Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Powers v. Sacks

I’ve been reading Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. I just finished a chapter about a blind man who had surgery removing cataracts, and was thus able to see. His sight was limited, in part because his retinas were damaged, but mainly because his brain had not since birth developed to process visual imagery. Some desultory thoughts:

I’ve been reading it while keeping in mind the criticisms of the doctor in The Echo Maker. Is Sacks invading this man’s privacy? At times the account feels quite intimate, and it is not at all clear that Sacks has helped the man. “Virgil,” the blind man who can see, descends back into blindness when he gets a terrible case of pneumonia that deprives him of oxygen. All that being said, Virgil is clearly capable of making decisions about his own life, and the account would not have been possible without Virgil’s consent. I’m seconding an earlier point by TK that this aspect of the portrayal of Weber doesn’t ring true.

The story ("To see and not see") gave me great insight into the tendency of the deaf community to reject the hearing, especially to oppose technologies that might enable them to hear. As Sacks points out, seeing for Virgil was disorienting; the experience was one of losing blindness rather than gaining vision. In a footnote, Sacks adds for the deaf, the sense of isolation is doubled – one loses deafness and an entire community. For Virgil, who loses his vision after gaining it, the sense of isolation and rage is far more damaging than the constraints of blindness.

The tale of Mark and Karin got me thinking about our use of "blindness" as a metaphor. It means not merely "not being able to see," but "not recognizing," and "not understanding. Mark is blind to Karin. The reader blind to the writer of the note (I write the sentence and it sounds funny to me… why?). It's not a semantic slippage that I had thought about prior to now, but it must affect the way we treat the blind. It also makes me wonder about Powers' premise. Sure, the mind can come undone. But it is also remarkably resilient, and I remain not fully convinced (intellectually or emotionally) of the particular kind of undoing that transpires in The Echo Maker.

The paragraph I found most interesting (pp. 135-136) in hardcover edition:

In these episodes Virgil was treated by his family as a blind man, his seeing identity denied or undermined, and he responded, compliantly, by acting, or even becoming, blind – a massive withdrawal or regression of part of his ego to a crushing, annihilating denial of identity. Such a regression would have to be seen as motivated, albeit unconsciously – an inhibition on a "functional" basis.

Thus there seemed to be two distinct forms of "blind behavior" or "acting blind" – one a collapse of visual processing and visual identity on an organic basis (a "bottom up" or neuropsychological disturbance…), the other a collapse or inhibition of visual identity on a functional basis (a "top-down", or psychoneurotic disturbance), though no less real for him. Given the extreme organic weakness of his vision – the instability of his visual systems and visual identity at this point – it was very difficult at times to know what was going on, to distinguish between the "physiological" and "psychological." His vision was so marginal, so close to the border, that either neural overload or identity conflict might push him over it.

If Sacks is right, it means our very consciousness is visual. Except when it isn't. I feel that's a far more powerful insight into my own mind than anything I read in The Echo Maker.

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