [Back to text]

  6. Although Mrs. Lodge notes that "Men think so much of personal appearance" (61), an attitude evidenced in Rhoda's son who is captivated by Mrs. Lodge's appearance, the body in "The Withered Arm" is symbolic not so much of sexual, as of economic and class contest. Rhoda asks her son to "see if she is dark or fair, and if you can, notice if her hands be white; if not, see if they look as though she had ever done housework, or are milker's hands like mine" (53). The body indicates class to the extent that Rhoda's small and ramshackle house is characterised metaphorically in skeletal terms: "here and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin" (27). [Back to text]

  7. It was because of this detached, objective version of realism that André Breton delighted when the first photobooth arrived in Paris in 1928, promising "a readymade surrealist photography that removed the conscious, controlling mind of the photographer and took a stream of images too quickly for the sitter to compose her or himself in any but the most basic ways." Johnathan Jones, "André in Wonderland," The Guardian, 16 June 2004, 11 Mar. 2005, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,,1239610,00.html>. However, the photobooth was a particularly speedy form of photography developed only in the twentieth century. More formal portraits - as would have been popular at the time Hardy was writing this story - would be posed, often heavily stylised by the photographer with backdrops and costumes for his sitters. Indeed, particularly relevant in relation to "The Withered Arm," Hardy may have noted the images of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who suffered from muscular dystrophy in his left arm; in photographs, he would turn his right side towards the camera and cover his disfigurement. [Back to text]

  8. Kristeva notes that "abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it - on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger. But also because abjection itself is a composite of judgement and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives. Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be - maintaining that night in which the outline of the signified thing vanishes and where only the imponderable affect is carried out." Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1982) 10. [Back to text]

  9. Kristeva 84 [Back to text]

  10. Kristeva 3 [Back to text]

  11. Emily Dickinson, "435," The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (London: Faber, 1970) 209. [Back to text]

  12. H.G. Wells, "The Country of the Blind," 1904, The Penguin Book of English Short Stories, ed. Christopher Dolley (London: Penguin, 1967) 103-128. [Back to text]

  13. Thus Wells' story is in line with the dominance of relativism in late-Victorian scientific culture. In 1866, Walter Pater noted that "Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the 'relative' spirit in place of the 'absolute'... The philosophical conception of the relative has been developed in modern times through the influence of the sciences of observation." Walter Pater, Westminster Review 85 (1866): 106-132, at 107. Photography was one significant element of this cultivation of the relative perspective, particularly when, six years after Pater's essay, Eadweard Muybridge started to produce his chronophotography of natural motion. In an unprecedented way, this exposed how, seen in the conventional time frame, nature seems to produce a perfect fluid motion but, seen from another artificial time frame, the moving organism has the same regularity and sequence in its movements (even appearing to float in time and space) as a machine. Pater and Muybridge were just two important figures in the development of relativist thinking and its visualisation in the nineteenth century. For a brief synopsis of the parallel development of relativist concepts in science, literature and ethics, see Christopher Herbert, "Mrs. Dalloway, the Dictator, and the Relativity Paradox," Novel 35.1 (2001): 104-124. [Back to text]

  14. Gayatri Spivak, "'In a Word': Interview," The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1997) 356-378, at 372. [Back to text]

  15. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988) 4.5.145. [Back to text]

  16. Virginia Woolf, "The Moment: Summer's Night," The Moment, and Other Essays, ed. Leonard Woolf (San Diego: Harcourt, 1948) 3-8. [Back to text]

  17. William Wordsworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798," The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M.H. Abrams, 7th ed., vol. 2 (New York, NY: Norton, 2000) 235-238, at 235. In visual art, too, obviously sight was important; but critics such as William Gilpin also prescribed very particular ways of seeing, arranging and painting the landscape whilst the use of mirrors to frame and contain the overwhelming landscape so that it could be painted symbolically flattened experiences to a particular two-dimensional image, rather than a three-dimensional, multi-faceted experience. [Back to text]

  18. Verena Andermatt Conley, "An exchange with Hélène Cixous," Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, ed. Verena Andermatt Conley (Nebraska: U of Nebraska P, 1984) 129-161, at 146. [Back to text]

  19. Woolf's remark in Orlando that "Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces" resonates with Cixous' comment. Woolf's ongoing fascination with how pronouns ensure that identity is always inscribed with gender reaches its most imaginative and dramatically unconventional conclusion in this novel. Virginia Woolf, Orlando (London: Hogarth, 1928) 18. [Back to text]

  20. D.H. Lawrence, "The Blind Man," 1920, Short Stories, ed. Stephen Gill (London: Dent, 1996) 175-197, at 176. [Back to text]

  21. Trudi Tate sees this image as "working historically. Lawrence's injured soldier is erect, virile, and powerful, and will stand in defiant (even perverse) opposition to representations of war-injured men in the following two decades." Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998) 106. [Back to text]

  22. A similar philosophy is evidenced in the context of the television image, by Raymond Carver's postmodern reworking of Lawrence's story, "Cathedral." Whilst television offers voyeuristic visions of other lives, it is only when confronted with a blind man without access to such visual forms of narrative that the sighted character learns to recognise the educational potential of being attuned to a more holistic sensuality. Raymond Carver, "Cathedral," The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff (London: Picador, 1993)111-126. [Back to text]

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This page was published on November 15, 2006 | Keywords: Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, blindness

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