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On The Cheerfulness Of The Blind Post by :stillsmuth Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :2343

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On The Cheerfulness Of The Blind

I was coming off a Tube train last evening when some one said to me: "Will you please give this gentleman an arm to the lift? He is blind." I did so, and found, as I usually find in the case of the blind, that my companion was uncommonly talkative and cheerful. This gaiety of the blind is a perpetual wonder to me. It is as though the outer light being quenched an inner light of the spirit illuminates the darkness. Outside the night is black and dread, but inside there is warmth and brightness. The world is narrowed to the circle of one's own mind, but the very limitation feeds the flame of the spirit, and makes it leap higher. It was the most famous of blind Englishmen who in the days of his darkness made the blind Samson say:--


He that hath light within his own clear breast
May sit i' th' centre and enjoy bright day.


And it has been remarked in many cases in which men have gone blind that their cheerfulness so far from being diminished has by some miracle gained a new strength. In no case of which I have had any knowledge has it apparently had the contrary effect. The zest of living seems heightened. Not long ago Mr. Galsworthy wrote to the Times a letter in which he spoke with pity of the unhappiness of the blind, and there promptly descended on him an avalanche of protest from the blind themselves. I suppose there was never a man who seemed to have a more intense pleasure in life than the late Dr. Campbell, the founder of the Normal School for the Blind, who worked wonders in extending the range of the activities of the blind, and himself did such apparently impossible things as riding a bicycle and climbing mountains.

Nor was the case of Mr. Pulitzer, the famous proprietor of the New York World, less remarkable. Night came down on him with terrible suddenness. He was watching the sunset from his villa in the Mediterranean one evening when he said: "How quickly the sun has set." "But it has not set," said his companion. "Oh, yes, it has; it is quite dark," he answered. In that moment he had gone stone blind. But I am told by those who knew him that his vivacity of mind was never greater than in the years of his blindness.

My friend Mr. G.W.E. Russell has a theory that the advantage of the blind over the deaf and dumb in this matter of cheerfulness is perhaps more apparent than real. He points out that it is in company that the blind is least conscious of his misfortune, and that the deaf and dumb is most conscious of it. That is certainly the case. In conversation the sightless are on an equality with the seeing, while the deaf and dumb are shut up in a terrible isolation. The fact that they see is not their gain but their loss. They watch the movement of the lips and the signs of laughter, but this only adds to the bitterness of the prison of soundlessness in which they dwell. Hence the appearance of gloom. On the other hand, in solitude the deaf and dumb has the advantage. All the colour and movement of life is before him, while the blind is not only denied that vision of the outside world, but has a restriction of movement that the other does not share. Mr. Russell's conclusion, therefore, is that while the happiest moments of the blind are those when he is observed, the happiest of the deaf and dumb are when he is not observed.

There is some measure of truth in this, but I believe, nevertheless, that the common impression is right, and that, judged by the test of the cheerful acceptance of affliction, the loss of sight is less depressing than the loss of hearing and speech. And this for a very obvious reason. After all, the main interest in life is in easy, familiar intercourse with our fellows. I love to watch a golden sunset, to walk in the high beech woods in spring--or, for that matter, in summer or autumn or winter--to see the apples reddening on the trees, and the hedgerows thick with blackberries. But this is the setting of my drama--the scenery of the play, not the play itself. It is its human contacts that give life its vivacity and intensity. And it is the ear and tongue that are the channels of the cheerful interplay of mind with mind. In that interplay the blind man has full measure and brimming over. His very affliction intensifies his part in the human comedy and gives him a peculiar delight in homely intercourse. He is not merely at his ease in the human family: he is the centre of it. He fulfils Johnson's test of a good fellow: he is "a clubbable man."

And even in the enjoyment of the external world it may be doubted whether he does not find as much mental stimulus as the deaf-and-dumb. He cannot see the sunset, but he hears the shout of the cuckoo, the song of the lark, "the hum of bees, and rustle of the bladed corn." And if, as usually happens, he has music in his soul, he has a realm of gold for his inheritance that makes life a perpetual holiday. Have you heard Mr. William Wolstenholme, the composer, improvising on the piano? If not, you have no idea what a jolly world the world of sounds can be to the blind. Of course, the case of the musician is hardly a fair test. With him, hearing is life and deafness death. There is no more pathetic story than that of Beethoven breaking the strings of the piano in his vain efforts to make his immortal harmonies penetrate his soundless ears. Can we doubt that had he been afflicted with blindness instead of deafness the tragedy of his life would have been immeasurably relieved? What peace, could he have heard his Ninth Symphony, would have slid into his soul. Blind Milton, sitting at his organ, was a less tragic figure and probably a happier man than Milton with a useless ear-trumpet would have been. Perhaps without the stimulus of the organ he could not have fashioned that song which, as Macaulay says in his grandiloquent way, "would not have misbecome the lips of those ethereal beings whom he saw with that inner eye, which no calamity could darken, flinging down on the jasper pavements their crowns of amaranth and gold."

It is probable that in a material sense blindness is the most terrible affliction that can befall us; but I am here speaking only of its spiritual effects, and in this respect the deprivation of hearing and speech seems to involve a more forlorn state than the deprivation of sight. The one affliction means spiritual loneliness: the other deepens the spiritual intimacies of life. It was a man who had gone blind late in life who said: "I am thankful it is my sight which has gone rather than my hearing. The one has shut me off from the sun: the other would have shut me off from life."


(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On The Cheerfulness Of The Blind

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