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« Coming to Grips With Nietzsche, Part II | Main | Life Can Be Awful »

December 02, 2003

Guest Posting: Maureen on Blindness and Beauty

Dear Friedrich --

I was having a good time swapping emails about ballet and beauty with Maureen, an occasional 2Blowhards visitor, when the conversation went off on a fascinating tangent. I expressed interest; Maureen filled in some blanks; and pretty soon this fascinating story had come together. After a little coaxing, Maureen -- who works for a Northeastern university and publishes books about blindness, the aging process, and rehabilitation -- gave me permission to run her account here.

For most of my life, I've worked with people who are blind. Throughout my academic life, I've written countless words that seek to unlock the scientific and human meanings of sight (or lack of). I'll continue to write, of course, but my interests have been shifting from the cold hard science of it all to the meaning of aesthetics and art to someone who has never seen. What is beauty, then? Is it possible to appreciate visual art without ever having seen? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night lately.

Of course, there's a human basis to this interest as well. Mine happens to be my dear friend and interpreter Jacek. In 1996, I made my first journey to Poland in order to help construct the first post-graduate university program in the rehabilitation of the blind in post-Communist Central Europe. Little did I know that it would become my abiding obsession and vocation.

Jacek was assigned to me as my personal interpreter. He spoke fluent English, was intensely curious about America and Americans, and happened to be totally blind -- but with a twist. He was not only blind, but he had no eyes. As an infant, he had contracted a rare form of ocular cancer, and as a consequence, his eyes were enucleated (removed). Yet -- in Communist Poland! -- this man managed to earn a post-master's degree and start his own interpreting business. He was also a well-known jazz keyboard player.

I loved Jacek instantly, which was fortunate since I spent almost every waking moment of my visit, as well as every subsequent one I’ve made since, with him. Traveling with him was always interesting. We had to juggle his portable keyboard and his long white cane in addition to our computers and backpacks. Sometimes a friend would provide a ride. But it was always in one of the tiny Polski Fiats that you see in Kieslowski films. No matter: traveling was always a Marx Brothers “Night at the Opera” affair.

One of the things that I liked best about our friendship was that it seemed to transcend the superficial. At least, or so it seemed at first, we were free from the appearance game.

Aha! Not quite. I soon began to learn that this accomplished man also had a serious eye, so to speak, for beauty -- female pulchritude, to be exact. I learned that Jacek had been making numerous inquiries about my appearance. He wanted to know every detail about me, although he already knew quite a few -- body type is easy to determine when you walk with a blind person, and he had gotten to know my personality extremely well. Yet he wanted more. The "aesthetics" of Maureen were important to him. Mind you, this was someone who had never seen a human face.

"What's this all about?" I asked myself. I didn’t mind that he had inquired; what I was curious about was the information he received.

This all occurred shortly after the fall of Communism. Westerners were still a rare sight -- and I looked about as far from a native Pole as it’s possible to look. At the time, I had a serious Louise Brooks look going, especially the black bobbed hair, and I was playing it for all it was worth. People in Warsaw actually pointed at me and stared whenever I passed by. (Even Marcia Gay Harden, who I once sat next to on a NY-LA flight, took note. This was after the film “Pollock,” and she said to me, “You look exactly like I did in that film.”)

A month later, as Jacek and I were sitting in a bar, he began to open up about his love of female beauty, and told me that his friends had described me then (in 1996) as a "rocket," which pleased him very much.

"What does it matter to you?" I asked. "You, of all people, should be able to look beneath the surface and see the real person."

"Maureszka, darling" he answered, "I cannot. Beauty and aesthetics inform my world and I cannot live without beauty."

Out with the "beauty is only skin deep" theory, then. We sat for hours as he asked questions about the female students in our classes –- he gave me his aesthetic impression of each woman, while I described/confirmed the appearance of each. He was astonishingly accurate -- astonishingly. He described one as "a stern beauty" and she was. He described me to me, and was piercingly accurate.

What image (or mental image) did he (or could he) construct? I don't know, and never shall; yet he did. As we sat in the dark, smokey bar, relaxing after a long, hard working day, talking in this way was an incredibly intimate activity. You might think that we’d tire of listening to each other after eight hours -- but this was a different type of speech. This was getting at the soul of a person.

There is a tremendous subtlety to social intercourse in Poland that this interlude illustrated very well. My Polish friends had taught me the value of stillness, of withholding for a while, of letting the languourous conversation wash over me. A person will become known to you, but ... Go slowly. Use verbal play and flirtation. Be indirect. Work around the edges of a subject.

And we did. "Tell me," I might say. "What about Z? How does she move? What are her hands like? How does she turn the pages of her book?"

He loved beautiful women, that rascal. And women, of course, loved him - especially after he had consumed a dozen vodka shots at one of his regular Saturday night parties in Kielce or Warsaw.

But in fact he loved all things beautiful, especially art. And not three-dimensional art, either -- he adored paintings and frescoes, which really required my services as his interpreter of the hidden aesthetic world.

I remember when we visited an historic church in the grimy industrial town of Katowice in the south. The stained-glass windows were wondrous and had been created by a famous Polish artist in the 19th century. He insisted that we visit and he waited for my gasp of pleasure as I drank in the cacophony of light, colors, and dust motes that the windows created.

"Now, Maureszka," he said, "You must describe each one to me. In perfect detail. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you feel. Tell me how each one touches your soul. Then I, too, will experience this great art -- through you, and then me."

Can you imagine such a responsibility? Yet it made me come alive. I opened up to the art -- surrendered to it, in fact -- as I never had before. And we were one person that afternoon, united through art and beauty. We pulsated with aesthetic life.

And this became our routine. We hiked through the mountains to visit an old monastery (Checiny) that housed an exquisite collection of frescoes. We stood in the chapel, surrounded by vibrant religious paintings -- overhead, underfoot, everywhere.

"Tell me, Maureszka," he said. "What is in these paintings? How are they different from the windows? Tell me what colors they are."

And again I immersed myself in the art and surrendered to the vision of that long-ago artist. I drank in every detail, every fold, every face, and became Jacek's conduit to this aesthetic universe. We stayed for hours. As Ishiguro so aptly named it, we were artists of our own floating world.

We have a bond that is impossible to describe to outsiders. It's a type of love, really, that few individuals ever experience. I can't write about it in any textbook way, but it has seized me.

This had led me to my latest professional project. All of my colleagues think it's crazy, but that doesn't dissuade me.

Here's the idea: I want to take a series of up close, unflinching, black-and-white photographs of blind people's eyes. Haven't you always wanted to stare at a blind man's naked, unfocused eyes behind those dark glasses? Some blind eyes are quite beautiful, I've found. My friend Marek, for example, has eyes that look like moon rocks - they're pitted and mottled but beautiful as well. I'd love to take a photo of Jacek without his sunglasses too; because he has no eyes at all, it’s like looking into negative space. And on and on.

Each photo would be accompanied by a short narrative written by the owner of each pair of eyes, in which he or she would describe their feeling at being photographed in this manner, and would also describe their own impression of the appearance of their eyes. The ugly and the tragic made beautiful -- what more can we ask from life?

Now that's a tale worthy of Oliver Sacks. Beauty, sex, aesthetics, the imagination, women and men, art, rapture -- my mind is spinning in six pleasurable directions at once.

Many thanks to Maureen for letting us run this story. She can be reached at Mozebyc2-at-AOL-dot-com.



posted by Michael at December 2, 2003


Huh. Did he "see" any of the women in the class as not being beautiful, or did he see beauty in all of them? How would Maureen have felt if he had asked about her, been told she was "not a rocket"---and he had walked away disinterested?

Posted by: annette on December 2, 2003 11:56 AM

Wow, is that incredible! I'm so grateful, Michael, that you coaxed her to share it with us, and I spin in the same seven directions as you. My only addition (until the reeling stops and I can catch a coherent thought) is this: the "scene" of describing the stained glass windows reminds me of Raymond Carver's story, "Cathedral." Have you read it? It touches on the experience of a sighted person trying to share visual beauty with a blind person (of course, being a Carver story, there is more to it; but this experience is central).

Special thanks, of course, to Maureen. Please share more soon.

Posted by: Dente on December 2, 2003 12:03 PM

I think Jacek has a pretty good line there. Smooth, dude, very smooth.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 2, 2003 12:18 PM

>> Did he "see" any of the women in the class as not being beautiful, or did he see beauty in all of them? How would Maureen have felt if he had asked about her, been told she was "not a rocket"---and he had walked away disinterested?

Annette: That's an excellent question, which of course I have asked myself many times. But the simple answer is that it happened as it happened, which is why that particular story had to be written.

"Beauty" is such a subjective quality, though, don't you think? I find it in the strangest places sometimes -- abandoned factories, trash heaps, oil refineries ...

Finding beauty can be harsh and difficult work at times.

Posted by: Maureen on December 2, 2003 01:44 PM

Dente: Great association. Carver is one of my favorite authors. This passage from “Cathedral” that describes the blind man and the narrator drawing a cathedral is quite interesting, isn’t it?

“All right,” he said. “All right, let’s do her.”

He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. “Go ahead, bub, draw,” he said. “Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw,” the blind man said.

So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a house. It could have been the house I lived in. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy.

“Swell,” he said. “Terrific. You’re doing fine,” he said. “Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it’s a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up.”

I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop. The TV station went off the air…

Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a while longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

“It’s really something,” I said.

See? Carver knew~

Posted by: Maureen on December 2, 2003 02:03 PM

I would like to add to Maureen's view of beauty to also include the objective nature of beauty.
To view beauty as only subjective, being peculiar to each individual, is to cut it short, or only touches the surface.
I think that beauty exists independent of our "reality". Just as it exists independent of Jacek's inability to sense it in the visual realm.
There is something deeply wired within us, something shared and common. A basic understanding of beauty. That's how he can contect, or more importantly, why he Needs to connect to things/people of beauty.
When we forget, or put aside our subjective filters, our fragile state of mind, that's when we get hit by the train (so to speak) of real, deep beauty - beauty of life.
I think we limit ourselves when we let our selves experience beauty only in the subjective.

Posted by: Chris D. on December 2, 2003 02:22 PM

This all reminds me of a few cases Richard Gregory, a fab British neuroscientist/philosopher wrote up. There have been a handful of cases of people who have never had any sight who, because of medical advances, were operated on and given the power of sight -- for the first time in their lives. Fascinating, as you'd imagine. Not all of them deal with it well. They have to learn how to see -- at first it's all just a lot of visual input.

Anyway, some of them reject their new vision. They don't like it. In one case, a guy just went into a dark room and refused to come out. When he was asked what was bothering him, he replied that he found it too hard to deal with the fact that some of the things (and presumably people) he loved most in the world turned out not to be visually beautiful.

Heartbreaking story, of course. But also: how'd he know what was visually beautiful and what wasn't? But he did.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2003 02:41 PM

Oh my goodness! Pull yourselves together! Of Course beauty is subjective! Why do the Japanese specifically love blonds, and Americans go for Julia, then?

The blind man who was heartbroken to find the things he loved "weren't beautiful" simply found them not beautiful to him! If beauty was intrinsic, he would have found the things he loved beautiful. would have been CONSISTENT. If it was intrinsic----why did Maureen's friend have to "ask around" about her? Why didn't he just know?

Plus, finding things he loved to not be beautiful, rather than finding them beautiful because he loved them, might just make him a shallow dumbshit. Just because he was blind doesn't mean he was deep.

I do agree with FvB---saying "I only love beauty!" and then saying "And I love you!" is a good line. Seeing men could benefit from it.

Posted by: annette on December 2, 2003 03:21 PM

I have read Raymond Carver's story, "Cathedral," four times over the past ten years, each time hoping I will have developed the sophistication necessary to understand it. I have given up. Could someone please explain it to me?

When the narrarator says, "It's really something" is her referring to his cathedral drawing in mind's eye?

And what do you mean, Maureen, when you say that "Carver knew." Knew that it was possible for a blind man to appreciate visual beauty?

Posted by: Peter on December 2, 2003 03:50 PM

Did any of your conversations with Maureen center on the ballet dancer/author whose books you love, and that you've posted on? Also, more, please, on Richard Gregory. Has he published any books? If so, what would you recommend?

Posted by: Michael Serafin on December 2, 2003 04:44 PM

Peter -- Ah, someone else who doesn't groove on Carver -- I'm not alone! Hey, here's a short piece about Carver I can pretty much get with. I should have mentioned Carver back when we were all volunteering "greats" we don't resonate to. Boy, do I not resonate to Carver.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2003 05:35 PM

Yes please tell us more about Richard Gregory.

Posted by: Rate My Rack on December 2, 2003 06:18 PM


>> When the narrator says, “It's really something” is he referring to his cathedral drawing in mind’s eye?

(suppressing my evil pedantic self :)) I could see the phrase possibly interpreted in two ways:
·the narrator referring to the mental image (or visualization, as we sometimes call it) that he has constructed. “It’s real,” he says; “It’s really something,” or
·his sense of awe (“Wow! Isn’t that something!”) at the realization that such visualizations are possible to construct. It’s an extremely helpful technique that I often try to teach to my patients and clients.

>> And what do you mean, Maureen, when you say that “Carver knew.” Knew that it was possible for a blind man to appreciate visual beauty?

Yes -- that and his construction of a very real blind character. When I first read the story, I noted that Carver was one of the few authors who didn’t present a blind character as a quirky, disheveled oddity.

And Michael: Though we disagree about Carver, I share your positive assessment of Richard Ford’s work. It helped that I was a former Princeton resident when I began reading him. He absolutely nailed the mindset and the mores.

Posted by: Maureen on December 2, 2003 07:47 PM

sorry to get you upset.
Yes the glossy glamour idea of beauty is very subjective. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, the 5% that makes me different than the next guy - blondes vs. brunettes type thing.
Very individualistic, fine.
I am not denying this small part of the equation.
But I think if we dig deeper, there is much more to find.
There is something out there, yes, even in old abandoned factories. Some system, some reality that exists within things that is independent of our "viewership".
If, in the woods, a beautiful tree stands tall and I don't see it, is it really beautiful?
without me applying my subjectivity on it?
Or is the beauty that is able to be observed (or not) contained within the tree?
- silly thought maybe, but I couldn't resist.

Why is a sunrise such a beautiful event?
Why are crashing waves on a rocky beach such a powerful experience?
Why are the narrow winding streets of old Prague beautiful?
Why are stained glass windows in a cathedral such beautiful objects?
Why are the junky shopping carts at your local walmart not beautiful?
Why are the modern fringe suburbs with roof after roof after roof, extending to the horizon in severe lines, not beautiful?
Why is a mountain side that has been completely forested, bald with only the remaining tree stumps less beautiful than a growing, fully lush mountain side?

I think we can all pretty much agree on these things.
Which is beautiful, which is not?

Maybe this points to a common, not individually unique (subjective), recognition of beauty.
{if I'm making two separate arguments here sorry}
If beauty has no objectivity to it, can anyone have any real sense of a conversation about any piece of artwork or human creation since the beginning of time?

Christopher Alexander has introduced a scientific theory that is summed up, rather crudely, by the following:
>True beauty is recognized when life or spirit exists within something. (this spirit makes a connection with us.)
>Life/spirit is brought about by increasing wholeness
>Wholeness is powered by the unfolding centers that strenghten and improve the whole.

this applies to paintings, this applies to tall tales, this aplies to short stories, this applies to songs, this applies to faces, this applies to stained glass windows, this applies to market streets, this applies to cottages, this applies to an embryo
This applies to relationships at all levels.

Posted by: Chris D. on December 2, 2003 09:44 PM

I am actually not upset. I think there is a lot of misplaced and silly breathiness in this post. But if turns you guys on, hey, go for it...

Posted by: annette on December 3, 2003 11:34 AM

""Beauty" is such a subjective quality, though, don't you think? I find it in the strangest places sometimes -- abandoned factories, trash heaps, oil refineries ... "

Sounds like the Ricky Fitz (??) character in "American Beauty" looking at that grocery bag...

I've always had a weird attraction to power lines myself. Rigid geometric lines cut through nature above winding dirt tracks, all those crosses linked together in some kind of misplaced religious symbolism. Dunno why, but I used to use up rolls of film on them. A subjective taste in this case, I'm sure.

Posted by: Nate on December 3, 2003 01:49 PM

Seems to me that we've got two separate "beauty" discussions going -- with this lively crowd it's always too much rather than too little.

1) How objective/subjective is beauty? Endlessly debatable, of course, though the evo-bio crowd (and others) are turning up evidence that beauty does have certain general if not defining characteristics.

2) And what I for one take to be part of Maureen's subject, which is what the experience of beauty is like, how important it can be, what it can come to mean to a person.

I'm sort of into topic #2 myself. Anyone else? It draws together ideas about art, beauty, experience, sex, rapture, the spirit world -- beauty perhaps as an experience of the indefinable Spirit shining, and making its presence known, through the material realm. (And also how, perhaps, ways of being open and of looking can bring us news of the Spirit provided only that we're open to the possibility.) Which is why Maureen's art project seems promising -- she sees the light in these otherwise dead eyes, and hopes to get us to see it too.

Also, let's face it: she's talking as well about a culture and a kind of life that recognizes, values and discusses these sorts of experiences as central to existence. Beauty not as a commodity but as a life-enhancing, life-transforming, religio-erotic thing, the experience of which ... Well, is certainly a groovy thing, no?

But Maureen may well step in here and tell me I'm all wet...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2003 02:04 PM

Thanks. Cathedral has dogged me since 1994 when my English teacher read it on the first day of class. We were instructed to hold hands, close our eyes, and answer questions as he randomly called on people. I was sitting next to the homecoming queen and sweat great quantities into her palm. The subtle beauty conveyed in the story was lost on me due to a more tangible beauty on my right.

I was asked what I thought the drawing contained. The air conditioner was running loud and I couldn't hear the question. He waited five minutes before repeating himself. My response disappointed him. I think I said, "a cathedral?" The homecoming queen sighed her contempt. I remain ashamed and embarrassed to this day, and do not plan on attending my high school reunion.

Posted by: Peter on December 3, 2003 02:23 PM

As a follow up:
A pretty good representation of the experience of coming to sight after blindness can be found in Oliver Sacks' collection -An Anthropologist on Mars-. As you might imagine, trying to make sense of visual experience all at once and without visual background and learning is pretty overwhelming. When actually faced with the task of learning how to see, Sacks patient :
--would look, would attend visually, only if one asked him to or pointed something out - not spontaneously. His sight might be largely restored,but using his eyes, looking, it was clear, was far from natural to him; he still had many of the habits, the behaviors, of a blind man." I have to wonder whether or not Maureen's guide, faced with sight as a constant visual reality rather than an abstract concept, would be quite so thrilled - whether the experience would be as powerful and euphoric. I'm seeing the interesting comments here in the seeming need for aesthetic beauty without the tools to perceive it in the usual way - but it feels like idea play more than anything else...

This is full of fragmented ideas - but the book might be worth looking at-


Posted by: Caitlin on December 4, 2003 01:01 AM

“Also, let's face it: she's talking as well about a culture and a kind of life that recognizes, values and discusses these sorts of experiences as central to existence. Beauty not as a commodity but as a life-enhancing, life-transforming, religio-erotic thing, the experience of which ... Well, is certainly a groovy thing, no?”

Moze byc. (A colloquial Polish expression, loosely translated as “perhaps,” “maybe,” “can be.”) I chose that particular screen name for a reason – to me, it represents the possibilities and heartbreak inherent in choosing a life (mostly) informed by the "religio-erotic" (as per Michael).

When it works, it can be transcendent, as illustrated by Michael’s wonderful ballet posting (and my subsequent comments). Here’s a passage from “Holding On to the Air” by Suzanne Farrell and Toni Bentley that illustrates the transformative power of dance (with advance apologies to Annette, who will find this all a bit too “woo-woo,” I fear):

“It is perhaps only a personal truth, but I believe that a dancer who tries to analyze the music, to interpret every note physically, to accentuate the obvious climaxes, will bypass what music is really about. It is a definition of time, and that can only be spontaneous. Moving with music is not an intellectual feat; it is an emotional, physical, and sensual response to a given moment of time…”

Such transcendence is possible ... moze byc?

Posted by: Maureen on December 4, 2003 11:17 AM


“I have to wonder whether or not Maureen's guide, faced with sight as a constant visual reality rather than an abstract concept, would be quite so thrilled - whether the experience would be as powerful and euphoric.”

That’s a good question, isn’t it? I'm a fan of Sacks, and sometimes assign his writings in my rehabilitation courses. His work softens the technical and scientific information that tends to inundate my students and it imparts a very human element to the study and meaning of blindness.

Once, when I had been lecturing on the current status of medical and technological advances in the restoration of sight, I asked Jacek later whether he would want to have his sight restored, if such a possibility presented itself in the future. His answer was heartfelt and instantaneous: “Nie, nie, nie.” Why? According to him, such a procedure would require a complete reconstruction of his essential being and identity.

Perhaps we overvalue sight. I dunno, but it’s something I’m forced to consider on a daily basis.

Posted by: Maureen on December 4, 2003 11:51 AM

Whah whah whah ... my life is SO boring. My life is so boring. My life is so boring.

That's all I can think after reading this post.

Time to find a blind person, "Hey you, are you blind? I'm bored, let's go to er, um, the Grand Canyon!" (I'm trying to be realistic.)

Yeah, the Grand Canyon, maybe Niagara Falls, can't get much more exciting right?

Geez, sorry. So funny.

But this is a beautiful post!

Posted by: laurel on December 4, 2003 01:18 PM

Love it.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:20 PM

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